Ava DuVernay’s film and TV projects are helping to define this era’s Black arts renaissance and conscious pop culture. Now the famed director, screenwriter and entrepreneur has been honored by the Smithsonian’s eponymous magazine with its 2017 American Ingenuity Awards.
Dubbed “the Golden Globes of Intellect,” the annual awards celebrate individuals across eight wide-ranging categories ranging from Technology and Life Sciences to History and the Performing Arts.
DuVernay—the visionary behind Queen Sugar on OWN and Academy-award nominated films such as Selma and 13th —was named in the Visual Arts category. Fellow honorees (who were feted last week in the nation’s capital) include John Legend and Marley Dias, the 12-year-old creator of #1000BlackGirlBooks.
“This year’s American Ingenuity Awards honorees are revolutionizing American culture,” said Smithsonian Editor-in-Chief Michael Caruso. “Since their launch, the awards have always recognized the cutting edge of American achievement.”
The awards program, now in its sixth year, led to the creation of the inaugural Smithsonian Ingenuity Festival, which kicked off earlier this month and runs through December.
The festival unfolded at Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., and New York and featured conversations with leaders in the arts and sciences. Speakers ranged from Alfre Woodard, to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Quincy Jones who spoke on Nov. 30 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The day before, DuVernay was slated to sit down with actor David Oyelowo at the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theater. Instead, she appeared via Skype and apologized to the audience, explaining that the crew of her forthcoming Disney film, 'A Wrinkle in Time’ was still fine-tuning the big budget movie. “I just felt like I couldn’t leave them.”
Yet even without face-to-face proximity, the two friends and frequent artistic collaborators waxed eloquent during a wide-ranging conversation about African Americans in Hollywood, racism and global humanitarian issues, and a peek into their personal lives.
Each spoke candidly about the entertainment industry (at one point DuVernay asked, “Do you think of Hollywood as a jungle, David?”) to the joys and challenges of creating an artistic legacy.
“Whenever you see something and it was made with a beautiful intention, just know the artist making it had to fight through so many layers of business and notes and preconceived notions of what the piece should be, so they had to fight for that,” said DuVernay.
Citing the 2014 historical drama Selma as an example, they noted that before the Oscar contender for Best Picture was made, the project was dogged by a string of directors, budget concerns and more.
“When we were pitching the film, we were consistently told Black doesn’t travel, Blacks don’t want to see Black pain, whites don’t want to feel white guilt,” said Oyelowo, who deemed being cast as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as “a call of God.”
DuVernay thanked him for recommending that she direct. “Ava said `Give me a number and I will make that movie,’” Oyelowo said.
“It was because David advocated for me and made a space for me where I could be myself,” she added.
Still, both agreed that the business of filmmaking requires more than talent for one to survive and thrive.
“David and I connected because we were interested in how to sustain ourselves as artists,” said DuVernay, noting the “architecture of marketing and monetizing art because that’s what the business thrives on.”
To that end, the auteur has founded ARRAY, an independent film distribution and resource collective comprised of arts and advocacy organizations, volunteers and member donors. Launched in 2010, its mission involves amplifying independent films by women and people of color globally.
“Array was a defense mechanism, a survival technique,” said DuVernay. “I wanted to tell stories about black women and our lives. And so I created [this] with some really dynamic people to ensure that films I was making on a very small budget would be distributed.”
Besides “engaging audiences in various places around the country with the help of black arts advocates around the country” she described the venture as a survival technique. “If people didn’t want to make my film `It’s okay, I got my own.”
DuVernay, who previously owned a PR firm, didn’t pick up a camera until her early 30s. Today, she’s “really come to a place where so much of my work has been preoccupied by not being stopped. And building a place where I can thrive whether or not the power structure likes me or not.”
That's meant building a tribe of like-minded artists. She joked that “David and I have a deal with the words that `If I hear that you’ve done a project with a director other than me without me knowing, we’re gonna have a problem.’”
Both DuVernay and Oyelowo praised their mutual friend, Oprah, who played Oyelowo's mother in The Butler. They credited the media titan and visionary championing and financing art that celebrates the Black experience—especially critical in these times.
“If you look at images of Libya [where video has surfaced of African men being sold], it makes you question what’s history-- what’s past, what’s present,” said DuVernay. “But the through line in that is to tell the story and to fight for freedom.”
While their chat tackled serious topics, it was also sprinkled with humor. At one point DuVernay (whose face was magnified on a wide movie screen) asked if she was actually looking into the right camera; Oyelowo quipped that her director’s instincts were always at play, which evoked laughter from them and the crowd.
And when DuVernay was asked a written question by a fan about self-care and personal time amid all that is happening in the nation and world, she was philosophical.
“Ava the director and Ava the person are the same thing - I just live my life. I think of it as one grand movie of my life.”