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Ava DuVernay: History In The Making

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Dedicated change-maker, friend of Oprah and now the first female African American film-maker to preside over a movie with a budget in excess of $100m. Terri White meets the extraordinary Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay is having a moment. An actual super-hot, super-defining cultural moment. But also a moment in the sense that my nana meant it. The director is sitting, eyes wet, in the white marble bar of a swanky London hotel. She’s just realised that this, right here, right now, is the end. The very end of the very long journey that has been the making of new Disney fantasy epic A Wrinkle In Time. Grazia is Ava’s final interview of the whole two-year process. The night before was the European premiere and her cast – including stars Storm Reid, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon and Oprah – have already left. She stayed on in London to speak to me and is reflecting on the still-raw goodbyes. ‘It was really emotional,’ she says, visibly moved. ‘I saw Reese on the red carpet and said, “This is it.” Her eyes immediately welled up with tears and she was like, “We can’t do this here!”’

We’re celebrating the end with a spread of deep- fried delights: chips, calamari and cheese fritters that jostle for space on the table with Ava’s Prada clutch. It was, is, a pretty big deal. Ava DuVernay has made history. Again. She was the first female African American film-maker to receive a Golden Globe nomination (for 2014’s civil rights drama Selma). She was the first with a film up for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award (for 2016’s 13th, about racial inequality in America’s prison system). Now, with A Wrinkle In Time, she is the first to helm a live action film with a budget of over $100 million.

It was also the film that saw her call up a good friend. One who most people don’t have on speed dial. Oprah. Their relationship began after Oprah saw Ava’s 2012 film Middle Of Nowhere and tweeted her. ‘It was crazy, I dropped the phone,’ she says, eyes wide even now. ‘She said, “Good job, sister.”’ Their bond tied tight with a knot when Oprah invited Ava to brunch at her house. ‘I took her these flowers – I spent extra, went to the biggest place in Hollywood,’ she laughs. ‘I get there, look behind her and there’s like an acre of flowers. Mine look like dead tulips compared. She was very gracious, even though she was standing in a field of flowers; carefully cultivated from all over the world... Like the botanical frigging gardens!'

Ava’s accomplishments are all the more mind- bending when you consider that she didn’t even become a director until the age of 32. ‘Old in film-making years,’ she laughs, ‘very old.’ Ava, now 45, had been a publicist for 12 years, running her own agency for nine. ‘I was a film lover,’ she remembers. ‘But I never thought you could be a film-maker, that I could be a film-maker.’ The fire was lit when she worked on Collateral in 2004 and saw the director, Michael Mann, using a digital camera. ‘I was like, “I don’t know how to direct. I haven’t been trained in all of the 35mm camera work.” But there was something about seeing him take out that camera...’ All of a sudden, she felt comfortable with the idea that she could do it. ‘And then all these black people were on set. We were [ filming] in a place that’s close to where I’m from, in East LA. It all came together.’

Ava first came to mainstream attention 10 years later, with Selma and then 13th. Then the pivot that no one saw coming, including Ava herself: A Wrinkle In Time, an adaptation for Disney of a 1962 fantasy book she hadn’t read. Ava’s interest was piqued by African American studio executive Tendo Nagenda, ‘who said to me, “Think of all of the worlds you can build, imagine what you can do with them.”’ The deal was sealed when Disney confirmed she could make the main character – teenager Meg Murry, who is searching between worlds for her missing father – a girl of colour. Ava went home and read the book ‘with excitement and immediately connected to it. I was like, “I know this girl!”’

Ava with the stars of A Wrinkle In Time © MacMedan-USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa/REX/Shutterstock

Ava truly did know this girl. In many respects, she was this girl. ‘I lived in a predominantly black area and brown area but I went to an all-girls’ Catholic school with mostly girls who were not of colour. I remember going back to my neighbourhood and trying not to be smart and take off my uniform really quickly. They knew I didn’t go to the public school so I was a little out of place there and definitely out of place in school.’

Meg being African American allowed Ava to tackle some contemporary, real-world issues that young girls deal with around identity. ‘With something as specific as hair,’ she says. ‘When you have an African American girl’s hair issues, [with] Europeanised standards of beauty, it becomes an interesting place to talk about things that resonate with girls of colour.’ There is a significant moment in the film when a white school friend tells Meg that he likes her hair natural, just as it is. Was Ava worried that this could be interpreted as her needing his validation? ‘No,’ she says. ‘What that symbolised to me was a person of privilege, a Caucasian boy, looking upon something that usually we’ve been told – to t into society at large, where the dominant gaze is the Caucasian gaze – that you have to look a certain way. So, for someone of that dominant gaze to look upon someone who’s been marginalised and say, “I like you that way”... at moment was less for a girl of colour than to speak to Caucasian boys about their own privilege, and their own sense of what has value.’

On the larger issue of representation in the movie industry, particularly around race, Ava is positive but prudent, calling for sustained change rather than one-off cork-popping celebrations that are hailed as breakthroughs. ‘Things are changing but they haven’t changed. Change is progressive. It involves dismantling systems. There are some amazing landmarks and milestones that are happening – but if they’re all separate, and not connected by a path for other people to get from landmark to landmark, it becomes something purely cosmetic and singular and only benefits the individual. This industry is built on brilliant people, so this is something that could be figured out if people really paid attention and cared about it.’

Ava’s strength and determination, you sense, comes from her close relationships with her mum, grandmother, auntie and two sisters. ‘They were very independent and that taught me a lot. I feel like there’s nothing that I can’t figure out. People are like, “There’s nothing you can’t do!” I’m like, “ There’s a lot I can’t do... but I’m gonna figure it out!” I know how it feels to have women around you who really lift you up and you lift them up. I wish that for every woman and know not every woman experiences that. I’m lucky.’

Lucky’ is not the word I’d choose to describe Ava DuVernay. Lucky women don’t make history. And that’s what Ava DuVernay is doing. One moment at a time.

‘A Wrinkle In Time’ is in cinemas from Friday

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