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October 25th, 2012
04:00 AM ET

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses a lens of legacy

Editor's note: This interview is part of In America's occasional series "How I Got Here," which looks at the life journeys of notable Americans.

By Alicia W. Stewart, CNN

(CNN) Ava DuVernay this year became the first African-American woman to win a best directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. She won for "Middle of Nowhere," a drama about a young black woman named Ruby who puts her life on hold while her husband is in prison. The movie opened in theaters this month.

The former aspiring broadcast journalist-turned-publicist overcame fear and ridicule to become an independent filmmaker. Here's the story of how she got there:

CNN: What does it mean to be a black woman filmmaker in 2012?

Ava DuVernay: The films that I make are, you know, directly related to my gaze, which is specifically through the eyes of a black woman. So the framing of the shots in my films, the choices of music, the cadence and rhythm of the editing, all of that I’m very aware is coming through who I am, and I’m a sister.

In saying I’m a black woman; I include all the legacy of my family and all the people that I love.

CNN: You went from being a publicist in the entertainment industry to an acclaimed filmmaker. What drives you?

DuVernay: I think the only thing that drove me is just this idea of forward movement, like never to stay still. I think there’s something very powerful and something amazing to be said (for) momentum. That one thing leads to another.

I think when we sit too long in one place, we get stagnant, and if we just keep moving, even if we don’t know where we’re going, we’ll get somewhere.

CNN: Did you always want to be a filmmaker?

DuVernay: When I was young, I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I wanted to be like Connie Chung.

Maybe in some ways, we kind of are truth-telling, trying to tell stories and news in a different way through the films, but after UCLA, I got an internship at CBS News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung. It was a huge, huge deal. I was on the O.J. Simpson unit. And I was so proud. I had my first little suit, showed up and they said: “OK, this is your assignment.” (They) handed me a package and inside the package was the address of one of the jurors. And they wanted me to sit outside that person’s house and look through the trash.

And I was like: You know, no. I’m not going to do this. So I didn’t. I started looking for another side of the news and fell into publicity. It allowed me to be close to journalists and work with the media but also connect journalists to artists and to films.

CNN: Where did you draw inspiration to become an artist?

DuVernay:  Definitely from my Aunt Denise who was the basis of my first film, “I Will Follow,” which is all about my relationship with her. She was an artist, and before she passed (away from breast cancer), I was her caregiver in her last years of life.

She was the one who made sure I watched “Masterpiece Theatre” and took me to plays and kind of gave me this gift of love of movies. I remember one rainy day at her apartment ... and she said, "Let's see what’s on TV.” They were playing “West Side Story.”  I watched this film and thought: I’ve never seen anything like this. Brown people dancing, the colors, the story. It was the first film I can remember seeing, and that was it. I was hooked.

CNN: What prepared you for where you are now?

DuVernay: I’m not sure what the preparation was except work, work, work, work, work. I think people want things, and they don’t work hard for them.

CNN: What challenges have you faced?

DuVernay: People who weren’t supportive. Times, years, stretches of years when (I) really didn’t feel like I had a voice that was worth hearing.

For me, as a publicist, I had a really great job, but I’d be on these film sets like in pain wanting to make my own. I’d be asked to work on movies that I thought were caricatures of us as women, as black people. And you know, if you’re an artist, passionate about a certain thing, it becomes painful for you not to do that.

So for a lot of years, I just didn’t. I would drive home from these sets, depressed. ... For me, it was just really about pushing through all (the) fear, which is really all it was, what people would think, fear of failure, just giving it a try.

CNN: What do you want everyone to know about you?

DuVernay: I’m very sensitive. I run multiple businesses, and I’m a director, but I am very sensitive to the people (who) are in my life and have high expectations of them and of me.

And I love movies. Not just to make them. I love to watch them. I love to talk about them. I love to see old ones. I love to talk about new ones. I love to break them down. I love to talk to people who love movies. My favorite thing to ask people is, “What’s your favorite movie?”

CNN: What do you believe in?

DuVernay: Oh, my gosh. I believe in love. I believe in love very strongly. When I say my prayers, I don’t pray to God. I pray to love because I think it’s the same thing.

CNN: What helps you move forward?

DuVernay: That’s a tough one. Maybe "be not afraid.” That’s a little thing I say to myself a lot. And it helps me move forward.

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Filed under: Black in America • How we look • Pop culture • Who we are • Women
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Lady

    I like that filmmaker. She had the strength to walk away from film work that she thought was degrading. Of course, those are the films that are most popular. I don't think she is racist anymore than I would say is the Greek girl that wrote and starred in the movie MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. She is representing her group, and wants to do so, lovingly.

    December 2, 2012 at 6:39 am | Report abuse |
  2. JM

    Anyone can be proud of any ethnicity they have running through their bloods and if they want to tell stories about it there is no law against. As far as being of mixed ancestry, so what, a lot of us are, including those of Irish descent who just don't want to admit it. If we all would study our histories in its entirety then we would know truth and not just what we want to believe or make up to save face or think we're better than. There are a lot of cultures that can be proud of their cultures and ethnicity without hurting or putting down other cultures, but some European ethnically based cultures can't seem to do that unless their dominating others to their detriment.

    November 4, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. countryproud

    As long as there are those that must label themselves with ethnic attributes, there will be racism and it is mostly by those that do this. What is wrong with being American? We do all live in America, right? If you were to move to Mexico, would you call yourself an African Mexican, or an African Chinese in China, or an African German in Germany and so on. If you are so tied and loyal to Africa, why are you still living in America? There are no Chinese or German or African flags flown here, so are you an American or not?

