Playback: Ava DuVernay on ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and the Feminization of Fantasy

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Ava DuVernay has independent filmmaking in her bones, so the step up to a $100 million Disney spectacle like “A Wrinkle in Time” was a considerable one. But within that, she saw an opportunity to put a little girl of color front and center in a major studio tentpole, and to put out the kind of movie and representation she would have liked to see when she was growing up in Compton, the “feminization of fantasy,” she calls it. “A Wrinkle in Time” follows DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary “13th,” which delved into systems of racial oppression throughout the nation’s history. That project lingered with DuVernay long after she finished it, so she was eager to go in a different direction.

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“I think what I was able to exercise is just getting in touch with the kid in me,” DuVernay says. “It was a hard time for me making ’13th.’ It did damage to me, watching thousands of hours of racist, violent footage and really interrogating the systems. It was personal, emotional and traumatic. So ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ was a bit of self-care. To do that I had to tap into something that wasn’t hardened and cynical. It was childlike and joyful. I was talking to Guillermo del Toro about the same thing. Sometimes art can help guide you through turbulent times, especially for the artist, who is just super sensitive. We’re all sensitive. But it hits me hard, so this film saved me in that way a lot.”

The film is the first $100 million production to be directed by a woman of color, a significant glass ceiling broken but yet another “first” that illustrates, for DuVernay, just how long disenfranchised voices have waited to be heard. It’s a difficult dichotomy for her to square, ultimately.

“I don’t get tired of hearing it because I know it’s something a lot of people celebrate, but I do regret that it’s in a context of such fanfare and being a good thing when it’s really pretty tragic that it’s 2018 and these firsts are happening,” she says. “I don’t take it as a mantle of proud distinction that I’m the first woman of color in 2017 and 2018 to make a film at this price point, or to win Sundance or get the Globe nomination or whatever they are, because it really means we haven’t done this in decades and decades and decades before that, even though there were women completely capable, ready and deserving of it. It’s something that Hollywood does, where it trumpets its firsts without really acknowledging that there’s a lot of neglect that went into that.”

DuVernay’s film hits theaters just three weeks after Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther.” The two, who have been close for years, edited their films in neighboring suites on the Disney lot and DuVernay has been a massive champion of Coogler’s record-smashing blockbuster.

“It’s like it’s happening to a family member,” she says. “I think of all that he’ll get to do and all the power he has now, and that it’s with a really good brother, a really good person. If you’re going to give anyone that kind of power and influence, if it was anyone I could have chosen for that to go to, I would have chosen him.”

For more, including thoughts on her upcoming Central Park Five miniseries with Netflix and how she views her responsibility as an activist celebrity, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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