Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
Earlier this week, the state of California released a seemingly innocuous list of upcoming films set to receive tax credits for their production. Among that list — which only includes films that are operating with budgets larger than $75 million — there was at least one title that stood out in a huge, boundary-busting way. As Women and Hollywood confirms, Ava DuVernay’s next film, a big screen adaptation of the Madeleine L’Engle classic “A Wrinkle in Time,” will be made with a budget that will exceed $100 million. That a female director is helming such a deep-pocketed live-action film is news in and of itself — DuVernay joins a select club that so far only includes Kathryn Bigelow (“K-19: The Widowmaker”) and Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) — but that’s not all, because DuVernay is now starting her own club.
She’ll be the first female director of color to helm a live-action film with a budget over $100 million. Ever.
DuVernay has been breaking down barriers for years, moving from entertainment publicity (take a peek at her IMDb profile, which still claims that she is best known for serving as a publicist on “Spider-Man 2”) into indie films, before making the jump to larger fare with 2014’s best picture nominee “Selma” (a feat in and of itself), then using that momentum to create the TV series “Queen Sugar” and snagging the plum directing gig on “Wrinkle.” (Along the way, she even turned down the “Black Panther” directing gig, because she knew it wasn’t the right project for her.)
It’s an enviable trajectory, and not the kind we typically see from female directors (so often, it’s their male counterparts who make the leap from indies to major blockbusters with little in between), and that DuVernay has accomplished all this in less than five years (her last publicist credit? it’s on 2011’s “The Help,” smack in between her first and second feature directorial outings) is nothing short of aspirational.
And yet, what’s most impressive and inspiring about DuVernay’s career is that she’s used it to help other up and coming talents move forward. DuVernay doesn’t just seem content to break down boundaries and barriers on her own, she wants to smash them wide open enough that there’s more room for everyone.
In 2010, DuVernay founded African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), an independent distribution company that’s billed as “a community-based distribution collective dedicated to the amplification of films by people of color and women filmmakers.” Originally created to release DuVernay’s well-regarded festival feature, “Middle of Nowhere,” after that film failed to pick up traditional distribution, AFFRM (recently rebranded as Array) has gone on to support and release a number of other films from various filmmakers. The company doesn’t rely on traditional distribution methods either, instead using grassroots outreach (often in tandem with other film collectives and organizations) to make, market and get their films in front of as many eyeballs as possible. (Array is also not confined to just new films, as they recently released a restoration of the seminal feature “Ashes and Embers.”)
When AFFRM rebranded as Array in 2015, DuVernay’s organization expanded its mission to also include female filmmakers. At the time, she told Women and Hollywood that she would continue “to oversee development and strategy for all Array initiatives, keeping [her] hands in everything from acquisition to membership to events.” She further explained, “I’m much more interested in affecting the energy of creative people and artists more than the distribution market and the industry at large. I’m not trying to change the same old game. I just want to go play my own game with like-minded people.”
Earlier this year, DuVernay appeared in a campaign video for Array, asking others to join in and help support the organization. In the video, DuVernay proudly tells viewers, “We do the same things we always do, we’ve just widened our purview. Instead of focusing on black filmmakers from around the diaspora, we’re focusing on people of color and women. So we’re looking at marginalized artists and making sure that we’re bringing the edges inside the box.”
It’s not the only indicator of how dedicated DuVernay is to not only talking the talk about changing the face of the entertainment industry, but really, truly walking the walk.
DuVernay’s latest project, the television series “Queen Sugar,” is remarkable for a few things: DuVernay created it alongside executive producer Oprah Winfrey, it’s been adapted from a novel from a woman of color (Natalie Baszile), it focuses on the relationship between a pair of sisters and it’s already been renewed for a second season. Oh, and one more thing: Every episode was directed by a woman. It was an initiative that DuVernay made a priority, offering up the chance for a number of rising indie favorites (like Kat Candler, Tina Mabry and So Yong Kim) the chance to work in a new venue alongside a cast and crew that was thrilled to have so much female talent on deck.
That Hollywood is lacking in diversity and the outrage over that need is getting louder and louder isn’t breaking news — as filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin recently noted, we’re in the “kicking and screaming” phase of actionable change — but that someone like DuVernay is managing to not only pave her own way and make it a priority for others to be able to follow suit is something worthy lauding as loudly and often as possible. DuVernay may be the first female director of color to snag a $100 million budget, but that’s not the only victory here, it’s that DuVernay seems like the sort of person who won’t be happy with such a milestone until it’s long since been shattered, again and again, by the next generation behind her.