How a career change at 32 led Ava DuVernay to become the first black woman to direct a $100 million film

Photo courtesy of Getty

Ava DuVernay is a director, producer and screenwriter whose highly-anticipated movie, "A Wrinkle in Time," has earned her recognition as the first African-American woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million.

But unlike many directors who got their start in the industry with film school and assistant positions, DuVernay's journey has been far from traditional.

"When people tell [my story], it's about race and gender — 'black woman director' — but my story's also really about age, because I didn't pick up a camera until I was 32," she tells Refinery29.

Instead of going to film school, DuVernay went to the University of California, Los Angeles and majored in English and African-American studies. Initially, she set her sights on a career in journalism, but an internship at CBS News quickly changed her trajectory.

"I was working on the O. J. Simpson case — a turning point in the way hard news integrated celebrity news," she tells Elle. "I wasn't interested in that. It's valuable to have those early experiences to learn what you don't want."

Photo courtesy of Getty

She went on to do film marketing and publicity and in 1999 she started her own publicity firm called The DuVernay Agency and worked with films like "Collateral," "Dream Girls," and "Invictus."

In 2008 she created a documentary called "This is Life" about the hip-hop scene at a local cafe, but tells The Washington Post that even then, filmmaking was not part of her plan. It wasn't until 2010 when she created her first feature film, "I Will Follow," that she realized she had stories that needed to be told. She shot the film in 11 days on a $50,000 budget.

As her interest in working behind the camera continued to grow, DuVernay started taking private directing classes and held onto her day job as a safety net.

"I kept my publicity job while making my first three films," she says. "I knew that as a black woman in this industry, I wouldn't have people knocking down my door to give me money for my projects, so I was happy to make them on the side while working my day job."

Now, 13 years after picking up her first camera, DuVernay has many people knocking on her door, including rapper and business mogul Jay-Z, who called on her to direct the video for the song, "Family Feud." Her work has also earned a Golden Globe nomination for her 2014 film "Selma," and an Oscar nomination for her 2016 documentary "13th."

Her latest film, "A Wrinkle in Time," is an adaption of Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 book about a young teenage girl who travels through space and time. For the film, DuVernay tapped Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and newcomer Storm Reid to help her bring the story to life.

"For me to pick up a camera as a black woman who did not go to film school — this is a testament to whatever path you're on right now is not necessarily the path you have to stay on," DuVernay tells Refinery29. "If you're on a path that's not the one that you want to be on, you can also pivot, and you can also move, and age doesn't make a difference, race, gender. It's about putting one step in front of another, about forward movement to where you wanna be."

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