Ava Duvernay

Ava DuVernay, in Front of the Camera

She has built a formidable career training her eye on others. Now, Ava DuVernay celebrates the beauty of becoming herself.

A universally celebrated director who frames her actors with an inquiring and empathetic eye, Ava DuVernay creates visuals that hit the heart. From her Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma to the prison-system documentary 13th to the fantastical A Wrinkle in Time to the wrenching When They See Us, "I pick what I want to get out of the scene," she explains. "And through music, color, performance, and words, I'm able to manufacture and change how you think. I can be in your head, and I love it." This beauty story, however, represented a change-up. DuVernay is not only a wildly potent filmmaker but also an honest-to-goodness babe. So while her laser focus is on broadening the culture, sometimes it's just fun to play with makeup.

LAURA BROWN: When you said yes to this story, you told me that you'd never felt better, happier, or healthier.

AVA DUVERNAY: I feel like I've made it through something. We are still in the pandemic, and it's a tough time. I'm clear about the things that are important to me now and prioritizing things. I'm someone who was a real workaholic and I always resented being called a workaholic because that makes it sound like an addiction of some kind. My work is my heartbeat, and I enjoy doing it, so I always resented it being called something negative.

LB: Right. I get it.

AD: When you put a sense of labor on top of something you really love, you need to be able to divide the love of it and the labor of it. I was able to focus so that I'm doing less of what I don't like and more of what I do like. That's a fortunate and privileged position, but I'm in it. I'm treating myself better, from a health perspective.

LB: You have a great sense of occasion. You will dress up for a premiere, celebrate the moment.

AD: As filmmakers, we're the grungiest. When I'm on set directing, it is not a pretty sight. But when I have the occasion to present the work, I want to do whatever I can to promote, to share, to amplify. For me, that's still a part of the making. I was a publicist, and I would see so many filmmakers create their film, hand it off to a publicist, and walk away. And it's like, no. Until it reaches some eyeballs and some minds and hearts, you're still making this thing.

LB: Of all the images you've created, which are you proudest of?

AD: There are images in each film that make me feel proud. I have a new TV show called One Perfect Shot coming out, where I invite filmmakers to dissect and talk about the story of getting one shot. I won't say which image I'm most proud of, but one that comes to mind that really makes my heart explode is when Storm Reid flies for the first time at the end of A Wrinkle in Time. She breaks through all the secrets of the universe and becomes one with herself and everything around her.

LB: Those moments make your skin prickle. Given this is a beauty story, who were your beauty idols growing up?

AD: One was my mother, and I know most people would say that, but she was a stunner and still is. She had me when she was 18, so she was a young mom. When she would pick me up from school, she'd walk in with hot legs, boots, leather, red lipstick. She had an incredible body, a body I've never had. I was super nerdy — I'm the same now as I was then — and I thought, "That is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. I'm never going to be as pretty as my mommy." I knew my mom was the prettiest, and it made me proud.

I grew up in a Black and brown community near Compton, in Lynwood, and there were these women in the area called cholas, and they were the other big influence for me. They're mostly second-generation Mexican women who have very specific hair and eyeliner wings. They were so glamorous — I thought they were the most beautiful, hottest things I had ever seen.

Ava Duvernay
AZ Factory dress. From bottom: Agmes earring. Missoma earring. Earring, her own. Beauty Beat: Amp up your look by adding a bold accent like Milk Makeup Lip Color Hydrating Matte Lipstick in O.G. Red ($24).
| Credit: Chrisean Rose

LB: When you see women express themselves without timidity, it imprints on you. What were the first beauty looks you tried out?

AD: I went to a Catholic private school, so I was in a uniform from first to 12th grade. It really affected me that I did not have to make any choices about my clothes. When I got to UCLA, I had no idea how to put things together, and I still really struggle. I have a very conservative style because I feel best when I'm in a uniform.

LB: Could you wear makeup at school or on the weekends?

