How Ava DuVernay Directed ‘Selma’ And Became A Success Without Film School

by Lauren C. Byrd

Ava DuVernay is a name you heard a lot last year. DuVernay directed Selma, which chronicles the 1965 voting rights campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Selma is the first feature film to be made about him and his work nearly fifty years after Dr. King walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

It was also the first film directed by an African-American woman to be nominated for Best Picture, although DuVernay herself did not earn a Best Director nomination. Selma is DuVernay’s third feature, but the 42-year-old spent 14 years as a Hollywood marketer and publicist before deciding to try her hand at directing.

Speaking to Interview Magazine in 2012, DuVernay disclosed her moment of epiphany. “As a publicist, I was always around filmmakers. I started thinking, ‘They’re just regular people, like me, with ideas. I’ve got ideas!’” DuVernay said it was intimidating coming into a new career so late, especially when she knew the number of talented people coming out of film school. “But I started to realize that being so close to really great filmmakers and watching them direct on set and the experiences that I did have, although different from film school, were still super valuable. I coupled that with some very intentional study and practice—picking up a camera—and just started making it.”

selma-ava-duvernay-2David Oyelowo & DuVernay on set of Selma

Indeed, in her recent keynote address at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, she encouraged young people to simply “get out there and do the work.”

DuVernay started making shorts around age 32 and made her feature-length directorial debut with a 2008 documentary about hip-hop called This Is the Life. In 2010, she wrote, financed, produced and directed her first narrative feature, I Will Follow, a family drama about the loss of a loved one. It was followed by Middle of Nowhere in 2012.

In the same interview, DuVernay mentions she wanted to make Middle of Nowhere first. She had written the script in 2005 while she was still working as a publicist, but couldn’t figure out how to get it made. “Once I made some shorts and docs, I started to discover the festival circuit–‘There are people making films for 100,000 dollars? Oh, my God!’–and started to find out a way to make narrative films for a certain price.” She financed I Will Follow with $50,000 from personal savings and Middle of Nowhere is said to have cost $200,000.

DuVernay said she values story and truth in the stories she tells over anything else. She knows studios aren’t lining up for black protagonists, but she has been hailed by film critics for bringing a universality to the characters she portrays on the screen, no matter their color.

Middle of Nowhere, a romantic drama which focuses on Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Derek (Omari Harwick) whose marriage is tested when Derek is incarcerated. It’s a film which could fall easily into preachiness on the subject of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, but does not. (African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites and make up a million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population.)

07duvernay1 span-articlelargeMiddle of Nowhere

DuVernay said she knew of so many women in different communities who put their lives on hold while waiting for family members to get out of jail. The story in the film is Ruby’s, not Derek’s. The audience only sees Derek through Ruby’s eyes: through flashbacks of their marriage and present day prison visitation.

Her husband’s incarceration influences every aspect of Ruby’s life. She takes on extra shifts at work so she can pay for his lawyer and he won’t have to settle for a court appointed one. She spends her weekends taking the bus up to the prison to see him. It even colors her relationships with her mother, sister, nephew, and potential paramours. (David Oyelowo plays a charming admirer.) The film explores how much one should sacrifice for love and even how others’ dreams for you so often influence or mask what your own goals and dreams are. There’s a universality in Ruby’s personal journey.


DuVernay fully embraces her position both as a black filmmaker and as a female one. “I love talking about the issues that we deal with as women filmmakers because there’s so many. The drastic drop from a woman making her second film to her third film, it drops by 50 percent. Half of them disappear. That really startled me.”

DuVernay said one of the reasons she’s heard for this is because women go off to start families. “I’m like, ‘Really?’ They call it environmental factors. I just don’t think there’s a lot of support for the woman’s voice in cinema and it becomes really difficult to raise that money and start again every time.”

Considering how many women come to directing later in life, DuVernay is probably right, it seems unlikely that the drop is due primarily to women going off to start a family. Besides, what about the women who have families and continue to work?

DuVernay, for one, doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. She’s currently signed on to direct a pilot of a new CBS drama, For Justice, and working with Oprah on a series, Queen Sugar, which will air on OWN.

This post originally appeared on

More from BUST

How Agnes Varda Became A Filmmaking Legend

How Dee Rees Went From Writing Copy To Directing ‘Pariah’

52 Weeks Of Directors: Lynne Ramsay

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter


About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.