In America

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.