AD: For me, it was more about hair. Hair was a big thing, and mine was very different than it is now. It was bone-straight, where it was a blunt cut with long bangs and short in the back. I wore that for a long time. Freshman year, I was dating the star basketball player, and I was really trying to fit into the idea of what a basketball star's girlfriend would look like. After my heart was broken, I got into hip-hop, chopped off my hair, and started to experiment more. In the '90s Black girls where I was from dressed super baggy. Everything was oversize, but you had to show the midriff with a cutoff shirt. It was the TLC-type look. And it was all about a very pronounced lip. Those were fun times.

LB: How did your perceptions of beauty evolve as you got older?

AD: It was my journey with my hair, as I started to become more conscious about my history and my culture. I was putting chemicals in my hair so it would look like your hair. I had to decolonize myself and say, "Is the hair growing out of my head in that texture?" And, "What does it look like if it just grows out?" People who wear locs have different ideas about it, but for me, it was a journey of becoming more myself. When I opened my PR firm [The DuVernay Agency] at 27, I was trying to be more mature for my business and wanted to portray being older and more accomplished…. But the beauty of age is that you get to a point where it's like, "The things I needed to feel tethered or anchored, those do not have meaning, and I can be free."

LB: Thankfully, there's been a vast cultural swing and celebration of Black-hair looks. Do you feel like young girls now have more confidence?

AD: Oh, yeah. In one generation I've seen the change. The natural and synthetic styles are embraced. Everything is on the table. The generation before me was like, "It is preferred that you wear your hair in this way." Historically, there were moments when Black women who worked as domestics in white homes were not allowed to work if their hair was not pressed or permed. Their natural hair was seen as offensive. That starts to embed itself in the DNA of people — that straight, Caucasian-looking hair is better and preferred. Now it's every braid or Afro puff or texture, controlled or out of control. And I think it's exceptional. I don't think we talk enough about the shift that's happened just in one lifetime.

LB: When you were younger, was there a look where you felt like you really had it going on?

AD: The times I felt most beautiful were when I cut my hair. My pride was being a Black girl with long hair. Long, natural hair was seen as a thing. When I cut it, I felt more myself than I ever had, partly because I let go of that expectation.

LB: And took ownership. What's your daily beauty routine? Your eyeliner is always excellent.

AD: Really, just hydrated skin. I've always been able to put on eyeliner, but not much else. I can't put on a lash to save my life. Early on, I got into eyebrows because that's a big thing for that chola style that I loved. So I could put on a liner, and I could put on a brow.

Ava Duvernay
Oscar de la Renta dress. Gaspar Gloves by Dorothy Gaspar gloves. Missoma earrings. Top earring, her own.
| Credit: Chrisean Rose

LB: And the rest is history. What's your greatest motivator?

AD: It's magic that I can conjure emotion through my work. The design and the writing and the direction can make you feel something. I pick what I want to get out of the scene, and through music, color, performance, and words, I'm able to manufacture and change how you think. I can be in your head, and I love it. I'm always looking at, "How can I manufacture emotion here in its highest form?" Whether it's making you cry with When They See Us or making you think and be upset with 13th or making you feel dazzled with A Wrinkle in Time, I'm always trying to drive that home.

LB: What do you think you still have to learn?

AD: Oh, goodness. So much. I've gotten a bit stagnant in my relationships with people, the way that I've organized my life. We need to keep meeting new people, challenging relationships, moving out of relationships that don't serve us anymore. There's that line people say, "No new friends." But there can be. I can't mature in my work if I don't open my life a bit more. I didn't have kids by choice, and I'm not married by choice. I was able to embrace my career later in life, in my 30s. So I'm going to do what feels good to me, and I'm going to have fun.

LB: If you get the same train every day, sometimes you've got to get off at a different stop.

AD: That's a good way to say it. It sums up exactly what I'm thinking.

LB: When I met you, you were just finishing the campus for Array [DuVernay's independent film distribution and resource collective]. What change in the industry did you want to create?

