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Ava DuVernay: How to Make Big Movies and Fight the ‘White Patriarchy’

As she preps big-budget sci-fi "A Wrinkle in Time," the filmmaker turned down "Black Panther" and grows her indie distribution firm.

Ava DuVernay went from zero to sixty in the last few years, from being the first African-American woman to win the Sundance director prize (in 2012 for her second film, “Middle of Nowhere”) to Best Picture Oscar nominee with “Selma” in 2015. Shortly thereafter, Marvel offered her the chance to direct “Black Panther,” which she gave careful deliberation before she turned it down.

“It wasn’t the right project for me,” she told the crowd at the ArcLight 5 in Culver City this weekend. “It was the perfect project for Ryan Coogler,” she told moderator Elvis Mitchell. “He’s going to shake it up and present it to you on a silver platter!”

What’s exciting about “Black Panther,” she added, is that it boasts “an African superhero and a black bad guy, too.” She wants to see what happens when filmmakers of color “are playing with the big toys,” she said.

Ava DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere"

Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere”

Accepting the 2016 “Spirit of Independence Award” at the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend with her Array Now distribution and marketing team Mercedes Cooper and Tilane Jones, DuVernay admitted that while she has plenty on her plate right now—she’s prepping a big-budget adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi classic “A Wrinkle in Time,” “about a time-traveling black girl traveling through the universe”—she still wants to carve out time for Array, her labor of love, which boasts one of the few direct deals with Netflix to stream films worldwide.

That’s because she’s tired of the “selective amnesia” of the media which keeps forgetting to amplify the long legacy of success of African-Americans at the movies. “When something breaks through,” she said, “We have to start all over again.”

But black filmmakers are faring better than many other filmmakers of color, including the swath of Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans who are left out by the “white patriarchy,” she said. “This is not just a black filmmaker problem. There are other kinds of colors and cultures. Can you name three Latina filmmakers?” she asked the Arclight gathering. “Film is a mirror. I want to see more filmmakers. We all want to see ourselves.”

Her hope is that the film industry is moving toward systemic change. DuVernay sees social media as moving the needle, and encourages everyone to engage in that conversation.  “In that space, you don’t have to ask permission to amplify,” she said. “It cuts through invisibility. You can make yourself visible and not wait for a story to be assigned or published.”

Six years ago, DuVernay launched marketing and distribution company Array Now, which has released 13 films so far. These include “Middle of Nowhere,” which she figured would be a hard movie to sell, to “Mississippi Damned,” “Out of My Hand,” “Echo Park,” and 2016 release “Ashes and Embers,” a 20-year-old art film by Haile Gerima. “We sweat and bleed for each one,” said DuVernay. Now they’re moving from two carefully selected releases a year to six, backed in part by donations by “rebel” supporters from their annual Rebel-a-Thon (June 20).

It upsets DuVernay that “Straight Outta Compton” did not play in her neighborhood, Compton—nor did “Selma” play in Selma, Alabama. Array’s next goal: to build their own movie theatre, “brick by brick.”

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