Ava DuVernay says Oprah taught her the best lesson on handling criticism

Ava DuVernay attends the Los Angeles Premiere Of Netflix's "Colin In Black And White" at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on October 28, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Jon Kopaloff | FilmMagic | Getty Images

Ava DuVernay is a powerhouse filmmaker. Her work includes directing "Selma," "13th," "A Wrinkle in Time," and "When They See Us," and she's won numerous Emmy, BAFTA, NAACP Image and Peabody awards and earned an Academy Award nomination. She's currently promoting "Colin in Black & White," a Netflix series she produced and co-created with the civil rights activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. 

Despite her many successes, DuVernay always had a hard time taking criticism, she told The Cut in its latest "How I Get It Done" segment. But she got some pretty good advice from none other than Oprah Winfrey to conquer it:

"I was taking a movie review really hard," DuVernay told The Cut, "and [Oprah] said, 'Do you know them? Do you know this person?' I said no, and she was like, 'So why do you care so much?'"

DuVernay continued: "That really helped me understand that I was putting my sense of achievement, my sense of personhood, in someone else's hands. I had to do a lot of work to untangle that for myself. I had to figure out why I was looking outside myself to feel good. It takes time. It's an ongoing process. No, one's 100% there — well, I won't say no one is. Oprah is. But it takes practice, and I've gotten a lot better at it."

Now, DuVernay says she doesn't take the time to read or listen to criticism from people whose opinions don't actually have any bearing on her or her work: "It gets to a point where I don't even see it anymore because it doesn't matter to me."

DuVernay said surrounding herself with supporters has become part of how she redefined self-care. While she used to consider self-care as acts of relaxation, like getting a massage, a friend helped her realize that it comes down to caring for yourself each day, including who you allow to be around you.

"When I think of it that way, I am great at self-care. I've been able to hand-pick everyone who works with me and everyone who I work with — what a fortunate position," she told The Cut.

When asked about what success means to her, DuVernay said she strives for longevity, something she hasn't seen a Black woman director achieve before. She pointed out that Hollywood has long praised and supported the works of older white, male filmmakers, including Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese, but that women filmmakers are often not granted "the privilege of being able to make work as you grow older."

DuVernay still plans to be at the helm as a "senior citizen making films my way, with my vision, telling my stories .... That's my goal. I hope that the stories and the way that I make things changes as I change."

Notably, DuVernay, 49, started her career in journalism and didn't pick up a camera until age 32. Prior to her career change, she moved from news to film marketing and publicity, and then became more interested in documentary storytelling. In 2010, she created her first feature film, "I Will Follow," and realized she could tell the stories not being told. She shot the film in 11 days on a $50,000 budget, the Washington Post reports.

"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 told Refinery29 in 2018. "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."

These days, as the filmmaker has grown the scope of her work, she said she still has a habit of procrastinating, especially while writing, though she considers it a "beautiful part of the process."

Her distraction of choice? Zillow.

"I spend about an hour a day, in different little one-minute increments, on Zillow," DuVernay told The Cut. "If someone tracked my phone, they would see: Wow, she's on Zillow. I'm not looking for anything. I'm just like, Hey, I want to see what people are doing in Nebraska. Let me find a Zip code and get in their house. That's literally my pastime. It's ridiculous."

Check out:

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

Meet the 19-year-old filmmaker who made history at Tribeca and now works with Ava DuVernay

Oprah Winfrey: The 7 books that ‘help me through’ stressful times like these

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Meet the 19-year-old director who made history at Tribeca Film Festival 2019
Meet the 19-year-old director who made history at Tribeca Film Festival 2019