The Untold Truth Of Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay may be one of Hollywood's most sought-after directors, but she discovered her passion for filmmaking relatively late in life. "When people tell [my story], it's about race and gender, 'Black woman director,' but my story's also really about age, because I didn't pick up a camera until I was 32," she told Refinery29 of how she came to have a career behind the camera.

As DuVernay pointed out, she is indeed both Black and female, something of a rarity among directors — particularly one with the kind of acclaim that she has achieved in a relatively brief period of time. As her website informs, she's been nominated for an Oscar, and she's won BAFTA, Emmy, and Peabody Awards. Among her many film and television projects are "Selma," "A Wrinkle in Time," the Netflix miniseries "When They See Us," the OWN drama "Queen Sugar," and the Netflix series "Colin in Black & White," a dramatization of the formative years of NFL star Colin Kaepernick. In addition, she's also ventured into a whole new genre with her heartwarming NBC reality series "Home Sweet Home."

This multi-talented writer, director, and producer already has a solid body of work under her belt and the promise of even more excellence to come, but there's a lot more about her that can be learned by reading on to discover the untold truth of Ava DuVernay.

Ava DuVernay's path to directing was far from typical

From the outside looking in, it may appear as if Ava DuVernay emerged out of nowhere when her low-budget indie flick "Middle of Nowhere" took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in 2012, winning the festival's U.S. directing award in the drama category. 

Of course, there's far more to it than that. As a profile in The New York Times pointed out, directing was DuVernay's second career, following a successful 15-year stint as a top movie publicist with a client list that included director Spike Lee. Working as a unit publicist on movie sets, she explained, was like having "a front-row seat at the best film school." In fact, it was while watching Michael Mann direct his 2004 action flick "Collateral" that she had an epiphany. "I just thought I could do it," she said. 

As she began to write scripts and film them in her spare time while continuing to run her prosperous PR firm, DuVernay found herself living a double life. Eventually, something had to give. "So I made my films on the side, and for my first five films I still worked my day job," she told Variety. It wasn't until after her triumph at Sundance that she decided to focus exclusively on directing. "I started giving my clients away to these small agencies, not taking new contracts, and within two to three months, I was a full-time filmmaker," she revealed. 

She's broken barriers and experienced a lot of firsts

When Ava DuVernay was presented with the directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, she made history as the first Black woman to win that honor. It would not be the only time that DuVernay would bust through boundaries. In 2014, her historical biopic "Selma" landed the filmmaker her first Golden Globe nomination for best director. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, she was the first Black woman to ever receive a nomination in that category. "It's so wonderful," said "Selma" star David Oyelowo (who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and who had also starred in DuVernay's previous film, "Middle of Nowhere") while speaking to THR. "I'm so proud of her. She's only been doing this for five years; this is her third movie. It's a big moment for her."

DuVernay broke another barrier when she directed a big-screen adaptation of the beloved children's book "A Wrinkle in Time" for Disney. According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed $100.47 million domestically; as BlackFilm pointed out, this made DuVernay the first Black female director to top $100 million at the box office. 

DuVernay would not have experienced all those firsts without a whole lot of perseverance. "For me to pick up a camera as a Black woman who did not go to film school — this is a testament to whatever path you're on right now is not necessarily the path you have to stay on," she told Refinery29 in 2018.

Ava DuVernay's star-studded Disney blockbuster was an expensive flop

Ava DuVernay's 2018 fantasy film "A Wrinkle in Time" may have exceeded $100 million at the box office, yet at the end of the day, it was viewed as a massive failure because it brought in considerably less money than it cost to make. The New York Times estimated the movie's budget (including marketing) to be in excess of $150 million, while Deadline reported that it was closer to $250 million. As Yahoo! Finance pointed out, the film was the only "dark cloud" in Disney's otherwise-sunny earnings report for that quarter.

One big reason why the film underperformed was that critics and audiences alike simply didn't enjoy it — it garnered far more negative reviews than positive ones (borne out by its 42 percent Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes). Entertainment Weekly, for example, summed up "A Wrinkle in Time" as "a sincere attempt at empowerment crushed into preachy dullness," while Screen Crush lamented that it was "a little baffling how so many good choices could produce something so frustrating." 

ComScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian theorized that an even bigger culprit behind the movie's failure may have been its fantastical storyline. "Fantasy adventures — even those with baked-in brand recognition via their book-based success — often have a very tough time finding an audience once they move to the big screen," he told The Hollywood Reporter.

The filmmaker's acclaimed Netflix miniseries led to a defamation lawsuit

Ava DuVernay has long been committed to telling important stories, and such was the case with her Netflix miniseries "When They See Us." The miniseries dramatized the shameful true events that led to a group of Black male teenagers — dubbed the Central Park Five by the press — spending years behind bars for a brutal crime that they didn't commit. The project proved to be another triumph for DuVernay, raking in 16 Emmy nominations and two wins in the limited series or movie category: one for outstanding casting and another for Jharrel Jerome's performance as lead actor.  

Along with all that acclaim came some unexpected litigation. According to a Variety, both DuVernay and Netflix were sued for defamation by John E. Reid and Associates. The reason? The firm had developed the Reid Technique, a system of interrogation regularly used by police. However, the technique has come to be the subject of controversy due to claims that it can produce "false confessions," per The New Yorker. This is something that was briefly mentioned in an episode of "When They See Us." As noted by Variety, a character says, "You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision. The Reid Technique has been universally rejected."

According to a subsequent Variety report, the judge in the case ruled in favor of DuVernay and Netflix, determining that the dialogue didn't constitute defamation under the protection of the First Amendment.

Ava DuVernay made Time's 100 Most Influential list

Among the many honors that Ava DuVernay has received since embarking on a career as a director, she was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2017. For the Time 100 issue, tennis great Venus Williams paid tribute to DuVernay in an essay. "Ava makes it her mission to tell important stories," wrote Williams, adding, "Ava's point of view is fresh, it's inspiring, it's original, it makes people's heads turn. But she also embraces other people's perspectives."

On the evening of the Time 100 gala, DuVernay was asked to raise her glass and offer a toast to someone who had inspired her on her journey. As she said in her toast, there was just one name that sprang to mind: her late aunt, Denise Sexton. "She opened my window to the world, which for me was the image cinema," said the filmmaker. "We'd take the bus to the movies, and we'd see the movie, and then we'd talk and talk and talk and talk about it afterwards, which for a little girl is a big deal when someone just talks to you."

She concluded by sharing the big life lesson that her aunt had left with her. "I understand fully through Denise that influence is a privilege that depends on people giving it to you," she explained.

Her first meeting with Oprah was 'weird and awkward'

Ava DuVernay has had a long association with Oprah Winfrey, who served as producer on her film "Selma," her Netflix miniseries "When They See Us, and her TV series "Queen Sugar," which premiered on Winfrey's OWN network in 2016. The talk show host also portrayed Mrs. Which in the DuVernay-directed "A Wrinkle in Time." As Winfrey recalled to The Hollywood Reporter, she first became aware of DuVernay when a friend encouraged her to check out "Middle of Nowhere," leading Winfrey to do a Google search on the director. "I remember I liked her glasses and her countenance," said Winfrey. "There was an energy about her that came right off the page. I knew immediately we were going to be friends."

While that prediction eventually turned out to be true, DuVernay admitted she was initially so starstruck by the media mogul that it took an entire year for her to stop acting "weird and awkward" whenever she was in Winfrey's company.

DuVernay's behavior was to be expected from someone who grew up in a home where Winfrey was considered a revered figure. As the director told Access, her mother — who "is the same age as" the television icon — used to advise her to "be like" Winfrey. "So to grow up and be working in the same industry as her and to know her personally, you know, it's a full-circle moment that I never imagined," DuVernay said.  

Ava DuVernay directed a headline-making music video for Beyoncé and Jay-Z

As Ava DuVernay's star rose and her critical acclaim grew, Oprah Winfrey was not the only Black icon to get in touch with her in hopes of harnessing the director's talents. When rap mogul Jay-Z released his 2017 album "4:44," he enlisted DuVernay to direct the music video for "Family Feud." Described as "visually stunning" by Vanity Fair, it takes viewers on a time-traveling journey spanning four centuries. It's bolstered by a star-studded cast; in addition to Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé, there are appearances by Michael B. Jordan, Thandwie Newton, Jessica Chastain, Trevante Rhodes, Rosario Dawson, Susan Kelechi Watson, and others. Jay-Z Beyoncé's daughter, Blue Ivy, even makes a cameo. 

