Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: one of Hollywood’s most powerful figures blazes a new trail.
What’s the next step for a filmmaker who directs an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture? Sometimes it’s another Best Picture nominee. Sometimes it’s a movie that aspires to such heights but falls short. Sometimes it’s years of silence.
Ava DuVernay has taken a different path in the two years since she became the first black female director of a Best Picture nominee. Last year, she took meetings with Marvel about directing the studio’s first movie centered around a black superhero; she declined, citing creative differences, and the job eventually fell to her friend Ryan Coogler. She directed an Apple Music commercial starring Taraji P. Henson, Mary J. Blige and Kerry Washington that set the Internet ablaze. But 2016 was the year when DuVernay really started to flex.
First, it was revealed in February that she’s directing a big-budget adaptation of the classic children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time for Disney, marking the first time a black woman has directed a movie with a budget higher than $100 million. This movie will star Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Zach Galiafinakis, Andre Holland and a promising newcomer named Storm Reid in the lead role. It sounds amazing.
Her work with Winfrey isn’t limited to the big screen, though. September marked the premiere of Queen Sugar, a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network that DuVernay created and managed as executive producer. This show drew some of the network’s biggest ratings in years, and it boasted terrific performances — particularly from Tina Lifford, in a role originally written with Oprah in mind. But perhaps the show’s most notable accomplishment was DuVernay’s unconventional behind-the-scenes approach, detailed in this Vulture storyVulture story. She lifted competent, creative women into positions of power and launched them to stardom, because she had the platform and knew what to do with it. DuVernay and her collaborators seized the moment with some of the most affecting, visually stunning directorial choices on television, in service of a story about the trials and tribulations of black life in rural Louisiana. This is not normal — if only it could be.
DuVernay wasn’t done, though. Midway through the run of Queen Sugar on OWN, she premiered 13TH, a documentary about the racialized history of America’s mass incarceration epidemic, first at the New York Film Festival and then on Netflix a week later. I haven’t seen it yet, but many trusted critics suggest I should. Even without seeing it, I can appreciate what DuVernay is doing. She’s using the tools at her disposal — wisdom, curiosity, knowledge, technical expertise — to enlighten, engage and empower. She should be commended for that, and for doing fine work in the process.
P.S. Morten Tyldum (who made this!) and Bennett Miller earning Best Director nominations over DuVernay looks dumber by the minute, and it looked pretty dumb to start.