Ava DuVernay says Black filmmakers are told they won't get into international film festivals: 'No one will come'

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay is speaking out about the discrimination she faced as a Black filmmaker.

This year, DuVernay became the first Black woman to compete in the Venice Film Festival for her film, Origin, which is adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste. The film received a standing ovation that lasted over 8 minutes at the festival, Deadline reported. However, DuVernay said she was initially discouraged from applying to prestigious international festivals.

“For Black filmmakers, we’re told that people who love films in other parts of the world don’t care about our stories and don’t care about our films,” DuVernay said at a press conference, the Guardian reported. “This is something that we are often told: you cannot play international film festivals, no one will come.”

DuVernay — who was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category for Selma, the 2014 historical drama about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches — went on to explain that she was told she probably wouldn't even gain entrance into the Venice competition.

“People will not come to the press conferences, people won’t come to the press and industry screenings. They will not be interested in selling tickets. You might not even get into this festival, don’t apply. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, ‘Don’t apply to Venice, you won’t get in. It won’t happen,’" DuVernay recalled.

Of course, DuVernay proved her detractors wrong, noting that her presence this year is a groundbreaking one.

“This year, something happened that hadn’t happened in eight decades before: an African American woman in competition," she noted. "So now that’s a door open that I trust and hope the festival will keep open.”

DuVernay's statements are backed by statistics. According to a study conducted by Screen in 2021, films by Black directors accounted for just 1% of films (only eight of 670) in competition at film festivals over the previous three years. Black filmmakers who were accepted into competition at major festivals during that period include If Beale Street Could Talk director Barry Jenkins, whose film played at Argentina’s Mar Del Plata Film Festival in 2018; Spike Lee, who took BlacKkKlansman to Cannes; and Mati Diop, who also appeared at Cannes with Atlantics.

DuVernay has spoken in the past about the hurdles Black filmmakers face attempting to create projects in Hollywood. In a 2015 interview with NBC, she likened Hollywood to "a whole bunch of closed doors."

"Any film that you see that has any progressive spirits that is made by any people of color or a woman is a triumph, in and of itself," she said.

In Nancy Wang Yuen's 2017 book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, DuVernay discussed the "fundamental disrespect inherent in the distribution and amplification of films" by Black directors, explaining that the lack of funding and publicity given to these projects doom them from the start.

While she was able to successfully break into the film industry, the former publicist told CBS Sunday Morning in November of 2022 that in her early days of filmmaking, "there really was no place" for her in the business. However, that separation between herself and her fellow filmmakers allowed her to be "risky" with her choices.

"People say brave, but you know what? It wasn't brave. It was like, 'People are probably going to kick me out of this in a couple of movies anyway, so why don't I just go for it and say what I want to say?' And that was because I didn't really believe it would last," she explained. "I did not believe 15 years later I'd be sitting in the chair, speaking about a career that's continued."

DuVernay noted that her new goal is to be consistently working.

"Black women directors before me — there are none who have made, 10 films, eight films, seven films, six films. It drops down. I think right now we're at five," she said. "I want to be an old lady calling 'action' and 'cut.'"