In an interview with Power 105.1 FM's "The Breakfast Club," DuVernay revealed how she became involved, recalling being "stunned" when she answered a call and heard "Jay-Z's voice on the other line." Her initial fear, she admitted, was feeling like she might be incapable of making "something cool enough for" the rapper and his wife. But she added, "It was really, really fun to do, and he gave me a lot of freedom to do it." 

DuVernay's work on the video was met with rave reviews. "Stunning cinematography paired with elaborate costumes straight out of a Baroque painting makes the video one of the best of the year," wrote Blavity, while British GQ praised DuVernay for "delivering a poignant story of family, power, race and gender spanning generations of Black voices."

The surprising reason she quit as director of a Prince documentary

While taking a quick scan through Ava DuVernay's list of directing credits on IMDb offers some fascinating insights into the kind of stories she feels it's important to tell, equally interesting are the projects that she's walked away from. One example is an authorized documentary she had signed on to make about late music superstar Prince for Netflix. She spoke about the project to Deadline in October 2018, saying, "Prince was a genius and a joy and a jolt to the senses. He was like no other." According to the outlet, DuVernay had been granted full access to hours upon hours of private audio and video recordings from the archives of the entertainer's estate. 

Despite being selected by the Prince estate to shepherd the project, DuVernay subsequently decided to drop out. Less than a year later, she gave an interview about her Netflix miniseries "When They See Us" to the Los Angeles Times. Buried deep within the copy was the revelation that she had quit the project due to "creative differences" after spending a year trying to get it made. "It just didn't work out," she explained. "There's a lot of beautiful material there. I wish them well."

The Oscars are 'just a room in L.A.' for Ava DuVernay

In 2015, Ava DuVernay was tapped to deliver the keynote speech at that year's South By Southwest festival, aka SXSW. As IndieWire reported, the honor came just months after the 2015 Academy Awards, where her film "Selma" had been nominated for two Oscars, winning the statue for best original song (thanks to the John Legend-Common collab "Glory"), but losing best picture to "Birdman."

With the Oscars still fresh in her mind, DuVernay discussed what it was like to attend the star-studded ceremony for the very first time — as a nominee, no less. Her big takeaway, she revealed, was the realization that the Academy Awards gala is simply "a room in L.A." (27:54) While conceding that being recognized by the Academy is "very cool," she came to understand that "my work's worth is not based on what happens in, around, for, or about that room." However, she also admitted that thanks to her film's best picture nomination, "I had the most awesome f***ing year!"

In her SXSW speech, DuVernay also pointed to the irony of receiving critical acclaim for a movie that she was only able to direct after six other directors turned it town. When she was offered the job, she joked that it felt like she was being asked, "Look, lady, you want to give it a try?" (17:58)

The director is a proud (and beautiful) vegan

Among her many accolades, Ava DuVernay received some very special recognition in 2018 when she was honored as one of the year's most beautiful vegan celebrities by the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), alongside fellow honoree Benedict Cumberbatch. In a statement, PETA's SVP gushed that she and the "Dr. Strange" star "are saving animals not only by going vegan but also by sharing their commitment with the world."

For DuVernay, veganism is something she not only embraced due to concerns about her own health and compassion toward animals, but also for cultural reasons. In 2017, she tweeted a link to a New York Times story about Black vegans. "Like many food trends that seem new, Black veganism has historical roots," she wrote in her caption, which also included a quote from the Times piece. "For a lot of black people, it's also about social justice and food access," it read. "The food we've been eating has been killing us."

In 2020, PETA enlisted DuVernay for a special project encouraging people to embrace a plant-based menu for Thanksgiving dinner. DuVernay was one of several celebrities to appear in a PETA recreation of Norman Rockwell's iconic Thanksgiving painting. The new artwork, which was posted on Instagram, reimagined the traditional Thanksgiving feast with a vegan main dish instead of a turkey. Other vegan celebrities depicted sitting around the table included Senator Cory Booker, music producer Jermaine Dupri, and actors Mayim Bialik and Mena Massoud.

