Ava DuVernay on Walking Into a Room 'Like a White Man'

The record-breaking director breaks down the uphill climb facing black women in the entertainment industry.
July 6, 2017, 4:46pm
Photo by Amanda Edwards via Getty Images

As a black woman in the entertainment industry, I have attended speech after presentation after lecture about how to break into the business while still wearing my skin. The information is always about the same: submit your best work, be on time (which actually means early), lean in—but be measured in how much and when you do so. But every artist knows getting in is the easy part; staying relevant and financially solvent are the bigger hurdles for creatives. Director Patty Jenkins' career rollercoaster between the critically-acclaimed Monster and the record-breaking Wonder Woman is enough to make any woman second-guess a career anywhere near Los Angeles.


But in 2013—after she became the first black woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival but before the worldwide success of Selma—Ava DuVernay delivered a keynote address at the Film Independent Forum. In "Coat of Desperation," her clear dictation to stop asking to be in the industry and simply start being in the industry inspired me to make the cross-country move to pursue my career. With an ethereal wisdom and auntie assuredness, DuVernay socially broadcast the paths in the industry for women of color.

Read more: Ava DuVernay Is the First Woman of Color to Direct a $100 Million Film

Now at the top of her field, DuVernay spoke at the BET Guest Lecture Series last week about pursuing projects that "change the game" and how to make work that's "part of the solution." There is a real thirst amongst women of color to learn from people who look like us, so I knew my attendance was mandatory. I left feeling quenched and inspired by DuVernay to tackle my next project.

On the key to unlocking success:

"The challenge with that is saying on my scale. If you want to tell stories you just got to tell your story. It doesn't have anything to do with me. Doesn't have anything to do with scale or the platform. It's the passion for doing it," DuVernay said. "When I first started doing this I was making films for $10,000 or whatever I could put together. It didn't matter because I had to tell that story. There's a path to this, to what I'm doing now and I enjoyed every step. That's the challenge I see now. I don't see people embracing the early steps with pure joy. There's beauty in that, and there's fun in that and there's a lot to learn in that. The walk is a beautiful thing."

On learning to "walk in there like a white man does":

Discussing her process for pitching A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay said, "The reason I felt confident about walking into Disney and kind of negotiating how I wanted to make this big ol' movie is because I knew them. I was able to walk in there like a white man does."

She clarified: "I always walk into any place as the black woman and queen my mother taught me to be. But the freedom and the accomplishment that white men have is because the industry is built for them. The world is built for them. Political systems are built to center them."

On overcoming cultural gaps and implicit bias:

"When I went to Disney, which is my current studio, they were trying to court me to A Wrinkle in Time. I knew the players in this room," DuVernay explained. "My point was, so often we walk into these rooms and it doesn't matter if you're Issa [Rae] or Tracee [Ellis Ross]. We walk into these rooms and we can't just talk about our creativity or our ideas. We have to get through all the cultural baggage first. They look us up and down. And I look them up and down. And I'm feeling some kind of way and they're feeling some kind of way. And I can't just get to what my white male counterparts get to do. They don't have any of that baggage or fear. They just sit down and tell their story. So, in that particular room, for the first time, I was able to walk in and tell my story because I knew the executives sitting in there."

She continued, "I'm not going to same temples and synagogues they go to. My kids don't go to school with their kids. My dad doesn't know his dad. This uphill climb means more preparation for black folks at the beginning of their careers."

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

On knowing your purpose:

"I don't understand wanting to be at the party by yourself. I don't like being the only black person in the room, at the photo shoot or the meeting. If they're not going to make it happen—and they're not—and I have a way of making it happen, then why not?"

"Oprah always says, 'There's no greater purpose than stepping into your calling.' I think my calling is telling our stories, specifically the stories of black women."