Why you should care

When the first African-American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s biggest honor reveals how she found her way behind a camera, we can all learn a bit about the will to work.

Don’t go to Ava DuVernay looking for airy talk about artistic muses, mentors or passion driving her already prolific, six-year-old feature film career.

Her words, not ours: “I don’t have a passion project,” she swears. ”I’m interested in producing a canon of work.” DuVernay’s approach to directing is certainly giving the film industry one hell of a workhorse. After starting out directing documentaries for film and television in 2008, she wrote, produced and directed the drama I Will Follow in 2011, then wrote, produced and directed her next original story Middle of Nowhere in 2012. Lately? Oh, just an ESPN documentary about Venus Williams, directing an episode of one of TV’s most-obsessively watched shows, Scandal, and pre-production on a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1965 civil rights marches (Oprah just signed on as a producer).

All the time you spend focused on trying to move ahead in the industry, trying to grab, is time you’re not doing the work.

— Ava DuVernay

DuVernay’s work sure hasn’t come out looking passionless – and it’s not without passionate followers. The late Roger Ebert called I Will Follow a “wonderful” film that was “an invitation to empathy,” and in 2012 DuVernay became the first African American woman to win the award for best director at Sundance. Her guest-directing gig on Scandal started generating buzz some four months before the episode even aired, and drew 8.8 million viewers.

In person, DuVernay is short of stature but strong of stance, and her long ’locks add to her confident physical presence. She’s quick to smile and throw around a joke, but this genuine, motherly spirit is also a focused fighter with a sharp wit. She has to be to maneuver around the obstacles and egos in the entertainment industry.

Ava speaking at podium with award

Winner of The Directing Award

Source Angela Weiss/Getty

But six years ago, the Los Angeles native was far from being an award-winning director. Instead, she was in the business of attention. As in, attracting lots of it. For other people’s movies. She ran marketing and publicity campaigns for over 120 film and television projects including Tom Hanks’ The Terminal, Denzel Washington’s Man On Fire, Dreamgirls and the Clint Eastwood directed Invictus. The day-to-day for DuVernay involved setting the whirlwind media schedule for a client like singer/actress Jennifer Hudson during her epic Academy Awards run for Dreamgirls. She was also saddled with deflecting bad press and hyping up glowing reviews for all her clients – the behind-the-scenes business of entertainment.

She did what only a few Hollywood kings have managed to do before: She built an independent film distribution alliance.

Being on the publicity side of the industry is actually vastly different from being “a creative.” Plenty of insiders have tried to make that leap, and fallen from the heights. So how did she do it?

“I had to knock it off,” she told the audience at a 2013 keynote address to the Film Independent Forum. Back when she was getting started, DuVernay spent a lot of time focused on everything she didn’t have but needed to film her story: a mentor, a secret password, a rich uncle, a break – and wondering how to extract those things from others. She realized that this need, this desperation, was coloring every interaction she had with everyone she was looking to for help.

“You can’t move forward when your actions hinge on someone else doing something for you. All the time you spend focused on trying to move ahead in the industry, trying to grab, is time you’re not doing the work. Waiting for permission, waiting for help, waiting for understanding is not doing. You gotta knock it off.”

Ava looking at large camera

Ava on set directing

Source Ava DuVernay

That heads-down approach to the work, and the work alone was a kind of mental revolution for her. She’d given herself permission to take all that time she’d spent chasing a break and turn it into time for building her skills. She never went to film school, so she developed her talents working on shorts and documentaries – and applying all her film business savvy to make sure her work was seen.

Like any good industry manager, she realized that she not only needed someone to write and make the stories about and for her community, but that she also needed someone to get them out into the world. So she did what only a few Hollywood kings have managed to do before: She built an independent film distribution alliance.

The same year DuVernay released her first narrative film, I Will Follow, she started an alliance she called AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement). “AFFRM was created out of a desire to make sure my own films were protected.”

Like it or not, Hollywood still needs that elbow grease when it comes to selling varying, rounded experiences of African-American women.

Even amid the managerial language DuVernay uses to talks about AFFRM, it’s impossible not to notice that it spells out a special kind of sentiment – affirm. To date, the distributor has released six feature films. “We’re for when you’ve made your film, we’re the end game. There’s no money in AFFRM, we’re the ones that will roll up our sleeves and apply the elbow grease with you to get your film out to the audience.”

And like it or not, Hollywood still needs that elbow grease when it comes to selling varying, rounded experiences of African-American women. Kerry Washington mania notwithstanding. Case in point: Duvernay’s The Door, a 2013 short film created for the Miu Miu fashion house – a project DuVernay decided not to mess around on. Before agreeing to push it through, “First I told them, ‘you know I’m going to put sisters in it, right?’” (She did: using Gabrielle Union as a heartbroken lover in need of the collective power of her girlfriends.)

As our phone call comes to an end, it’s only the final question that prompts DuVernay to, well, loosen up and jam on some ideas. “What am I doing in 2014? I mean, we’re only seven days in,” she laughs. “2013 was a great year for me. AFFRM released two films; I was able to create something every quarter. I shot the Venus Williams special, a John Legend special, a short of Miu Miu and a short film for Fashion Fair and [of course] Scandal…”

And there she is, listing, managing, Olivia Pope-ing again. And when you hear her run through it that way, sure, it’s easy to understand why DuVernay is wholly focused on the work. She gets things done.

Watch her film trailers:

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