Less than a decade ago, Ava DuVernay was just emerging as a creative force of a filmmaker and a passionate advocate of inclusive projects in Hollywood.
By 2011, she had founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement – a collective of black film festivals – and was the writer-director of the critically acclaimed independent film, “I Will Follow.”
She joked with CNN at the time about calling the Sundance Film Festival “Blackdance,” because of its abundance of minority films that year.
But DuVernay was – and remains – very serious about the need for inclusive storytelling.
“Ultimately, if we have people that are serious about diversifying films, whether it be black films, women’s films, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) films or Latino films, they have to be building those structures year-round,” DuVernay said then. “Then that becomes a conversation, where there were these amazing black films, Latino films, LGBT films and films made and directed by women that were ignored.”
Now there is no way DuVernay can be overlooked.
With her latest project, “When They See Us,” the writer/director has seemingly presented audiences a mix of the creativity she brought to films like “Selma” and “A Wrinkle in Time” with the social activism of her documentary “13th,” which explores racial inequality and the prison system.
“When They See Us” is a limited series about five teen boys of color who were wrongfully convicted in 1990 of a brutal rape and beating of a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park.
The convictions of the Central Park Five, as the boys came to be called, were later vacated after Matias Reyes, a convicted serial rapist, confessed to the attack.
The series highlights police and prosecutorial abuse experienced by the teens in the case, along with the struggles they face as adults.
“It’s a story that really allows us to look at, yes, this case, but also the overall system that is called criminal justice and how unjust it actually is,” DuVernay told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a recent interview.
“A lot of people talk about the system being broken,” DuVernay said. “But I don’t believe the system is broken. I believe it’s working exactly as it was built to work.”
DuVernay knows the power of good storytelling.
Before she became a filmmaker she was an entertainment publicist, adept at generating buzz for films like “Dreamgirls” and “Invictus.”
“I never had a desire to be a filmmaker,” DuVernay told New York magazine in 2014. “As a child and a teenager and in college, I was not aware of black women making films.”
But after a dozen years working to help others get the word out about their stories, DuVernay was moved to tell her own.
She’s since become the highest grossing black female director in American box office history, thanks to “A Wrinkle in Time.”
DuVernay has also conquered the small screen with her series “Queen Sugar,” which employs women behind the camera as much as in front.
Her stories are unapologetically black, bringing to the masses a slice of black culture and all that entails, both good and bad.
With “When They See Us,” DuVernay offers both representation and an examination of a system she thinks needs to be “overhauled.”
“We’re hoping that people watch this very famous case and begin to become emotional and connected to the idea that we need massive work to reframe the way we think about criminality in the United States,” she told Amanpour.
It’s something that the series and DuVernay aren’t prepared to let anyone ignore.