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Ava DuVernay Talks ‘Lip Service’ of Diversity Programs: ‘Once They Do That First Year, Then What?’

Ava DuVernay is done with diversity panels.

“I’ve done them, I’ve tried,” the writer, producer, director and distributor said at a discussion with “Queen Sugar” author Natalie Baszile at the Writers Guild Foundation Wednesday evening in Los Angeles, Calif. “We all know the issues, we’ve done the awareness-raising for five years, now the challenge is: now what are you going to do?”

DuVernay, who prefers the term “inclusion” over “diversity,” pointed out that what she does is take action on her productions by hiring women and “woke white men.” And it makes a difference. After all, out of 234 shows studied by Color of Change for a report on inclusion in writers’ rooms, “Queen Sugar” stood out as a positive exception when it came to staffing African-American writers.

However, DuVernay pointed out that inclusion doesn’t just stop at one race, and therefore, there is still a lot of work to be done.

“There’s a beautiful burst of shows created by women and people of color but there’s not enough Latino, Asian, Muslim, Native-American creators yet,” she said. “A lot of it is lip service. I’m really critical of diversity programs around studios. Are you staffing them? Once they do that first year, then what?”

She compared that limited action to Harvey Weinstein being stripped of his Hollywood organization memberships, saying, “Is that all?”

DuVernay, who worked as a film publicist before turning to filmmaking in her early 30s (“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32 years old,” she shared.) worked with various studios for years on movies she says “they didn’t know how to sell, like black movies, Latino movies and anything focused on women or kids.”

“I took a page from Spike Lee’s book: to be diverse categorically — documentary, narrative, commercials — so if they don’t like my movies anymore, I’ll go make docs, or TV or commercials. Or distribute films that other people make. Or I’ll write. You can’t hit a moving target. It’s a really specific strategy. I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket,” she said.

But she also noted that everyone has to “embrace what works for you” individually. She recounted a recent conversation with author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which they discussed the “black, red and green phases” every person educated about African-American history goes through in their creative process to explain: “When you first read everything the first time and everything is black — if it ain’t black, it ain’t right. Then the red phase: you get deeper into it and realize you’re dealing with systems that are generations old, and you’re angry. Then the green phase: you become at peace but you stay on the edge. You embrace a future, you stay healthy so you can grow.”

DuVernay shared that Coates said he stays in the red phase and works from a place of rage, which is similar to James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston’s processes. But no matter from what phase you write, DuVernay noted it is most important to continue to do the work and keep exploring to find the “sweet spot” and tell stories.

“There’s a lot of pain around not being let into certain doors [but] you can make your own door,” she said.

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