The Many Milestones of Ava DuVernay

A life in firsts.
Publish date:
Social count:
A life in firsts.

Ava DuVernay on the set of Queen Sugar.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in our November/December 2016 print issue as a sidebar to “Cinematic Justice: The PS Interview With Ava DuVernay.”


Born in Long Beach, DuVernay grows up about 15 miles south of Hollywood. West Side Story is the first time she remembers seeing a Latina actress (Rita Moreno) on screen.


Graduates from St. Joseph High School, an exclusive all-girls Catholic school. Spends her weekends cruising her South Central neighborhood with friends at a time of heightened racial tension.


Lands an internship at CBS Evening News. The big story at the time was O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. DuVernay was assigned to sit outside a juror’s house and go through the garbage.


Graduates from the University of California–Los Angeles with a joint major in English and African-American studies. In her first job as a junior publicist at 20th Century Fox, works on films made primarily by white people.


Forms her own agency marketing films to, by, and about people of color, among them Lumumba, Dreamgirls, and Invictus.


Releases her first short film, Saturday Night Life, focused on a struggling single mother whose trip to a 99-cent-store turns unexpectedly uplifting.


Returns to a college hangout, the Good Life Café, to make the hip-hop documentary This Is the Life. Turns down distribution offers and makes her own DVDs for 75 cents each, selling them for $19.99.


Releases her first feature film, I Will Follow (named for the U2 song), about a young woman who stops working to care for her dying aunt, a subject inspired by DuVernay’s own aunt Denise.


Working with her cast.


Founds a cooperative film-distribution business, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, to close the gap in independent distribution for filmmakers of color.


Becomes the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival Directing Award for Middle of Nowhere, a film about a woman of color who delays medical school while her husband serves time.


Is the first female black director to have a film (Selma) nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but isn’t nominated for Best Director, a decision that disappointed many.


Is celebrated by toy-maker Mattel with the holiday release of a special edition Ava DuVernay Barbie, which sells out within minutes.


Makes a point of hiring only women to direct the first 13 episodes of the OWN Network drama Queen Sugar, which is picked up for a second season before it even premieres.


Becomes the first woman of color to direct a live-action movie with a production budget over $100 million, the forthcoming feature A Wrinkle in Time.