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Ava DuVernay on Hollywood diversity and superhero movies: It’s important that our heroes reflect more than one kind of person

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Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

With Selma, director Ava DuVernay tackled the story of Martin Luther King and the fight for voting rights amid the rampant racial injustice of the ‘60s. But many of the issues that acted as a catalyst for the civil-rights movement—including racist attitudes and injustice—remain in existance today, as evidenced by recent police actions in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, and North Charleston, S.C., and the outrage that followed. 

Hollywood is generally viewed as liberal, but as an institution, it lags far behind in hiring diverse filmmakers from various racial backgrounds that reflect the demographics of their audience. Across a number of studies, the numbers tell the same story: Minorities and women are woefully underrepresented, both in front and behind the camera.

In 2011, DuVernay founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), a grassroots distribution collective charged with expanding public exposure to projects from independent filmmakers of color, an effort that she’s self-funded with her “directing money.” DuVernay—who is set to direct CBS’ For Justice pilot, and who’s also been tapped for an upcoming OWN TV series titled Queen Sugar—spoke to EW about her ongoing goals with AFFRM, and reteaming with Selma star David Oyelowo on her next film.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you tell me about the construct of AFFRM? How does it actually work? 

AVA DuVERNAY: It’s a distribution collective of black arts organizations around the country. It started with black film festivals and over the past four years it’s grown to include historically black colleges with film schools, museums, film clubs, sororities, all kinds of black film advocates. Just like any distributor, we scout festivals, we’re speaking with agents and managers, we’re tracking filmmakers that are just getting started.

What is AFFRM specifically doing to meet your goal of increasing the number of diverse filmmakers in the entertainment industry? 

Before Selma, I had distributed all of my films through AFFRM. I had never had any studio interaction, so the visibility that I gave myself by making sure my films had an audience through AFFRM put me in a position to make Selma. I think it’s important that other filmmakers have that opportunity and that visibility. We talk about the end game; something like Oscars comes and everyone complains and rightly so—that there is not a more realistic mix of filmmakers, actors, the whole nine yards. But you have to think, “How do you get to that point?” and we can’t get to that point if filmmakers don’t have an opportunity to have their work seen. My piece of the puzzle connects films to the people that need to see it. When I was making my very first film, I Will Follow, for $50,000 from my savings, I couldn’t reconcile making a film where I didn’t know where it was going to end up. No studio was going to pick it up. So I had to think of the end game before I made the film. I have an entrepreneurial spirit, and that’s how AFFRM came to be.

What you do consider some of AFFRM’s successes?

The fact that we’ve distributed eight films with elbow grease and passion, really, without any money. I’ve financed this with my own money out of my pocket. It’s my directing money. When I direct, that money goes into AFFRM. It’s a very grassroots, community-based effort, but it gives black filmmakers an opportunity to have their work seen by audiences who will appreciate it. With our current membership drive, we’ll be able to fund two releases this year. Last year was our first year doing documentaries, and this year we’re also expanding to filmmakers of color beyond African-Americans. Then we want to expand to include women filmmakers.

What do you think are the most egregious misconceptions about diverse talent?

I think if you have to think diversity as math and as a problem to solve, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. That’s the way that a lot of folks look at it within the industry: “These are boxes I need to check.” Hollywood really sidesteps a deeper issue about the question of “Why shouldn’t all of us be reflected?” and “Why shouldn’t there be more than one voice?” Until you can answer those questions from a place that’s not about math, I think we’ll continue to have disingenuous attempts that don’t really work.

How did the reception to Selma reinforce the importance of AFFRM? And conversely, how did you work on Selma influence your efforts with AFFRM?

I feel like Selma was very separate from my work on AFFRM, because Selma was made within a complete different model. At AFFRM we really aren’t thinking of Hollywood and industry. It’s about community, storytelling, and the images, so I felt like I straddled two worlds during the time I was making Selma. I haven’t really connected those dots, which is probably something that I need to answer for myself. Look at you playing therapist! [Laughs] I have to figure that out.

In distributing films through AFFRM, are you noticing any trends in the kinds of stories or projects being told by diverse filmmakers? What does the next wave of films from diverse filmmakers look like?

We’re seeing a lot of short-form film. More documentaries than in the past. We see that people want to be rooted and real in their storytelling right now. But it will be interesting to see the films that come out of this time of unrest—the films we haven’t seen yet, that are being made, written, and shot right now. But in general, just like any new filmmakers, the stories start by being very personal. At Sundance, you see people working out personal stories in their first, second, or third films and that’s no different for filmmakers of color. We see folks telling stories about things they know.

It’s one thing to discuss the lack of diverse directors and storytellers, but surely part of the problem regarding representation is that there aren’t enough minorities in studio decision-making positions. How do we begin to fix that? How do we get minorities in position where they can greenlight a film?

You know, everyone has a different piece of the problem that they’re tackling as they try to fix this issue. My piece of the puzzle is really less about trying to “fix” Hollywood. That’s not at all my interest. My interest is the art of it, the creativity of it, and making sure someone like me, who might not have had the marketing, PR, and entrepreneurial background with which to start her own distribution collective, still has a place for their small jewel of a film to go. Our goal is to say there’s another system, another model, and it’s person to person, director to audience. That there’s a way to do this other than hoping for a three-picture deal from Harvey [Weinstein]. We’re saying that there are other paths.

With summer approaching, I can’t help but think there’s very specific type of movie that tends to do well during the season. I’m speaking of course about the superhero movie. Patty Jenkins is directing Wonder Woman—would you ever direct a superhero franchise film?

The right one, yeah. I mean, is it a huge goal that I’m thinking about and striving for? No. But if there was the right story, absolutely. I think it’s important that our heroes reflect more than one kind of person. That’s why Wonder Woman is exciting, and that’s why some of the other characters out there is exciting. If we could have a green man, we should be able to have…

A Puerto Rican-Dominican woman wearing a cape.

A Dominican woman wearing a cape! [Laughs] Exactly. 

Tell me about your next film. It will be set during Hurricane Katrina, right? 

Yes, it’s a film I’m working on right now with David Oyelowo and Participant Media. I’ve always been completely fascinated by, and curious about, and enraged regarding Hurricane Katrina and all its political, social, and cultural ramifications. There’s race and gender too—there’s so much going on in that story. So we’ve put together a story that has a love story, but it’s also a murder mystery that takes place within this context. I think it really illuminates all the nuances of that time. At least, we hope it does. We plan to begin shooting this time next year and then hopefully we’ll have a late 2016 release.

Do you have a title yet?

It’s the untitled DuVernay-Oyelowo-Katrina project. That’s what it says on a bunch of sheets around town. It’s the longest, whackest name. We need to do better!

What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the making of Selma which you’ll be exercising in the making of this next movie?

I’m just feeling in a good space as a filmmaker. I feel that my voice is getting stronger and stronger with each film, and that’s carrying over to life as well. I started AFFRM with my first film, I Will Follow, and I had ideas that I wanted to articulate. Maybe they weren’t as well articulated as I would have liked them to be, but I had a lot of theories back then about how this could work. Those ideas have changed. They’ve morphed and evolved, but I’m gaining strength through it. So that’s a good thing.