Conversations with Ava DuVernay: “A Call to Action”: Organizing Principles of an Activist Cinematic Practice
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Conversations with Ava DuVernay
“A Call to Action”: Organizing Principles of an Activist Cinematic Practice

I consider my films forward movements, each one on a step to the next one.

—Ava DuVernay

It’s fair to say that Ava DuVernay is among the vanguard of a new generation of African American filmmakers who are the busily undeterred catalyst for what may very well be a black film renaissance in the making. This claim is substantiated by an extraordinary and compelling corpus of creative work and, arguably more important, DuVernay’s mission and “call to action.” The “call” constitutes an actionable strategy intended, as she emphatically puts it, “to further and foster the black cinematic image in an organized and consistent way, and to not have to defer and ask permission to traffic our films: to be self-determining.”

Like others African American filmmakers, including pioneers of past generations, DuVernay subscribes to the ethos that art serves a social purpose, debunks demeaning and normative assumptions about black people, and renders black humanity in all manner of genres and complexity. Situating DuVernay historically extends to the early 1900s, when “race movies” were first exhibited in segregated theaters, and to the 1960s and 1970s, when black independent cinema heralded a new realism in the documentary work of William Greaves, Madeline Anderson, and St. Claire Bourne, among others. No less important were the largely narrative works of fiction by that motley group of filmmakers-in-training who comprised the L.A. School (aka L.A. Rebellion), including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, and Haile Gerima, or the filmic experiments by prominent figures in the Black Arts Movement such as Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka. In her or his own way, each filmmaker counseled a social advocacy role for film on behalf of black self-empowerment. DuVernay continues in this advocacy, practicing the ongoing precept and tradition in the long history and struggle for black representation (fig. 1). [End Page 57]

Figure 1. Ava DuVernay. Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe.
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Figure 1.

Ava DuVernay. Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe.

Two core themes distinguish her creative work. First, like Julie Dash, Du-Vernay’s sustained interrogation engages with black women’s agency and subjectivity. Second, she foregrounds the family as site and source of resilience, memory, cultural transmission, generational continuity and dissonance, and as purveyor of all things affirming of black identity. In this way her work especially resonates with L.A. filmmakers Dash (Four Women, 1975; Daughters of the Dust, 1992), Burnett (Several Friends, 1969; Killer of Sheep, 1977; My Brother’s Wedding, 1983; To Sleep with Anger, 1990), Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts, 1984) and, in less schematic and didactical terms, Gerima (Bush Mama, 1975).

A former film publicist and marketer, DuVernay’s filmography is compelling and varied. Her credits include This Is the Life (2008), a feature-length documentary on hip-hop that won audience awards at the ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto, the Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival, the Hollywood Black Film Festival, and the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival in Seattle. She wrote, produced, and directed her first narrative feature, I Will Follow, in 2010. And in 2012, she won Best Director Award at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere—in doing so becoming the first African American woman to win this award. She also won the African American Film [End Page 58] Critics Association Best Screenplay in both 2011 and 2012, as well as both the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award and Tribeca Film Institute’s Affinity Award in 2013. She has also directed and produced network documentaries for ESPN, BET, and TVOne, as well as corporate projects in 2013 for Prada (The Door) and Fashion Fair (Say Yes).

At this stage of her meteoric rise and achievement, DuVernay unequivocally asserts, “I’m concerned with my own house…I’m going to carve out another place. That’s what I’m all about—moving forward.” Indeed, one such formation of her strategy for self-empowerment is founding the collective AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) in 2011.

This extended conversation comprises two parts and occurred during DuVernay’s visit...