Ava DuVernay on Not Losing Track of What Matters
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
Over the past 15 years, filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, Queen Sugar) has become something of an institution in Hollywood. As a writer, director, and producer she’s worked to make our industry more just and diverse—creating opportunities for voices that have historically been underrepresented both in front and behind the camera. In many ways her latest film, Origin, examines a hierarchy she’s worked to upend through a bold body of work.
And so we begin today’s episode discussing her creative adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and the timely questions she hopes to pose as we begin 2024. Then, Ava reflects on the influence of her Aunt Denise, what a typical Saturday looked like in the DuVernay household, her formative years as an underground emcee at UCLA, and how working on Michael Mann’s Collateral inspired her to direct.
On the back-half, we talk about the making of Ava’s first narrative feature I Will Follow, a life-changing review from Roger Ebert and the resulting decade as a director. We also wade through this past year in Hollywood, her hopes for ARRAY in the years to come, and the words of Angela Davis that keep her moving forward.
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From the episode:
SF: When you say you want to create something independent or left-of-center or adjacent to the industry on your own—you’ve obviously created a whole lot—what does that look like for you? How are you starting to dream again, and what do those dreams look like?
AD: Well, luckily, at the same time that I was working within these industry spaces, I was also building ARRAY. It’s over a decade old, it is a distribution company, we distribute films by women and filmmakers of color, we have public programming for free, for the community, all around cinema. We have a four-building campus in Echo Park where we edit and we ideate and we educate and we do all kinds of beautiful things. We work against law enforcement brutality and aggression through our program called “Leap.” We created ARRAY CREW, which is a database that has thousands and thousands of crew members from all kinds of communities that you can search and hire. We’ve done things that I’m very proud of and very bolstered by and ignited by and I have given that 70% of my attention and given 20% to these other places, and now it’s just going to be 100%. Imagine if it has my full focus. Gosh, what can we do?
SF: Do you still want to make films?
AD: Oh, absolutely. I’m not tapping out on that. I’m talking about the rest of these shenanigans.
SF: I’m trying to get the Ava back that I know!
AD: (laughs) I’m back, I’m here! I’m never going to give up on the films. It’s just the industry around the films. It’s something you have to be prepared for, you have to be mindful of, and you have to actively participate in. And we can decide how much we participate and how much we don’t. And there are other ways to make films and there are other ways to reach people and those are worthy endeavors to try to figure out.
SF: This film [Origin], because it is part of an industry, and it is coming out now as we speak, I’m thinking about this line that Angela Davis has, that she told you about your own movies. She said, “All of [your work] helps to create fertile ground. I don’t think that we would be where we are today without your work and the work of other artists. In my mind, it’s art that can begin to make us feel what we don’t necessarily yet understand.”
To bring us full circle here, when you hear that from her, about these films that you have brought into this world, that you have given your life to, that I know you have put all of yourself and all of your time into, does it feel worth it?
AD: Absolutely. Absolutely worth it. Absolutely exactly what I want to do, and I need to focus on that even more and let the rest of the stuff go. And when you read that quote back to me, I remember at the time being very ignited by it, and you know, life gets in the way and you forget— I remember that Roger Ebert quote meant so much to me, and I forgot those lines. They just hit my heart. Those are the things that remind you of what you’re doing it for, why you’re doing it, and what matters. It’s so easy to lose track of it.
Ava DuVernay is a filmmaker. She has won an Emmy Award, the NAACP Image Award, and BAFTA awards as well as been nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Her latest film is Origin.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.