Ava DuVernay’s Arrival and the Path Not Taken - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Ava DuVernay’s Arrival and the Path Not Taken

Ava DuVernay
SourceChristina Gandolfo for OZY

Ava DuVernay’s Arrival and the Path Not Taken

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because true quality always wins out.

By Eugene S. Robinson

In college in the 1990s, Ava DuVernay floated there and then in the way that was fairly typical for kids coming of age in what was the longest period of growth in American history. From double majoring in English lit and African American studies at UCLA, DuVernay decided to make her mark as a journalist. Just in time to cover one of the most racially complex trials of the ’90s: the OJ Simpson trial.

A meditation on race and fame, the trial both set Simpson free from charges he had murdered his white ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman, and drove DuVernay out of journalism — onto a path that has made her one of the leading lights of a slightly more inclusive Hollywood, with her searing 2016 documentary on mass incarceration, 13th, popping up as a must-watch for context on the post-George Floyd protests roiling the nation. In the news, then, rather than reporting it.

“I wasn’t interested in that,” DuVernay, 47, once told Elle magazine. The “that”? “The way hard news integrated celebrity news.” A disgust that while it carried her away from news drove her straight into the celebrity side of the equation. First into gigs as a junior publicist at 20th Century Fox and a few others and eventually to her own public relations business. That is, the business of telling the world about all of the wonderful things the film business, and everyone in it, was doing.

She makes everything she makes absolutely resonate with purpose.

Michele Edwards, cineast and industry veteran

It was a good way to make a living but not necessarily such a great way to make a life, so during Christmas break in 2005 DuVernay did something just a little … different. She took $6,000 and made a movie loosely based on her mother and a trip to a grocery store. The film Saturday Night Life hit the film festival circuit and nothing would fundamentally be the same for DuVernay ever again.


DuVernay on set.

With continued forays into documentaries — they could be made cheaper, quicker and were typically stories no one was going to yank out from under her — DuVernay kept her day job but the film stuff was picking up speed. As were the budgets, the notice and after some after-work directing classes helping her through three flicks, eventually enough headway that making films instead of helping the ones that had already been made became her jam. Acclaim and awards for films like Selma and the Netflix series When They See Us ensued.

“She’s a social justice warrior in every single way,” said cineast and industry vet Michele Edwards who worked with DuVernay from back when she was a publicist. “She makes everything she makes absolutely resonate with purpose.”

So how nice is it to see her at the helm of $100 million productions, pulling in Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for movies that in all likelihood couldn’t/wouldn’t be made by the usual suspects (read: old white dudes) and posting up for a Nipsey Hussle documentary on Netflix?


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