Ava DuVernay Shares Her Advice for Women to Break Glass Ceilings: "Focus on Your Work"
Ava DuVernay is a woman who's used to being first. The first African American woman director to have a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (2014's "Selma"). The first woman of color to direct a $100 million film (Disney's "A Wrinkle in Time," out next summer). The trailblazing creator, writer, director, and co-executive producer of OWN’s new hit series "Queen Sugar" is smashing glass ceilings — and helping other women do the same. Here's how.
Glamour: Every episode of "Queen Sugar" is directed by a woman. Why?
Ava: In addition to that, we have a woman post-production supervisor, a woman colorist, a woman first AD, a woman production supervisor… I think it's really sad when I hear so many shows are content to stay in a mono-cultural realm, not realizing how they are subtracting from their own greatness by not inviting women and people of color into the space—that seasoning that makes the recipe even more great. It was absolutely imperative for me. It’s how I run all my crews.
Glamour: How did you choose the directors?
Ava: All these women had directed movies that I loved on the film festival circuit, but couldn’t get a job making television. That’s how locked down TV is. It was easy for me to show the films to the studio and the network and say, “This is who I’m hiring.”
Glamour: Why aren’t more women given a chance in Hollywood?
Ava: It’s a patriarchy, headed by men and built for men. To pretend like Hollywood is anything other than that is disingenuous. #OscarsSoWhite is trendy, but for women filmmakers and filmmakers of color, it’s not a trend. This is our reality, and it’s important that we do something to change it. We have to find new ways to work without permission, new ways to turn corners and go through doors that are closed off to us to create our own audiences and our own material independently.
Glamour: What advice do you give other women?
Ava: To focus on your work. If your work is solid, it really doesn’t matter what people you know because good work starts to rise to the top.
Glamour: How is TV different from film?
Ava: My goodness, it is a lot of work. I was talking to Shonda Rhimes the other day and I said, "I. Do. Not. Know. How. You. Do. This." While we’re writing episode 10, episode 6 is shooting, episode 3 is in the edit, and episode 2 is in its color session…You’ve got seven episodes in different parts! It’s a wild, wild, wild ride, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was badass and amazing.
Glamour: Speaking of film, your documentary "13th" (releasing on Netflix this week), just opened the New York Film Festival — the first nonfiction film to open the festival in 50 years — and received a standing ovation.
Ava: Most of us think prison is a place where bad people go — which is what I thought for a long time — until you really start to look inside the system and you see, this is not right. We’re living based on laws and ideas that we, as a society, embraced back in the days of slavery. By the end of the documentary, you really understand what prison is, what the prison industrial complex is, where this whole Black Lives Matter movement comes from, the history of resistance, the history of how politicians have used criminality over the decades for a particular political gain. It’s to give people an understanding of it so they can make their own decisions about how they want to be in the world.
Glamour: You’ve been shattering glass ceilings your whole career. What gives you the confidence and strength to go after what you want and succeed?
Ava: Because my mom always told me that I could. From a very early age, I felt comfortable leading. I did not have any problem with speaking up because my mother, my family, my grandmother, my aunt — I grew up in a family dominated by women — always encouraged me to do so. And if a girl is unafraid, then the world is her oyster.
Glamour: What's the best piece of advice you've ever given?
Ava: I’ve passed along some advice that Oprah gave to me: When something bad is happening, it’s not happening to you; it's happening for you.
Glamour: Speaking of Oprah, what’s it like to have her as a partner and co-executive producer of "Queen Sugar"?
Ava: It's very nourishing and collaborative — kind of the true essence of what one would want an artistic collaboration to be.
Glamour: What’s one thing people don’t know about you?
Ava: I’m a huge U2 fan. I've been to 26 U2 concerts over my lifetime so far.
Glamour: What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
Ava: I'm a huge "Dirty Dancing" fan. I feel like I should be reading Shakespeare, but I’m watching Baby not be in a corner.
Glamour: What’s your biggest fear?
Ava: Running out of ideas.
Glamour: What ritual do you do before starting a big directing project?
Ava: I’m not the most athletic gal, but because making a movie is very physical, I slow down on the Krispy Kreme and Ice Blendeds. I start to get leaner and more focused—like I’m going into a boxing match — because I’m about to really try to put this idea on its feet.
Glamour: Something you always carry with you on set.
Ava: Altoids. Not for me, for the person I'm talking to.
Glamour: Who is your hero?
Ava: My parents. They’ve helped me be who I am.
Glamour: Favorite thing to do when you’re not working?
Ava: When’s that?!
Watch DuVernay's exclusive MAKERS story in the video player above.
More From Glamour:
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• Ava DuVernay Has Some Surprising Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers
Photo Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage