Ava DuVernay with members of the Chin and Salim families of Home Sweet Home
Kaci Walfall (foreground) on the move in Naomi with Daniel Puig, Camila Moreno and Will Meyers
Jon M. Chu on One Perfect Shot
DuVernay directing Rosario Dawson on DMZ
Xosha Roquemore and Alano Miller in Cherish the Day
Rutina Wesley, Kofi Siriboe and Dawn-Lyen Gardner in Queen Sugar
Don't even think about outpacing Ava DuVernay. The number and range of projects that she has created, developed, produced and directed with her aptly named company, ARRAY, is astonishing. This calendar year alone, DuVernay is presiding over seven television series — covering as many genres — that can be seen on a variety of networks and streamers.
And, she'll be the first to admit, she tends to preside over her projects very closely. The award-winning multihyphenate (she has two Emmy wins and six nominations and one Oscar nom, among many other honors) recently took a two-month writing hiatus that required a year of advance planning (see "Breaking Away" at the end of this article). But DuVernay's attention to detail is understandable — she created or adapted all but one of these series, and each reflects a different facet of her philosophy. In March, she sat in one place long enough to discuss how each project resonates with her.
HOME SWEET HOME
Created for television by Ava DuVernay (also executive producer)
NBC/Peacock/Warner Bros. Unscripted Television/ARRAY Filmworks
DuVernay's first foray into unscripted programming, Home Sweet Home takes two families with very different lifestyles and sends each to live in the other's home. As each group explores their new space and deciphers what life is like for the people who live there, they challenge their own assumptions and attitudes. After a week, the two families meet, and the relationships grow from there.
Speaking via Zoom from her Los Angeles home, DuVernay notes that if it weren't for the pandemic, she would never have come up with the idea for the show. "It really reflected a shift in me toward an appreciation of home. Since I decided to become a fulltime filmmaker after I won Sundance in 2012 [for directing her second feature, Middle of Nowhere], I had been on the road."
Until then, her house had been more crash pad than home. "Having to be in one place, to be focused on building and cultivating and always being home, was something that might sound normal for most people, but I hadn't really done that for the last almost ten years. I was taking walks in my neighborhood — I never do that — looking in people's windows. I was really in a different way of being during the pandemic. The idea came from that: what are other people experiencing right now? What does it look like inside other folks' homes?"
Created for television by Ava DuVernay and Jill Blankenship
Executive producers: Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Jill Blankenship
The CW/Warner Bros. Television/ARRAY Filmworks
Based on the comic by Brian Michael Bendis and David F. Walker, art by Jamal Campbell
It was the look that hooked her. DuVernay wanted to work with DC Comics but didn't have a project in mind, until an early edition of a comic book came across her desk. The art for Naomi immediately captured her imagination. "This was a Black teenage girl who would eventually go on to possess the same powers as Superman," she explains. "I thought, Whoa, this is incredible, I've gotta get in on that."
She told book creators Bendis and Walker: "'I've been a Black teenage girl, so her story is going to look slightly different, but the core of her adventure will be the same.' They handed it over and trusted me, and I brought in Jill Blankenship," with whom she also wrote the pilot.
"When you meet Naomi, she doesn't have powers. She's discovering there's something about her," other than being a very smart kid who can skateboard like a boss. DuVernay was attracted to the underlying theme of a person tapping into a power they may not even know they possess.
She modeled Naomi after an unlikely film hero of her own: Ferris Bueller. "I always marveled at that character — he's a fully confident, fully formed white male archetype, and everybody loves him." She gave Naomi that confidence and admiration, "but she's got a secret — she can fly."
ONE PERFECT SHOT
Created for television by Ava DuVernay
Executive producers: Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Bruce Robertson
Based on the Twitter account by Neil Miller
HBO Max/Warner Horizon Unscripted Television/ARRAY Filmworks
If Naomi is the show DuVernay wishes she could have watched as a kid, One Perfect Shot is the one she's eager to see now. "It tapped into the filmmaker geek in me, the person who loves the art and magic of films in progress, and loves to hear people talk about it," she explains, adding that she used to love the commentary option on DVDs. "I miss hearing directors talk about why and how they made something."
A follower of Neil Miller's Twitter account, One Perfect Shot, she "took that idea and married it to my affection for DVD commentaries, bringing that to life visually."
The series focuses on one director per episode, first delving into their background before having them recreate one perfect shot from a scene in one of their films. Thanks to CGI, the director is literally immersed in the shot, walking around the set and pointing out various elements. Her subjects include friends and colleagues Kasi Lemmons, Malcolm D. Lee, Patty Jenkins, Jon M. Chu and Michael Mann, as well as Aaron Sorkin, whom she hadn't met previously.
"With someone else making that show, it would have been all white guys, and the women and people of color would have been the tokens. Here, they're the tokens — 'Oh, we need two white guys!'"
Working with Mann held particular significance for DuVernay; she was a publicist on his 2004 film Collateral when she first had the idea to direct. Mann was one of the first directors to use digital cameras, which could help bring a budget within the reach of an independent filmmaker.
The shoot was in East Los Angeles, "not far from where I grew up, in a community of color," she notes. "And it was Tom Cruise, but it was also Jada Pinkett and Jamie Foxx, and so I saw this film being done with Black and Brown people. There's something about the alchemy of all of that; I thought, I want to do what he's doing. So being able to work with him on this episode of the show was really special."
COLIN IN BLACK AND WHITE
Created for television by Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick
Executive producers: Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Starrbury, Sarah Perlman Bremner
Based on the unusual upbringing of activist and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, interspersed with commentary from Kaepernick and historical documentary elements, the limited series Colin in Black and White is part of the continuum of DuVernay's projects When They See Us, 13TH and Selma, "as it relates to race and caste and class," she says.
"In a time when folks are trying to take books out of schools — and to make it so that certain parts of our history aren't taught and certain perspectives are silenced — I feel like that part of my work is more heightened in my own mind, in terms of making sure that we find new ways to get information and history out there. It was a different form of storytelling than I'd seen practiced in that half-hour kind of 'celeb bio' format, so we were playing with a lot of ideas."
Kaepernick had suggested that he narrate the action; DuVernay took it to the next level by putting him on camera. "Then the idea ballooned: what can he be saying other than just telling us what we've just seen? Let's have him give context to what his younger character is experiencing. That allowed us to break out, to do a mix of documentary, of actual vignettes that happen in the gallery that he's in." The series breaks out of several traditional molds at the same time, while hewing to its core concepts.
Created for television by Roberto Patino
Executive producers: Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Roberto Patino; Ernest Dickerson (episodes 102–104)
Based on the graphic novel by Brian Wood, art by Wood and Riccardo Burchielli
HBO Max/Warner Bros. Television/ARRAY Filmworks
Set in the dystopic demilitarized zone of Manhattan after a modern civil war, DMZ is the only show of this current group that DuVernay didn't create. "The graphic novel centers on a white male character who's doing fantastic things to save the day," she says. "Roberto Patino's point of view was kind of like [writer-director] Ryan Coogler's approach with Creed: 'I'll take a minor character from Rocky, Apollo Creed, and center the story around him.' Roberto takes this character named Alma, or Z, who's a side character in the book, and centers the world all around her, which I thought was pretty brilliant."
She worked with Patino (Westworld, Sons of Anarchy) to develop the project, and, as is often her way, directed the first episode. "It's a really cool piece that has something to say about war, about the things we do to each other, and it really challenges the idea that societies have to be patriarchies, because it explores the idea of what our culture would look like if it was a matriarchy. So it had some really interesting things in it that I wanted to play with."
CHERISH THE DAY
Created for television by Ava DuVernay
Executive producers: Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, Oprah Winfrey; Tanya Hamilton (Season 1)
OWN/Warner Bros. Television/ARRAY Filmworks
DuVernay is a sucker for a good love story. And she's probably seen them all. At least all of one type. "I've seen white love in every iteration that it can be seen — every time, every place, with every kind of white man, with every kind of white woman — all my life. I love them. I love love stories."
But Black love hasn't been explored onscreen with equal fervor, "so I want to contribute to that. That's why Cherish the Day is an anthology. Hopefully we get a few seasons to show different couples, different experiences, different personality types, different meet-cutes."
The first season followed a new couple (Xosha Roquemore and Alano Miller) in Los Angeles; the sophomore season debuts this fall and is set in New Orleans, starring Henry Simmons and Joy Bryant as two people with a shared past. "There's nothing about class, culture, race, anything — it's just love for the sake of it."
Created for television by Ava DuVernay
Executive producers: Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes
Based on the book by Natalie Baszile
OWN/Warner Bros. Television/ARRAY Filmworks
DuVernay's first series, Queen Sugar, will return for its seventh and final season this fall, and she couldn't be prouder of its run.
"I had the honor of being able to tell this story for seven seasons, really uninhibited and unencumbered. Both the studio and the network, OWN and Warner Bros., gave me full rein on my first show to do whatever I wanted. There were no mandates, no disagreements about story, about the way we wanted to run the production, about the way we shot. Everything was, 'Hey, you stay within your budget, do what you want,' and that is a beautiful gift, and very rare."
While she had very definite ideas about the pace, tone and look of the show, which is set in Louisiana, she remembers feeling unsure about whether it would connect with viewers. "There was no driving mystery, there was no action, there were no twists, there were no genre elements that I had seen at the time in other one-hour dramas with Black folks. It was just Black people living their lives in a very small town. And while I'd seen that many times with white characters, would it be accepted by different audiences?"
The plot ventured into new areas as well: "tackling characters like Ralph Angel [Kofi Siriboe], who's the formerly incarcerated leading man, and how that looks, and what life after that is like." Even the cinematography looked unlike other shows of its time. "That was borrowed from the independent film world, which is where I came from."
The response not only assuaged her concern, it surprises her at every turn. DuVernay notes she can't walk through an airport without someone coming up to talk to her about Ralph Angel. A Korean woman in her sixties recently stopped her in a neighborhood grocery to tell her how much she loves Aunt Vi (Tina Lifford). As for Vi's devoted husband, Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey), the show's unexpected sex symbol, "He really can't go anywhere where there's Black women around," DuVernay says.
The wide range of positive responses has quieted any apprehensions she had about viewers embracing the show. "I feel it's a triumph in terms of what I set out to do," she says. "I took what I learned from it into all the other shows."
Each DuVernay series connects with viewers in its own way; taken as a whole, they reflect larger themes of understanding and belonging that permeate all of her work. Those themes are reflected in Colin in Black and White as Kaepernick, caught between two races, shows the struggle to find where he fits, both in his world and historically. They're in Home Sweet Home, where two distinct families gently reconcile their differences; in DMZ, where Z tries to forge a better world; in One Perfect Shot, where a range of directors is given an equal platform; in Cherish the Day, where Black love is celebrated and elevated. And in Naomi, in which a Black girl emerges as a natural (okay, supernatural) leader.
"And if you can get that in the culture, then to have a Supreme Court justice who's a Black woman doesn't become a debate, because everyone has grown up watching Black women lead in film and on TV," DuVernay says. "So that's all part of what we think about when we're making things."
How does Ava DuVernay finish a script in two months while producing more than half a dozen shows? By getting away — with a lot of planning.
Early this year, DuVernay stopped working on all of her shows, stepped back from ARRAY and went to an undisclosed location for two months so she could focus on adapting the acclaimed book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson into a feature that she will direct and produce for Netflix.
While away, she watched a movie every night after writing, "just to activate my imagination, see what other storytellers were doing," she says. "In two months, I probably watched forty-five films." But she didn't watch any other television or listen to the radio, in an effort to "be present and mindful, and close out everything else."
DuVernay did the same thing when writing the script for her 2014 film Selma, "but I had a lot less going on, so I didn't have as much to put on hold," she notes. And she tried a hiatus a year ago, but lasted only two weeks before the demands of various shows called her back.
"I was disappointed in myself," she says. "It was a low time, because I had so much work and I couldn't do the writing that I had set out to do. So I spent the year, with my colleagues helping me, structuring to get the right people in place so I could do less day-to-day work on all the shows. That I was able to step away and focus on this other script is a testament to my colleagues who stepped up while I was away. And it showed me that I can start to loosen the reins a little bit."
The writer-producer-director always had the final say on every detail, no matter how small. She traces that compulsion to early in her career, when she felt the acute pressure to make sure everything was perfect, "because I'm not going to get second chances — I have to have a hand in every script, every costume decision, the final edit....
"Now I'm at a point, having had fourteen or so shows, that I can work closely with the right people, give very strong direction and get them started. It's kind of like teaching a kid to ride a bike — you take off the training wheels, push them a little bit, run with them and let them go. Though you have to be there to catch them on the other side and help them if they fall.
"That's what this hiatus helped me see," she says. "If you keep holding the bike, they're never going to learn how to ride, and I'm never going to learn to watch them go. So yes, I got my script down, but I also learned a lot about myself. I can let go of a bit of the day-to-day control." She laughs. "It's a lesson that took me only a decade to learn." —L.R.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2022, under the title, "A Higher Standard."
Read more about Ava DuVernay in the Online Original, On Your Radar: Ava DuVernay Highlights Aamina Gant.