    November 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • RGarrett

      You are so right on. Can you imagine if it was a white woman or, god forbid, a white man, stating how proud to be ethnic white. Its exactly this type of reporting that contributes to racism.

      November 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
      • mel

        Why is is so offensive to members of the dominant culture when others express pride in their heritage? African Americans in particular.At one time we were regarded as sub humans really a step above the animals. We were and many still are brainwashed by Ethnocentric beliefs. Caucasians need not feel defensive or threatened ,because everything is centered around you.Taking pride in who I am is not I repeat not a slam against Caucasians.

        December 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Michael

    Good article, but most importantly I want to say how much I admire Soledad and her efforts. Miss Obrien, I see you and hear your efforts. You are a inspiration to all and I applaud you. I am a almost 60 Black male from Chicago and each time I see your good works I am reminded of the anger I felt at one of our true pioneers of Justice, Jesse Jackson and his prior statement which I wont even dignify. Ms Soledad U R A CLASS ACT!!!! and your are admired and respected

    November 3, 2012 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
    • countryproud

      I thought she was Mexican and Irish. Not to mention biased and obnoxious

      November 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JM

    The only people that are mislabeling the article racist are the ones who fit that definition themselves and basically want to see other cultures, other than their own, FAIL in the endeavors. YOU WAKE UP! It's high time for others to have a slice of that thing we all call the American Dream via hard work...work...work...as she indicated in the article. That's what it's about and that is what it will always be about in this country. You get nothing if you don't put in work. And this beautiful young woman has obviously put in the time and effort = WORK! This is an inspiring article for people who have had to sit on the fence to get in the very coveted entertainment industry that has gatekeepers that are in place to keep people OUT. Not only can I personally relate-I share the author's sentiment in how crappy some films are in depicting African American lifestyles and is one of the reasons why I support independent filmmakers as opposed to mainstream films. I too want to tell stories-my stories and others. I too majored in Journalism and ended up only on the assignment news desk and decided that I didn't want to limit myself in anyway as far as having a career in the media. I am a creative soul and it can not be developed by just writing news stories, so I fell in in love with films and film-making, which is an art.

    November 3, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Oh God.

      Co-sign.

      December 1, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  6. CC

    I am shocked that folks are calling this article racist...strange, we do have labels still in the good old USA, we label our President as black when he is actually half white, we check boxes about what race we are when we enroll in school go to the dr's office, fill out gov forms. If she wants to say she is a sistah (sista, sister) back up and let her be who she is...she's living her best life and the fact that you can onlyfind the negative in her accomplishments and this article at looking at how many mountains she had to climb to come face to face with a dream means you're a hater...try love, it works and feels so much better.

    November 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh God.

      Well said.

      December 1, 2012 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  7. popsiclelogic

    Come on people–This is not a racist article. She's an African-American woman, and thus refers to herself as a "sister." Everyone experiences life through their own personal lens, which informs everything they do. Our lens is colored by our environment, including our parental upbringing, our education, our cultural experiences, and our treatment by others...While we are definitely evolving as human beings, I would venture to say that most of us (human beings) have had negative experiences in our lifetime AND have perpetrated negativity on others as well...All of this informs our lives and creative expresssion. To me, this is what Ms. DuVernay is speaking of. No race card is being played. Give me a break.

    November 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. MRM

    What a racist article. What is a 'sister'?

    November 2, 2012 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Lady

      ask a nun

      December 2, 2012 at 6:33 am | Report abuse |
  9. John Q Public

    This whole article is based on racism. When will you people wake up and move beyond it? CNN, why do you insist on playing the race card on every single article and topic here? F'n race-baiters.

    November 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. EVIL INC

    Your only a "sister" if you are a female and have siblings.
    To claim you are a "sister" in regards to skin color is racist.

    October 29, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Lette

      This comment from the person who glorifies EVIL.... You can have sisters that are not born from you parents it's a frame of mind,,,AND its not a racist comment or adjective...although I am sure you EVIL Inc has said a few or thougth them. It is a collective coming together of females who share similar life experiences and uplift positive behavior in themselves and each other... a sistah.

      October 29, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
      • EVIL INC

        The term "sistah" or sister (used in this format) is exclusively meant to be a "black" or "African American" term for a "black woman". It is either an adjetive used to define a woman or a noun used to say what a specific woman is. Either way, it is the same thing. No different then using the "N" word or any other racist or bigoted term. Do a little research into cultural diversity and you will see this. Of course, in modern society, it is openly accepted for African Americans to be racist.
        Personally, I feel that racism and other forms of bigotry are wrong regardless of who you are.

        October 31, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
      • EVIL INC

        By the way, EVIL INC is not a glorification of evil at all, it is merely a name I got playing online games years ago by being good at the games I played. One of the real evils of today's society is the support of bigotry. An example of which is this article.

        October 31, 2012 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
    • m. tho

      This is RACISM!!!

      October 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. forreal89

    What an interesting article. Who wants to hear about LIbya and other current events.

    October 28, 2012 at 12:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      Only folks who know Mittler has no chance. Four more years!

      November 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dike victor

    That the courage FEAR NOT.. Believe in yourself and the you can make it,. Am an independent filmmaker and presently working on one now, it alot of energy and skills of intellect to over come. Lot of prayers. Victor ,switzerland

    October 26, 2012 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |