The Power of the Lens: Black Women as Visual Griots of the 21st Century
Ava DuVernay takes the stage at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Theatre. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State L.A.)
On Wednesday, May 27th, the mic sure sounded nice in the Luckman Theater on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. A talented group of wordologists took to the mic to open the 8th Annual Forum of the Pan African Studies (PAS) Department. Preceding the appearance of the woman of the hour, director and writer Ava DuVernay, the near capacity crowd showed tremendous appreciation for poets Simeon Carson, and Brittany Hampton, both PAS majors, and UCLA graduate student/PAS alumna, Funmilola Fagbamila, and the sensational Rhythm of the Village drummers, led by Professor Onochie Chukwurah, a member of the PAS faculty.
Dr. Melina Abdullah, the esteemed chair and professor of the second oldest Pan-African Studies Department in the nation reminded the audience that Pan African Studies is much more than an exercise in academia; it is a link to broader life purposes such as the Black Lives Matter movement. “There is no such thing as a Messiah who will come down and lead us. We are all a part of the struggle that continues today,” Abdullah said. And then it was time for the young woman from Compton, a home girl who made it, and returned as the conquering hero to a generation of students who sought her wisdom on how to accomplish the impossible and Ava DuVernay did not disappoint.
Led by Professor Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar, the discussant for the evening and a filmmaker in her own right who introduced the accomplished and ground breaking DuVernay, a UCLA graduate, the first African American woman to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director (SELMA), and the first African American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival dramatic directing award. But this night it was Ava from Compton that elicited cheers from the adoring students and she reciprocated that love by asking that the houselights be raised so she could look into their faces.
DuVernay was at home (albeit a little tired) the minute she took the stage. She warned the audience that she had been up since 5am having finished a 12-hour stint on twitter along with other celebrities, garnering support for AFFIRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), a movement dedicated to getting black cinema into movie houses. She immediately downplayed the accolades accorded to her and paid homage to her fellow Sister-directors that cleared the path for her: Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou & Black Nativity), Amma Asante (Belle), and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball/Beyond the Lights) to name a few. “I feel a deep sense of respect for those who have gone before me,” DuVernay said.
DuVernay has taken Hollywood by storm, carving an unconventional path to the director’s chair. At the age of 27, she established her own public relations agency and worked in the film industry as a publicist for many years while laying the foundation for what would become her directing career. In 2004, on the set of the movie Collateral, DuVernay remembered watching Michael Mann direct and thinking “I have stories. I could do that.” “I began to invest in myself, from check to check, to make the stories I wanted to tell.” DuVernay described her first film; a documentary entitled, This Is The Life (2008), a love letter to the LA Hip-Hop scene in Leimert Park. “My friends and I would hang out at this health food store called The Good Life. There was a small stage and Thursdays was open mic night. There were amazing performances from poets/MC’s, some of the best lyricists on the planet that I was allowed to capture on film.”
That film was followed by I Will Follow (2010), My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop (2010), TV One Night Only: Live from the Essence Music Festival (2010), and the Middle of Nowhere (2012), a seminal meeting that would bring DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo together for the first time and one that would lead to the making of the 2014 Academy Award nominated film, SELMA.
DuVernay in conversation with Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar, a Cal State L.A. professor of Pan-African Studies. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State L.A.)
When asked why did she make SELMA, DuVernay said she thought, “Dr. King and his friends deserved to be brought to life.” “My goal wasn’t to prove that he [King] wasn’t an angel but to show the good, the bad, and the ugly and let the audience decide.” DuVernay revealed that she was the seventh director tapped to direct SELMA. A few of the SELMA scripts wanted to focus on the salacious parts of King’s history, but I wanted to explore his extra curricula activities in the context of his marriage. How did Coretta feel?” “If you are a truth teller, then women are a major part of the story”, DuVernay said.
“When I decide on a subject for my films, I ask if this “character has a life, is it a complex character, does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end?” Although she did not receive screen-writing credit for SELMA, DuVernay did rewrite the script, crafting the story she wanted to tell. “My father is from Lowndes County and my family lives in Alabama so I didn’t have to research what kind of place it was. The people I love most in the world live in that part of the country.”
When asked how she navigates being a scholar, an activist, and an artist, DuVernay quickly said, “It’s all one. Same impulses…different angles.” She encouraged the future filmmakers to make the films they want to make. “I make films for myself because when you make a film for the audience, you can betray what you think, you become more concerned with what others think or like.” For a long time, DuVernay says that she was “hung-up on her lack of training that she didn’t go to film school.” In a moment that sounds like a scene from a Hollywood story, DuVernay found herself sitting at the Academy Awards and realized the truth to one of her favorite sayings, “when you’re in your lane, there is no traffic.”
And now, DuVernay, the dreamer from Compton has her own Barbie Doll and is rumored to have a big-budget film coming up on her director’s plate. A rumor that she would neither confirm or deny that Marvel is courting her to direct one of its upcoming superhero films, the Black Panther or Captain Marvel. “Most people would say do not spend your own money on a film but I disagree. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t invest in myself. I would have never begun.” So I say to each of you – “don’t wait for the perfect time, just do it…just begin.”