Ava DuVernay isn’t up for an Oscar this year, but it’ll probably still be a satisfying evening for the acclaimed director: She had a hand in or actively championed five films nominated for awards — genre-spanning works that take us from rural Rajasthan to South Central Los Angeles.
In a year with one of the most diverse slates of nominees ever, Ms. DuVernay’s influence is unmistakable. After a relatively brief time in the movie industry establishment — less than a decade — Ms. DuVernay has emerged as a powerful champion of talented, younger, mostly Black filmmakers. Bit by bit, she’s building the Hollywood she wants to see.
It’s not easy to change entrenched norms in any industry. But being an outsider who has risen to a powerful position offers a particular perspective. Instead of fighting for your spot in the hierarchy by punching down, you can increase your influence by extending a hand.
“I think in 20 years we’re going to have a generation of filmmakers of color who all got to where we are because of Ava,” said Kris Bowers, a 32-year-old Black composer and filmmaker who is among Ms. Duvernay’s protégés, and who co-directed The Times’s Op-Doc “A Concerto Is A Conversation,” an Oscar nominee this year. (I helped produce the film for The Times.) “She’s reached out to us and said, ‘I can see in you what you can’t see for yourself — or maybe you can, but you’re still exploring — and I’m going to give you the tools to grow and flourish in it.’ I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”
The work often amounts to a second, unpaid, job for Ms. DuVernay: signing on to films as executive producer, promoting younger filmmakers on her own platforms, and hosting events to set them up for success. Last year Ms. DuVernay became a governor in the director’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that controls the Oscars — a perch from which she can do even more to diversify Hollywood’s notoriously white and patriarchal infrastructure, from within.
Not that this is how she wants to spend her time.
“It is not something that I relish,” Ms. DuVernay told me last week in an interview from the set of a pilot she’s directing. “I don’t want to have to make big statements when I pick a director. I don’t want to have to put on special programs to teach people literacy about films that are not handpicked by Hollywood and spoon fed to them.
“I don’t want to do anything but just make my own stuff. I would like to be like my white male counterparts who just make beautiful, handmade films.”
But there’s a big problem here to solve, as proclaimed by the #oscarssowhite campaign that started in 2015 when Ms. DuVernay’s signature feature, “Selma,” was shut out of Best Actor or Best Director nominations. And as with many elite institutions, exclusivity is no longer doing Hollywood any favors. So Ms. DuVernay is rolling up her sleeves and doing the work that the industry should be desperate to accomplish to stay relevant.
“The only way to get through the door is if it’s open — and it’s certainly not open, but with each person that goes through, it moves a little bit more,” Ms. DuVernay said. “So the more we can open it when it’s our time, the easier time folks will have coming in to actually do their work, and then hopefully soon it will be wide open. And we’ll build a new house.”
That door was barely open 20 or 30 years ago, so Ms. Duvernay, now age 48, didn’t make her own film until age 32 — a 12-minute short she made over a holiday break. She funded it herself with $6,000.
The path didn’t get easier, so she improvised. She couldn’t get distribution for her work, so she became a distributor. She didn’t have Black colleagues to work with, so she nurtured and hired them. She couldn’t afford a publicist, so she did her own PR. She knew the traditional path to acclaim and awards was via movie theaters, but their limited locations and expensive ticket prices also made them exclusive and hard to break into, so she became an early adapter to streaming platforms instead. She rose.
In 2014, only 7 percent of the directors of Hollywood’s top 250 films were women. So when Ms. DuVernay launched her television series on the Oprah Winfrey Network, “Queen Sugar,” that year, she decided to only hire women directors. In February, she launched a database to help film productions hire under-represented crew members.
The five Oscar-nominated films that she was involved with this year show the fruit of her efforts: She was an executive producer on “A Concerto is a Conversation” and “The White Tiger,” and provided more under-the-radar support — including appearing on panels and helping with promotion — for “Time,” “A Love Song for Latasha,” and “Two Distant Strangers.”
In 2017, I watched Ms. DuVernay’s intervention firsthand, when I was helping to produce Op-Docs here at The Times. We published a film, “Alone,” by a young filmmaker, Garrett Bradley. Ms. DuVernay invited Ms. Bradley to direct an episode of “Queen Sugar.” She later made her a unit director on her film “When They See Us.” And when Ms. Bradley’s film started to get Oscar buzz, she asked Ms. DuVernay for support.
