*It is my privilege to introduce you to a director who I believe is on course to becoming a major creative force in Hollywood. Her name is Ava DuVernay, a talented writer/director responsible for the new BET Original Documentary “My Mic Sounds Nice,” and “The Essence Music Festival” special that is currently airing on TV One, as well as another Essence documentary that covers the festival’s hugely popular empowerment panels. Already an award-winning director for her previous documentary “This is the Life,” as well as the short film, “Saturday Night Life,” DuVernay is at the threshold of endless possibilities.
The Robertson Treatment recently caught up the busy director during a break from her first film project “I Will Follow,” to get the scoop on her growing career.
Robertson Treatment: The year is not even over and yet you’ve managed to direct 3 major projects for television, how did you do it?
Ava DuVernay: It’s been a hectic and happy 12 months, Gil! Last summer, I was licking my wounds after yet another studio rejection. As a sort of therapy, I began writing a simple script about a personal moment in my life. Writing that screenplay helped me realize that I couldn’t wait on other people to green light my dreams. I had to stop standing still and move forward. So on August 24 2009, on my birthday, I decided to give myself a real gift. I promised myself that I’d finance and direct the script by the end of the year. Two months later, I was in production on “I WILL FOLLOW” with a wonderful crew and cast led by the gorgeous Salli Richardson-Whitfield (Antwone Fisher, I Am Legend). I really believe that the do-it-yourself energy that helped me make “I WILL FOLLOW” blossomed into the offers for the other three films that came afterward. Sometimes, we need a spark, you know? Something to set it off. Sometimes one step in the right direction can lead you down a whole new path. So that’s what I think happened for me. I gambled on myself, made my first feature film and after that more directing work started to come my way. I guess, I claimed it, as they say? I was soon approached by BET to direct their first original music documentary, MY MIC SOUNDS NICE, and I was offered two films by Time Inc and Essence. I shot and edited them all between January 2010 and July 2010. It’s a good time and I feel very productive and happy.
RT: Please talk about the role of the female MC and the value of female contributions to hip-hop?
AD: Well, the role of the women in hip hop is vital to any intelligent conversation about the history of genre and the culture, in my opinion. And yet, the contributions of sisters are so often overlooked. We try to examine several different angles in our new documentary, MY MIC SOUNDS NICE, but it could really be a whole series of documentaries. There’s so much to explore about women in hip hop! From songs to music videos to the great work in the executive, academic and journalist ranks, women have been at the forefront of the art form and the culture since Day One.
RT: What can be done to increase the voice of women in hip-hop?
AD: I think the rise of women hip hop artists, specifically, will come from the women themselves. When women begin to feel empowered again, it will happen. And no one can empower you but yourself. So I hope our documentary shines a light on the amazing artistry of women emcees past and present. I hope it creates a spark for someone when the film debuts on BET on August 30. Some self-empowered woman out there who will pick up the mic for the first time, or again. Some savvy blogger who may begin writing about our issues within the culture. Some student who decides she wants to become a professor of hip hop like a great woman we interviewed from Morehouse College who is an actual Professor of Hip Hop Studies! Or someone who decides to start her own label or produce her own tracks. How do we increase our voice? We just decide and begin. Decide and begin.
RT: Why is the Essence Festival such a big event in Black America?
AD: Oh my goodness, because its FAB-ulous! I attended as a fan for many years with my mother, aunt and sisters. We always had a ball. It’s three days of awesome! So I was delighted when I was asked to direct the broadcast version. I mean, this is the largest African-American entertainment gathering in the nation! Scores and scores of beautiful brothers and sisters congregate to boogie! This year was particularly amazing with Mary, Alicia, Janet, Jill, Trey, LL, Earth Wind & Fire, I mean the list goes on. I hope we captured even a fraction of the fun in the two-hour version of the concert. It airs on TV One on August 28. And then in October, folks can tune into TV One again to catch our second doc about the inspiring Empowerment Seminars and gospel performances that Essence presents during the festival as well. It’s really wonderful stuff.
RT: How do you balance directing films in addition to running one of the most successful PR/Marketing firms in Hollywood?
AD: Well, I’ve slowed down on the publicity and marketing strategy a lot. Where I used to have upwards of 13-15 campaigns for studios and networks going at any given time, I now focus on high-level consultation for hand-picked projects. Right now, we’re working with our friends at Dreamworks and Disney on “THE HELP” with Viola Davis that is currently in production and opens next year. Plus, a few things for Warner Bros. The key for me right now is to choose things that I’m excited by and to just pace myself. That way I can make my own films and still help others market theirs. It’s a nice balance we have going on right now. It’s a good time.
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