Once upon a time, your best shot at making it big as a filmmaker came if you had connections with the establishment. How times have changed. New formats and forums have made room for more players — and, for that matter, viewers. Among the biggest fans and advocates of this new landscape is award-winning writer, director (Selma, 2014), and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Her film-distribution collective, ARRAY, releases works by women and people of color and distributes them via theaters and streaming platforms. The connections she’s creating are providing opportunities for people around the world — empowering societal change along the way.
ACCESS: You worked in marketing and public relations before moving into filmmaking. What prompted the switch to film?
Ava Duvernay: I was a publicist for other filmmakers — I always was a film geek. I thought I would be in that job forever because I loved it so much. But being on those sets and watching filmmakers in action demystified the process for me. It also made me think: “If they can do it, I can do it.”
ACCESS: What gives film its unique ability to connect people across cultures?
A.D.: It allows you to transport yourself into the life of another person. Another era. A completely different place than where you are at the moment.
It’s not something we can touch, and yet it’s something that we ingest. It becomes a part of us, a part of our DNA. So I try to make films that actually stick to your ribs. Because the best films attach themselves to who we are in some way.
It’s important that stories not be told from one cultural landscape, age group or gender. When we released Selma in 2014, 107 people made the top 100 films. How many do you think were women? Two. One was me, and one was Angelina Jolie. And it gives me no satisfaction to say that — it’s tragic.
And when you talk about the number of black, Latino, Asian and Native American filmmakers, you’re getting into minus, minus, minus numbers. Is that the story that we want told, from one point of view and one kind of storyteller?
As forward-thinking people, we know the answer. It’s important to fight for justice behind the camera so we can have full-bodied, robust, diverse images that show that we all belong, that we all deserve to be included.
ACCESS: Your distribution collaborative, ARRAY, is dedicated to amplifying the films of women and people of color around the world. Why is that mission so vital right now?
A.D: We distribute films by people of color and women filmmakers. We distribute films that the studios won’t distribute. We find places to screen the films that cannot get into theaters. This is what I could do to change something I thought was wrong.
But what’s wrong in your neighborhood? What’s wrong in your school? What’s wrong in your state, in your city? When we see something wrong, what do we do? Do we try to fix it? Or do we continue to shuffle along with the status quo? In a larger context, ARRAY is standing up and saying, “I recognize this as something that is not right, and we’ll do what we can to right a wrong.”
ACCESS: ARRAY has already made a deal to provide content for Netflix. How are digital platforms changing the way audiences connect to film?
A.D.: You have a number of exciting companies that are allowing more voices to be heard. I think it’s fantastic. When you think of even five years ago, our behavior as people who love film and TV was completely different. If I wanted to see Scandal, I’d better be home at 9 p.m. and turn on ABC. Now I can binge it over the weekend. Or I’m going to save three episodes and watch with my girlfriends. Or I’m going to watch it in the middle of the night or early in the morning. That behavior is all because of digital.
It’s changing who we are, the way we behave. Who thought of binge-watching before? I’m just going to sit there and watch six hours of that? Really? Yes, I am. And I’m going to enjoy it. It’s changing our culture, and I think it’s an exciting time, both by means of access and by the way we enjoy. And so yes, we’re thrilled to be able to provide digital platforms with access to our films — and to receive access to our audiences through our films.