Ms. Duvernay offered to host an event for the then-unknown director, squeezing it in over Thanksgiving weekend, the only available slot. Bradley’s film didn’t get the Oscar nod then, but last year, Ms. Bradley had a new documentary, “Time,”,which Ms. Duvernay again pitched in to promote. Now Ms. Bradley is an Oscar nominee, in the Best Feature Documentary category.
What would it mean to marry someone behind bars?
Desmond asked me to marry him. And he’s still incarcerated. It’s been a year. Still no sentence. No verdict. I hate your hurt. I hate those lies I told you. I want to marry you and only you. I want to look back from the end of our long life marriage and say, “Look where we come from. Look at what got us here.” I love you so much, baby. So much. Will you honestly, honestly marry me? Baby, I want this with you forever. Forever lifetime with you. Only you. What would it look like to marry Desmond in prison? Feeling that you’re alone. Knowing that you’re alone. That’s the scary part. During courthouse hearings, the sheriff brings the inmates around back. It’s hours of them sitting in a hot bus with only breaks to use the bathroom. But I’m always there to see him, just to wave. Well, it’s a big day today. Yeah. I know you’ve been coming here a lot. And I thought maybe — let’s just take a quick minute before we go in. Just talk about what’s going to happen today. Today’s a ruling day. The last couple times we’ve been in has been testimony on whether the evidence that the sheriff’s department found on your fiancee as well as many of his co-defendants should be admissible. Right. So hopefully today is a good day. And she determines that that evidence was obtained unconstitutionally. Whether we get a good or bad ruling, this thing isn’t going to end today. Yeah. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to set another date. O.K. And probably a trial date, and probably a pretrial date, which allows us to continue negotiations with the assistant district attorney in their office. O.K. Hopefully get a good — an amicable resolution — Yes. — to the case. And hopefully a fast resolution. Because I know this has been going on for so long — Yes. — with your families. So let’s walk on up together. And if you have any questions, again, just, you know, let me know, O.K.? O.K. All right, let’s go. Good morning. Good morning. How do I see myself? Attractive. Beautiful. Glamorous. Having a happy glow off of me. With a cathedral train. Lots of lace. Detail. Pearls, diamonds everywhere. I want to be able to say I feel happy. I’m beautiful in this dress. I’m sexy in this dress. I want to be able to smile. Well, I was coming here to tell you Saturday me and Desmond getting married. [mother] What? [screaming] Girl, why you marrying a nigger in jail? What is it about fucking Desmond that you got to marry fucking Desmond in jail? [grandmother] Kim, stop. Please stop the hollering. You can through it better than your — [mother] Why, she just said she’s marrying Desmond in jail. [grandmother] What? Tell me that again? [mother] She just said she’s marrying Desmond Saturday in fucking jail. [grandmother] That’s true? My heart is sad. For what? Because I love him. [mother, screaming] Because you love him? [grandmother] Kimberly. [mother, shouting] That’s all? If he was a real man, he’ll tell you, Alone, I’mma see you when I get out of here. Instead, you’re trying to help him. You can’t even help your children and yourself, trying to help fucking Desmond. Desmond’s got family. Come on, Alone. [grandmother] You got so much going for you. Why? You know, love is — [mother] I don’t have nothing against nobody incarcerated. Shit happens to people. Life. I’ve dealt with that enough. I saw that enough. [grandmother] That’s a bad decision. What point is it? What is it going to do for y’all? What is it going to do for you? [on cellphone] When I was living the way I was living, I didn’t even know me. Myself. I hated myself. I grew up with hatred in me for a long time. Long time. My teachers treated me bad — I was quiet. I was smart. A really good kid. Hurt me like that. Then I became a bad child. My life so fucked then on out. Every year. Every year since I became a class clown. Fighting. Lying. Doing what I wanted to do. I don’t want to be without you. Yes, thank you for calling Cash Cow, where we say yes. This is Aloné. May I help you? OK, we offer payday, which is due back on your next payday. We offer title only if you have a clear free title to your vehicle. You can get a title loan on that. If you’re looking for a personal loan, we don’t do that. That would be a finance company. You’re welcome, no problem. Without my mother’s blessings it was like God’s intervention. Because on Saturday I was told the warden denied our request for a ceremony. And I thought… now I have time to think. This