Ava DuVernay's untraditional start to award-winning film career

The Academy Award-winning movie “Selma” made Ava DuVernay the first woman of color to direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. But DuVernay had an untraditional start to her film career. In fact, she “didn’t even think of it.” She had not gone to film school, and had started out as a publicist.

“How did you even think that was possible? Or did you think that was possible?” asked “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King.

“No, I didn’t dream of this,” DuVernay said. “I just wanted to make my own small films. I saw a way to be able to take a small amount of money that I had saved… to buy a house, and I made a film with it instead. My mother wasn’t very happy about it at the time but it worked out. She’s cool with it now.”

With a modest $50,000 budget, DuVernay released her debut narrative feature film, “I Will Follow,” in 2010. 

“I was going to distribute it myself, take the money that I made from that, put it into another film. I thought, ‘Maybe one day I’ll make a film for $1 million. That would be cool.’”

What’s really cool is that DuVernay did that and more, becoming the first woman of color to direct a film with a budget topping $100 million.

“Because there’s been so much talk about diversity in Hollywood… I think now sometimes people hear the word diversity and your eyes kind of glaze over like, ‘There they go talking about diversity again,’” King said.

“Right, right,” DuVernay agreed.

“But you said the word ‘inclusion…’” King said. “What does that mean exactly?”

“It’s all personal preference, so nothing’s wrong. But ‘diversity’ for me sounds medicinal,” DuVernay said. “It sounds like a prescription. And also, you know, I just really don’t know what that is. ‘Inclusion’ is an emotional word. We all know how it feels to be excluded and included. You don’t have to be a woman of person of color. And so if you expand that in a larger cultural context and you think of whole groups of people that have been excluded, then the idea of diversity… is just, look, a belonging. Everyone belongs here, everyone’s valuable -- starts to make more sense to me.”

Following the success of “Selma​,” DuVernay maintains a focus on racial inequality in her next film.  “13th” is a documentary that chronicles the inequities of mass incarceration. The film is set to open the New York Film Festival. 

Why did she choose to make a documentary focusing on the 13th Amendment?

“The amendment in our Constitution that the founders framed that says, ‘Slavery is abolished except if you’ve committed a crime.’ And so that clause there, that criminality clause has been exploited over the decades -- over the centuries at this point -- to favor one group of people in our society over another,” DuVernay explained. “Folks have made money off punishment, profit off punishment. This film deconstructs that loophole in the Constitution and really shows how it got us to where we are, which is a society that’s very fractured in terms of our race relations. Very disconnected.”

“People are very uncomfortable talking about race,” King said.

“Yeah,” DuVernay said.

“And you just… in this documentary, really blow it wide open,” King said.  .

“Well, you know, it examines this time that we’re in, this moment that we’re in where folks are declaring that black lives matter. And I believe that they do. And I’m a proponent of that and a part of that movement as well as I can be. But really helps one examine where that came from and tracks, you know, how do you have it that people in 2016 have to declare their own lives matter? Why do they feel like they don’t?” DuVernay said. “And so it tracks it and traces it, not just for this current generation but those people’s parents and those people’s parents and those people’s parents so that you’re really clear this is a generational trauma.”

DuVernay isn’t limiting her storytelling to the big screen. She teamed up with Oprah Winfrey​ and the OWN network to create her first television series, “Queen Sugar.” And she made sure women​ were a part of it.

“It was fantastic because I really -- my first episode of television was an opportunity that Shonda Rhimes​ gave me when I directed the episode of ‘Scandal,’” DuVernay said. “I had never thought about television, but the minute I did that episode, I got tons of offers to do other episodes. And so I know that by doing one it opens it up. And so I had known a number of women who’d been trying to get into TV. So when I got the opportunity to hire, hired those women.”

DuVernay said these women now have “the stamp of approval,” and are all booked for multiple episodes for shows including, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “American Crime” and others on Netflix and HBO.

“Women, people of color, folks that are on the margins just need an opportunity to show how fantastic we are, you know?” DuVernay said.

“And it goes back to inclusion. ‘Give me a chance,’” King said.

“Just -- simple. Yeah, it really is,” DuVernay said.

After a decade-long journey from independent filmmaking to barrier-breaking success, Ava DuVernay has become a brand. Her influence is now reaching another generation. There’s even an Ava DuVernay Barbie doll.

“That’s pretty cool,” DuVernay said. “At that point I turned to my sisters and I said, ‘What -- what’s going on here?’ We used to play as little girls with Barbies. And now there’s a Barbie with our name on it, says DuVernay on the side. Yeah, pretty cool.”