Ava DuVernay has her own Barbie doll

It's one thing to win an Emmy or receive an Oscar nomination, but how many directors can boast of having a Barbie doll created in their image? Ava DuVernay can, because that's precisely what happened in 2015, and under some pretty extraordinary circumstances to boot. 

As the The Guardian reported, DuVernay was one of six female celebrities to be immortalized in Barbie form as part of an initiative from toy manufacturer Mattel called "Sheroes," which honored "female heroes who inspire girls by breaking boundaries and expanding possibilities for women everywhere." In addition to DuVernay, there were also Barbie dolls inspired by country singer Trisha Yearwood, child fashion designer Sydney "Mayhem" Keiser, "Shameless" star Emmy Rossum, Broadway icon Kristin Chenoweth, and Eva Chen, director of fashion partnerships at Instagram.

The original plan was for Mattel to produce just one of every prototype doll, which each of the celebrities would then auction off in benefit of a charity they wished to support. However, reported TheWrap, DuVernay's legions of fans on social media insisted that the company mass-produce Ava DuVernay Barbie dolls that could be purchased. Just in time for the holiday season, Mattel gave in to the demands. "Tomorrow this #AvaBarbie goes on sale for Christmas because enough folks asked @Mattel to do so," wrote DuVernay on Twitter. "Wild + wonderful." As MSNBC subsequently reported, the dolls sold out within minutes.

She nearly directed a Marvel blockbuster

During one weekend in 2018, two Disney films ruled the box office: Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle in Time" and the Marvel blockbuster "Black Panther," directed by Ryan Coogler. Interestingly enough, had things taken a different turn, DuVernay might have been behind the camera for "Black Panther." As she discussed in a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she'd been offered the chance to direct "Black Panther," but ultimately decided to pass. 

Explaining her reasoning, DuVernay likened her relationship with Marvel Studios to "a marriage" that would tie her up for "three years of not doing other things that are important to me." She added, "So it was a question of, is this important enough for me to do?" According to the director, she'd reached a point where she felt like "the answer was yes" to that question. "I thought there was value in putting that kind of imagery into the culture in a worldwide, huge way, in a certain way: excitement, action, fun, all those things, and yet still be focused on a Black man as a hero — that would be pretty revolutionary," she said. 

Ultimately, she decided to walk away, and explained why in an interview with Essence. "I loved meeting ["Black Panther" star] Chadwick [Boseman] and writers and all the Marvel execs," recalled DuVernay. "In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn't see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences later."

Ava DuVernay is bringing a Black female superhero to television

While Ava DuVernay's bid to direct Marvel's "Black Panther" never panned out, she circled back to the superhero genre a few years later, albeit for Marvel's chief competitor. In December 2020, Deadline reported that DuVernay would be executive producing the TV series "Naomi," an adaptation for The CW of the DC Comics title of the same name. Actor Kaci Walfall was later cast as the title character, a teenager "who becomes obsessed with Superman" after seeing the hero in the flesh, according to Polygon. She also learns that she has powers of her own, and it's safe to say that she'll get a chance to put them to use.   

While DuVernay hasn't said much about the upcoming series as of this writing, Walfall was among the talent attending the 2021 edition of the annual DC FanDome event, where she introduced a thrilling trailer for the new series (scheduled to premiere in early 2022). "I'm really excited for people to see this character that is so special to them within the comics, on TV," she said in her intro, per Polygon. "There's a lot of room to grow for the character within the story."

She has made some serious money as a director

Ava DuVernay would be the first to admit that she was making a pretty good living as a publicist. Once she established herself as one of Hollywood's top directors, however, her standard of living increased substantially. According to an estimate of her wealth from Celebrity Net Worth, DuVernay has around $60 million in her bank account. While that's a considerable chunk of change, it's a teensy fraction of the net worth of her friend and occasional producing partner Oprah Winfrey, who's estimated to be worth a jaw-dropping $3.5 billion.

According to DuVernay, that disparity isn't just apparent with respect to their respective fortunes, it's also a factor when it comes to the level of fame each has achieved. While DuVernay is indeed famous, with a devoted fanbase and her own unique achievements in the entertainment industry, she's not Oprah-level famous — something that becomes apparent whenever they spend time together. "When you hang out with Oprah, you're like, 'Yeah, no, I'm not famous,'" she joked in an interview with Access.