system breaks you apart. It is designed, just like slavery, to tear you apart. And instead of using the whip, they use mother time. They use hardships. They may not hang you from the tree. But the experience itself is just like when they used to hang people, but barely hang them and leave their feet just tiptoeing around in the mud, so that they’re constantly on their tiptoes fighting for their life. That is a daily experience when you are an incarcerated family. You are hanging on by a rope, tiptoeing in the mud. Just trying to get enough solid dirt under your feet to still live. I keep thinking to myself, what would it mean to marry someone behind bars? What would it look like? Ten years of waving between bars, gates, courtrooms and lawyers? I go to bed at night holding myself. Not feeling that body heat. Not getting that human contact. I have dreams that they are letting him out. And then I wake up, smiling but still sad. Still alone. Still in limbo. And maybe that’s how it’s going to be for now. Held by time. Connected by love, and love alone. Who we have become now, by the power of God, kept us strong and hate-free, babe. I love you, babe. You are my forevermore. My wife. Forever.
Last year I watched Ms. DuVernay do the same for Mr. Bowers. They connected in 2019 when Ms. DuVernay hired him to score “When They See Us,” a breakout role that set him up for his first Primetime Emmy nomination.
“She’s one of the few filmmakers that I’ve worked with who has made me feel safe to be fully myself, and see that as an asset,” said Mr. Bowers. “Going deep into what that means as a Black composer, as a Black man, it’s interesting to think about other experiences where I didn’t feel as safe with my Blackness. With Ava I feel like I can, and should, express all sides of myself in my work.”
He reached out to Ms. DuVernay to executive produce “A Concerto is a Conversation,” which he made with Ben Proudfoot. Again she said yes — signing up for more panels, more interviews, more time. No money. Mr. Bowers was nominated this year as well, for best documentary short.
A Concerto Is a Conversation
A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
All right. It’s a real pleasure to welcome Kris Bowers, our composer, who has written a concerto, “For a Younger Self.” Welcome. [APPLAUSE] Can I ask a question? All right, Granddaddy. Can you tell me, just what is a concerto? So it’s basically this piece that has a soloist and an ensemble, an orchestra. The two are having a conversation. And so sometimes that conversation can be this person speaking, and now this person speaking. Sometimes the conversation — It’s a question. — is at the same time. Yeah. And it really depends on how the composer wants to, or how I want to frame that conversation. Did you ever picture yourself doing what you’re doing now? Huh. [MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] I’m very aware of the fact that I’m a Black composer, and lately actually I’ve been wondering whether or not I’m supposed to be in the spaces that I’m in, or supposed to have gotten to the point that I’ve gotten to. Well, I can tell you one thing. Never think that you’re not supposed to be there. Cause you wouldn’t be there if you wasn’t supposed to be there. It goes back to slavery. [MUSIC PLAYING] My grandfather, who I found out has cancer a little while ago, I wanted to spend some more time with him and talk to him about his life, about our family, ask him as much as I can before he passes. [BELL RINGING] Granddaddy. Mm-hm? Need a bit of help with this. Do what? Getting this seamed out for the show. OK. Don’t step on the pedals. Push it right in the corner. OK. Wow. OK. We’re going to make it real handsome here. You’re going to be ready to go. Thank you, sir. Growing up in the South was quite a thing for me. Bascom, Florida, as far back as I can remember, I think the plantation was the Bowers plantation. All 13 of you all grew up in that house? Mm-hm. Wow. How all of us stayed in two rooms, I don’t know. We would start on the porch singing. And there were people, I don’t know how they could hear it that far, would come drive in the front yard and listen to us sing at night. People in that area was, the Blacks were Bowers, and the whites was Beavers. Beavers had the grocery store. But when Dad would walk in the store, this kid about my size, small kid — How old were you about this point? Like how old? I probably was 6 or 7 years old. Oh, wow. And he would go up to my dad and say, what could I get for you, boy? That stuck with me forever. Why are you calling my dad a boy? And Daddy would answer him, sir, yes sir, no sir. But it was something that stayed with me because I knew then when I got of age I was going to leave there. I didn’t want no parts of the farm. I didn’t want no parts of that part of the country. I just wanted to leave. Wherever I could get a ride to, that’s where I was headed to. [MUSIC PLAYING] What was that process like, hitchhiking as a Black man in America in the 1940s? I had to be crazy. Now, the first place I remember being is in Detroit. A man picked me up. He was saying that he could get me a job and a place to stay and all this. I asked him, does it snow there? And he said yes. And that was the end of that, because I didn’t want to be any place that was cold. But I hitchhiked from there to Denver, Colorado. And I was in this Greyhound bus station, cause they had two counters, white and Black. So I could get something to eat. And I heard somebody say, Los Angeles, California. I said, that’s where I want to go. Never heard of Los Angeles before. I had $27 or $28. I didn’t know how I was going to make it, but I knew I was going to make it. So I said well, I’m going to pretend to be an employment agency and call around to get a job. Wow. I got the telephone book, started at the A’s. A Cleaners. And I don’t think I made more than five calls, and the phone rang, and it was the A Cleaners, and they said they needed a presser. I got all the information. I said, OK, I’ll send someone right out. And that was me. [LAUGHING] That’s where I met your grandmother. [MUSIC PLAYING] How old were you when you bought the cleaners? I was 20. Wow. So within two years I had gone from homeless to I was in business. [MUSIC PLAYING] But I never could get a loan. And I owned the place. I said, something wrong with this picture. I told them I come in for the loan, and he said no, I don’t have anything. And I left later, and picked up an application, and I mailed it in. A few days later, I got a call, your loan is approved. I said, it’s the color of my skin. I said in the South they tell you. In Los Angeles they show you. From then on we started buying property, I would get things at the cleaner, everything, but nobody ever saw me. Everything was done by mail. People are constantly throwing up things to stop you in life. But you’ve got to know you cannot stop me. [MUSIC PLAYING] My name is Kristopher Bowers, and I want to play “Shining Star in Atlantic City.” My parents decided before I was born they wanted me to play piano. Literally, I think it’s called like “Piano Sampler No. 5” that they used to put on my mom’s stomach every day. Actually, one of the first pieces of music I ever wrote was on this piano. And I remember, you know, just playing around here all the time. But we were up at a restaurant one, I believe it was a Sunday. At Marie Callendar’s? Marie Callendar’s. They had a piano in there, and I asked the guy could you play it. And they said yes. I carried you over there, and you were playing it, and I was proud of you. [LAUGHING] [MUSIC PLAYING] There aren’t that many opportunities for young kids of color to showcase their talents or to interact with other kids of color playing music and doing those things, and you talking about being my manager, essentially, from the very beginning. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t have been as confident pursuing music. I remember — where were you in school at that I was up there? What, in New York? At Juilliard? Juilliard? Wherever it was, you enjoyed it. So that’s all I was thinking. If you enjoyed making a living at it. I knew that, boy. And the winner is Kris Bowers. “Green Book.” [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING] What do you think your biggest challenge is today? My biggest challenge today, being honest, is my health. It’s just trying to stay healthy. That would be my challenge today. [MUSIC PLAYING] I’ve got a few more years to go, but I’m almost to the top. [LAUGHING] Ten more years, I’ll be at the top. [LAUGHING] So now I just keep trying to do the best I can. Yeah. And enjoy seeing my children and grandchildren being successful. That’s glory in itself. It’s just something that I hope I had a little something to do with it. [MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] (SINGING) Then sings my soul, my savior, my God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art. You did it! You did it! You did it! [LAUGHING] See, it surprised you. [LAUGHING]
In just six years, #oscarssowhite has had a striking impact on the academy’s leadership — and Ms. DuVernay’s role shows that if you lead pushback on the establishment, you can emerge as a leader of that establishment.
“The power has to be wrested from the folks who’ve had it for too long, because it’s not being freely given,” said Ms. DuVernay. “We’re not going to get there through hopes and dreams. It’s got to be through shattering the system, and creating a new way.”
Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is an editor, writer and producer in Opinion.
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