How the director is making Hollywood better and more diverse, both in front and behind the camera.
Ava DuVernay is so good at giving motivational quotes she could start a side hustle printing them on T-shirts.
Not that the director has time to do that, between the demands of her self-built film company working on film, television, documentaries and more. But when DuVernay says something like “I always used to say I’m not going to knock on closed doors – I’m going to make my own door,” you have no choice but to stop and listen.
In a new interview in The Hollywood Reporter, the filmmaker has spoken about the changes that she has made on her film sets and in her production company to ensure that working on a DuVernay production is an experience unlike anything in Hollywood.
First, she built a film company in her own name using the money she earned from directing Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. Then she went about hiring almost exclusively women and people of colour. She received the greenlight for a number of inclusive, groundbreaking projects that tell the stories of women and people of colour.
And now she’s making working on a DuVernay project an experience unlike any other in Hollywood. On the set of her new Netflix series When They See Us, an episodic miniseries that delves deep into the wrongful conviction of five teenage boys of the rape of a jogger in Central Park in the late 80s, DuVernay drafted in the services of a trauma counsellor. This was so that any actor involved in traumatic scenes, including scenes of violence, interrogation and scenes set in courtrooms and prisons, could receive counselling into the impact of those moments.
“With [the documentary] 13th I was looking through a thousand hours of racist, violent footage with my editor Spencer Averick, and we felt the effects,” DuVernay said. “I didn’t want anyone to feel diminished by their experience working on the material. It’s just part of my maturing as a person, as a filmmaker, to know that if I’m going to be making these kinds of stories that I have to create safe spaces.”
Like intimacy coordinators, who are charged with ensuring that sex scenes are conducted on set in ways that do not physically or mentally harm the actors involved, the introduction of trauma counsellors is a sign that Hollywood is changing from the top down, thanks to filmmakers like DuVernay.
Several actors on When They See Us availed themselves of the trauma counsellor. That included Michael K Williams, who stars as the father of one of the accused boys. “It’s the fear of being a young black teen on the streets of New York City,” Williams told The Hollywood Reporter. “Fearing that I’m going to get snatched up, and the impact that it had on some of my bad decision-making as a young adult. A lot of those personal things came up.”
It’s not just trauma counsellors, though. DuVernay is also changing the industry by making inclusion riders an effortless part of her company. On every season of her television show Queen Sugar DuVernay has hired only female directors.
Other studios and production companies are starting to follow in DuVernay’s footsteps and hire more women and people of colour in key roles behind the camera. The Time’s Up challenge to encourage Hollywood to work with more female directors has gained momentum.
But DuVernay says: “it’s not yet a movement. It’s a trend. And time will tell if it will mature into an era of true systematic change.”
Thanks to DuVernay, it just might.