AD: I wanted a sense of place. Our industry is very ephemeral — set to set, office to office. But I wanted to be able to have a home base. When you walk around the campus, you'll pass executives working on the film and TV sides with editors, artists, activists, and educators. All those people are colliding.

LB: You have a really strong voice on social media. I haven't seen you do TikTok dances, but—

AD: You won't. [laughs]

LB: On social, when do you decide you're going to go in there and take a swing? And when do you sort of step back?

AD: I think the beauty of those platforms is that they give everyone a voice. During the [2020 presidential] election, I was in a heightened state of emotion. After that, I felt burned out on social. But it comes in spurts. I find myself wanting to be quiet more than I want to talk. Just the other day I tweeted, "One of my favorite things about my job is requests." I get requests like a DJ, people requesting that I make films every day. I've driven down the street with people calling out to me, "Hey, I love Selma. You need to make something on such and such." I love that people think I can make whatever they want to see.

LB: Exactly. Who are your besties in the business and beyond?

AD: Niecy [Nash] is a great friend of mine. Oprah. Tilane Jones, the president of Array, is one of my best friends and an extraordinary executive. Victoria Mahoney, who's a director. I think that's kind of the knitting circle.

Ava Duvernay
Proenza Schouler dress. From bottom: Agmes earrings. Missoma earring. Earring, her own. Beauty Beat: Elevate your smoky eye by blending Danessa Myricks Beauty Colorfix Eye, Cheek & Lip Cream Pigment in Goldmine ($18) across the center of your lids.
| Credit: Chrisean Rose

LB: I think you should actually start one. Fashion-wise, what has been your favorite red carpet look?

AD: I really liked my [2017] Oscars look [by Ashi Studio] for 13th and my [2019] Emmys look [by Reem Acra] for When They See Us. And I liked my [Prada] Met look last year. Those would be my top three. I felt comfortable.

LB: You have a long-standing relationship with Prada.

AD: I love them. It started when I won the Sundance [best director prize] for [the 2012 film] Middle of Nowhere. There wasn't a lot of interest in me after that, but Shonda Rhimes's camp asked me to make an episode of Scandal. I also got a call from Prada saying that they were giving women filmmakers money to create [short films for the Miu Miu Women's Tales series] with their clothes. I made one with Gabrielle Union called The Door, and it's still one of my favorite things I've done. A few years after that, Selma was nominated [for a best picture Oscar], and no one wanted to dress me. Tilane said, "Why don't we ask Prada?" I said, "No, I don't want to ask." Then they called and said, "Hey, who's dressing you?" And we were like, "Nobody, please help." I always remember that, because they were really, really lovely at a time when folks weren't checking for me.

LB: In terms of image-making, how do you take care of the young women in your projects who are about to have a very big moment, like Storm and Kaci [Walfall, the star of DuVernay's new CW superhero series Naomi]?

AD: It's so important — the presentation and the design of everything from their hair to what they're wearing to the way that they're moving. I work closely not just with them but with their parents. So many young people feel like they're in it alone. Adults can make a film, and then we all go our own ways. But these are formative years, so I try to be like a bestie and let them know that I'm here.

LB: Finally, what does badass mean to you?

AD: You know, the word has been used so much, it's important that we continue to redefine it. Most people think it's someone who's just a boss and doing edgy things. But for me, it's come to mean consistency. That idea of continuing and being here in 10 years. I was recently thinking about Queen Latifah, out of the blue. She was a rapper in the '90s; she's been a movie star and a CoverGirl [model]. Now she's on this hit TV show [The Equalizer]. I was like, "Damn it, that's badass." It's being able to go beyond the moment and become a movement in and of yourself.

LB: I've always said that too. Badasses are consistent.

AD: Yes. Consistent isn't the sexiest word, but it's a sexy thing to be.

Photographs by Chrisean Rose. Hair by Dr. Kari Williams. Makeup by Adam Burrell for A-Frame Agency.

For more stories like this, pick up the March 2022 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 11.