african american film festival

Ava DuVernay b. August 24, 1972

DuVernay is an American filmmaker and distributor. 

She graduated from UCLA with a double major in English literature and Africa-American studies. After graduation DuVernay began to work as a publicist for movies, eventually creating her own successful publicity firm. From 1999 to 2011 she is credited as doing publicity work on nearly 100 films and TV shows. While doing the work DuVernay developed a desire to become a filmmaker in her own right.  

In 2006 she directed her first short film Saturday Night Life. She followed this up with several short documentaries. In 2010 she made her feature film debut with the film I Will Follow which she entirely self-funded using $50,000 of her own money. Unable to find a distributor willing to release the film theatrically she created the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) and distributed the film herself.

By 2012 DuVernay made her second film Middle of Nowhere. With the film DuVernay achieved a long-standing goal to have her work shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Not only was it screened in the U.S. dramatic competition category but DuVernay also won the Best Director award making her the first African-American woman to win that category. 

Despite the festival success of Middle of Nowhere no distributors were willing to give the movie a theatrical release. DuVernay again released her film via AFFRM. She was offered work directing TV and commercials, but no movie offers came her way. In 2013 however David Oyelowo, who had starred in Middle of Nowhere, was attached to the movie Selma which had recently lost director Lee Daniels who wanted more money to make the film. Oyelowo asked the producers to consider hiring DuVernay which they did as she was willing to make the film for a budget of $20 million, re-write the script with no credit and the limitation that none of Martin Luther King jr’s speeches could actually be used. 

Selma was DuVernay’s first film with a studio distributor, an awards campaign, and a wide release. She became the first black woman nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director and the first black woman to direct a Best Picture nominee at the Oscars. 

In 2015 DuVernay, who had kept AFFRM open and continued to give theatrical distribution to small films directed and or/starring African-Americans, partnered with Netflix and re-branded her company as ARRAY revealing that the scope of the distribution company would now also include a mandate to focus on films directed by women. 

The following year DuVernay partnered with Oprah’s company OWN to create the miniseries Queen Sugar for which she hired a directorial crew made up entirely of women. She also announced that she had secretly been filming a documentary called 13th, which would debut at the 2016 New York Film Festival making her the first person to have a documentary open the festival and the first black woman to open the festival. DuVernay also became the first black female director to be nominated for Best Documentary for her work on the film 

She is currently working on an adaptation of the book A Wrinkle in Time for Disney, a film with a budget of over $100 million making her only the fifth woman and first black woman to direct a live-action movie with a budget that size. 

Ava DuVernay (b. 1972) is the award-winning director of films such as Middle of Nowhere, Selma, and 13th. She was the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.

She won the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, the first African-American woman to do so. She directed a number of documentaries, mostly focused on the African-American experience.


In 1991 Julie Dash premiered her first feature, Daughters of the Dust, at the Sundance Film Festival, which went on to win the award for Excellence in Cinematography. The film is set in the early 1900s and follows a Gullah family of women preparing to move from the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina to mainland America. Daughters of the Dust was the first film directed by an African American woman to receive a national release. 

The film appears to be a source of inspiration for Beyonce’s Lemonade. The visual album echoes imagery from the film with shots of young African-American women in the Southern wild and desolate beaches wearing turn of the century garments. 

Daughters of the Dust screened at the Festival again in 2012 as a part of the “From the Collection” program. The film has recently been digitally restored by Cohen Film Collection and will screen at film festivals and theaters in addition to a Blu-ray release this fall. Click here to view a trailer for Daughters of the Dust.

Film stills courtesy of Daughters of the Dust

By Maureen Lee Lenker, who is an avid TCM fan, and a Los Angeles based writer and actress who writes a monthly column, “Dame in the Game,” about women in Hollywood history for Ms. in the Biz.

With the success of last year’s Selma, the first Best Picture nominee directed by an African-American woman, Ava DuVernay and independent African-American female filmmakers came more fully to international attention than ever before. DuVernay had already made history as the first African-American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival for her 2012 feature Middle of Nowhere, making its TCM premiere tonight (though that success did not translate into the same visibility and access that Selma has granted her).

DuVernay is an outspoken champion of black female directors, recently challenging her Twitter followers to devise a list of films starring a female protagonist and directed by a woman of color. DuVernay regular points out inequities on her social media platforms and calls for change in the entertainment industry.

This furthers an effort she began in 2010 to distribute and promote independent films directed by women and people of color. At that time, she founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AAFRM), now renamed ARRAY. The organization is a distributor as well as a resource collective for independent filmmakers.

Though DuVernay calls the number of female African-American filmmakers out there a “small sorority,” there are a number of women who blazed the path before her, including tonight’s co-host Julie Dash, whom DuVernay has named as a big inspiration.

In “Black Women Film-makers Defining Ourselves,” Alile Sharon Larkin explains Hollywood’s role in excluding people of color from telling their own story:

From the moment that Africans were brought to the Americas and made slaves, we lost much more than our freedom. We lost control of our image. Film and television have been crucial in this legacy of loss, our loss of name and culture, for Hollywood has the power to rewrite, redefine, and recreate history, culture, religion and politics. Hollywood has the power of the spoken word and the visual image and all sounds and dreams.

It’s crucial then that women, especially women of color, have the opportunity and agency to speak for themselves.

In a book on black women’s literature and film, Judylyn S. Ryan describes how true equality requires “a democracy of narrative participation.” Ryan goes on to explain how the work of Julie Dash as a director demonstrates the need for “representation and participation in national cinema and national history.” Ryan points specifically to Dash’s Illusions (1982) as a film that makes this argument by revising the history of classic Hollywood.

           Tonight’s featured film Daughters of the Dust (1991), which Dash fought to get made from 1975 through its 1991 Sundance debut, also speaks to this need for “a democracy of narrative participation.” The film stresses family ties and historical awareness as crucial to the women at its center, even keeping the dialogue in Gullah without subtitles; it emphasizes a historical consciousness that can be heightened by cinema. As Ryan explains, “black women filmmakers frequently return to the past in order to reinscribe the history of Black women’s agency as a basis for constructing future agency.”

           All of tonight’s films focus on this construction of future agency for their black female protagonists. Dash accomplishes it by reclaiming a narrative of the past and figures traditionally marginalized in the historical record. Losing Ground (1982), Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992) and Middle of Nowhere (2012) tell the stories of contemporary black women who already possess agency as a philosophy professor, a girl with college aspirations and a medical student, respectively. Circumstances in their life force them each to go on a further journey of self-discovery to develop a more internal sense of agency.

           Women of color often feel excluded from the feminist conversation because of the tendency of some white feminists to ignore issues of class and race. Audre Lorde critiqued white feminist attitudes in the 1980s: “By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.”

           Thus, in a programming series that celebrates sisterhood and Trailblazing Women behind the camera, it’s essential to include a night of viewing dedicated to African-American independent female filmmakers—to allow their voices to be a part of the conversation; to reclaim their history and their stories. Only now, they’ve become a part of the historical narrative, the story of women in film, themselves.


Cooper, Nekisa (November 1, 2012). “Love on the Outside”Filmmaker Magazine.

 Dargis, Manohla (December 2, 2014). “Making History: With ‘Selma,’ Ava DuVernay Seeks a Different Equality”The New York Times

Larkin, Alile Sharon. “Black Women Film-makers Defining Ourselves: Feminism in Our Own Voice.” In Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television, edited by E. Deidre Pribram. London and New York: Verso, 1988.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. New York: Crossing Press, 1984.

Ryan, Judalyn S.  Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Ava DuVernay is the first African American woman to win the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival and is also the first African American woman director to be nominated for a Golden Globe. With her film Selma, she is also the first African American woman director to have a film nominated for best picture for the Academy Award. #BlackHistoryMonth

Journey Beyond Inspiration

“It’s always about recognizing that a change is happening.” – Nelson George.

We sat down with writer, journalist and filmmaker Nelson George to discuss his life and his craft for the Lincoln Journey Series. The Brooklyn native gave us sage advice on making transitions, and making the art of storytelling.

Hollywood Mavericks 2014 :The Rebel With a Cause: Ava DuVernay
Director @AVAETC unflinching biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr., Selma, is one part of a larger goal: to tell important African-American stories through film.

A few things that weren’t on director Ava DuVernay’s to-do list: a studio film, a historical drama, a male-centered story line. “I wanted to be the black Lynn Shelton,” says DuVernay, referencing another of indie cinema’s most consistent female forces. “A movie a year, make a little change, make another … so Selma is certainly a different path.” Still, no one will accuse DuVernay, a former publicist who won the Best Director prize at Sundance in 2012 for Middle of Nowhere, a stark drama set in Compton, of selling out for taking on the first-ever feature film about Martin Luther King Jr. (a production with the backing of Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, no less). Her mission remains constant: to tell substantive stories while helping other filmmakers of color do the same. It’s a goal she furthers through her pet project, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a collective that brings independent black films to theaters. “We’re an endangered species,” she says. “I know beautiful filmmakers whose voices are being suffocated by a system that doesn’t pay attention. You got a voice? We’re going to amplify it.”

Ava DuVernay, 42
Credit check: Venus Vs., Scandal, Selma
“When I was a publicist, I would tell filmmakers, ‘Don’t be nervous—it’s going to be fine.’ Now I have to take my own advice, and I see how terrified they were. It ain’t easy putting yourself out there.”

She is one of the Hollywood Mavericks 2014
Starring Johnny Depp and the innovators, risk-takers, and big thinkers who are changing the face of entertainment.

It’s like a tale of two cities in Hollywood these days. Not just because it’s the best of times (there are more ways to reach audiences than ever) and the worst of times (a historically bad summer at the box office, Kourtney & Khloé Take the Hamptons), but because entertainment, too, is being riven by the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Only in this case, it’s the have-talents, the have-ideas, and the have-guts vs. the have-not-a-clues—that is, the slaves to the status quo. We’re betting big on the former: the freethinking innovators, creative disrupters, and risk-courting visionaries bold enough to flip the script or go off it entirely—payday, reputation, and conventional wisdom be damned. They range from a comedic duo taking dead aim at North Korea to billionaire hedge-funders on a mission to save independent film to a first-time director igniting a dialogue about race relations to a fearless actress starring in the sweetest little abortion rom-com you’ll ever see. There’s no happy ending to this story—at least not yet—because our heroes are still writing it.

Hollywood Mavericks
By Alex Bhattacharji and David Walters,Photographs by Jeremy Liebman,Styling by Sarah Schussheim and Eugene Tong