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BGN Interview: Ava DuVernay Talks Empathy and Humanity In ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

BGN Interview: Ava DuVernay Talks Empathy and Humanity In ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

Ava DuVernay

Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time opens in less than two weeks, and director Ava DuVernay is making the rounds. The schedule for promoting a movie can be brutal, with a director of a film this size giving hundreds of interviews and attending a myriad of events. In addition to the usual rounds of screenings and junkets, she has also popped up at events like “Warriors Who Code!”, sponsored by Disney in partnership with companies like HP, Nissan, JetBlue Foundation, and Black Girls Code, reaching out to the next generation of bright young women in STEM fields. These are the events I suspect are nearest and dearest to her heart.

DuVernay is a Black woman director, the first to helm a film with a budget over $100 million. A vocal critic of her industry which regularly marginalizes women and people of color, she puts her money where her director’s chair is, not only choosing projects that allow her to tell the stories of those people such as Selma and The 13th, but casting people of color and women in unexpected roles and hiring women of color as directors of her series on the OWN network, Queen Sugar.

Thus, it should be no surprise to anyone that DuVernay cast Storm Reid, a biracial girl, in the role of Meg Murry in Jennifer Lee’s screen adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Penned in 1963 by another woman ahead of her time, Madeline L’Engle, the character is written as white, But DuVernay didn’t see her that way, and she didn’t stop there. In the film, Meg’s mom is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, her father is played by Chris Pine, and her little brother is played by young Filipino-American actor, Deric McCabe. The Mrs. Ws are played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, a diverse array of actresses, and Meg’s teen crush is played by Aussie actor, Levi Miller.

DuVernay just wants to tell a good story, but she doesn’t let anyone tell her that it has to be told with actors of a certain color. Also, she’s determined to use the power of her art to help make the world a better, more empathetic and more loving place, one film at a time.

Though her voice was a little husky, no doubt due to the dozens of interviews she’s given in the last several days, it was her only sign of fatigue, and her message was strong, loud, and clear. This movie was a labor of love, and her gift to all children.

Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay and Storm Reid on the set of Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.

DaVette See: A Wrinkle in Time premieres tonight and you’ve already had a couple of screenings. So, on a scale of 1-10, how nervous are you about March 9th, and have the past few days helped to alleviate any of that nervousness?

Ava DuVernay: Yeah. I don’t know if I’m nervous, I’m eager. I know that I put all my heart, and all my love, and all my intention into this. Seeing it with girls and young people was really heart-opening to me. It’s exactly what we wanted it to do, speaking to kids in a certain way, really inviting adults to see it through a kid’s eyes. This is one of those youth fantasies that they used to make back in the day, that they don’t make too often anymore. I’m excited to give that kind of film to kids now.

I don’t think I’m nervous, just eager to share it. You know, there’s nothing I can do about box offices, there’s nothing I can do about reviews. The only thing that I could do is make the very best thing I can, pour all my heart into it. That’s what I’ve done and my job is done.

DaVette: On that note: I was at a screening at the studio on Saturday, and you popped in at the beginning and reminded everybody to watch the film through the eyes of a child. These days there are a lot of movies aimed at young people where the child and teen characters are killing each other for sport. Did you make this movie, in part, as a reaction to those types of films?

Ava: I just think right now, in Hollywood, we spend a lot of money on films that have to appeal to a large group of people. You don’t have a lot of films in this genre that are not animated, that are not superhero [films]. They’re more fantasy and are grounded in some kind of earthly aspect.

Movies like NeverEnding Story or Escape to Witch Mountain, or Pagemaster where Macaulay Culkin [went] into the pages of a book, speak directly to eight to twelve year olds. That’s really the time when you’re trying to figure out who you want to be in the world, what your place is. We can encourage more kids to be fully-formed empathetic human beings.

In [Wrinkle], a Black girl says to a Caucasian boy, “Do you trust me?” He says, “Yes, I trust you,” and he follows her. You know what I mean? Those are images that I can’t say I’ve ever seen, I’ve never seen that.

Ava DuVernay
Storm Reid is Meg Murry and Levi Miller is Calvin O’Keefe in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.

DaVette: Yes, right.

Ava: A lot of people told me, “This book is unadaptable,” “This is a big swing,” “This is not a sure thing,” “This might not be the best thing for your career.” But for that scene of Storm Reid, an African-American actress, thirteen years old from Atlanta, Georgia, to fly through the sky, hop planets, do math and solve problems, and do all those things that we are told as Black girl nerds, “You do not deserve to be the center of the story?” To do that is worth any snarky critic who says whatever. Those girls see that, and that is doing something in their minds and their hearts.

It’s also doing something for Caucasian kids to see that you can have a kid of color lead you. I think about if there had been more young Caucasian boys who had seen a scene like Calvin going up to Meg and saying, “I like your hair,” seeing the beauty in her, following her, asking for her advice, following her direction; I might have an easier time, a lot of women might have an easier time of it in the corporate world, in politics.

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It was so hard for people to envision a woman as a leader because we’ve not taught these boys that, “Yes, you can also follow a girl and accept that she can be your leader.” These things are formative and can change the minds of generations if we continue to feed kids the stories that help them grow up to be fully-formed human beings.

So, I am excited about it for that.

DaVette: Yesterday, during the press conference, Zach Galifianakis said that meeting and working with you on Wrinkle was an emotional thing for him. He actually got very emotional while answering the question. It was incredible to watch that well up in him, and I noticed that the whole cast responded to that. They seemed very close and connected. That was the second time I saw a cast appear that close—the first time was at a press conference for your TV series, Queen Sugar. You and Oprah were also there with the cast and the event had the same kind of vibe.

Do you think it is an organic reaction to the types of stories you’re telling? Or, possibly, partly because you’re a very empathetic person, and that permeates through the cast? Or is it more due to your approach as a director?

Ava DuVernay
Zach Galifianakis is The Happy Medium in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.

Ava: That’s a beautiful question. Thanks for making those correlations. I don’t know. I experienced it with the cast of Selma, with the cast of Queen Sugar, I experienced it with the cast of Wrinkle. Also with [the cast of] Middle of Nowhere. Maybe it’s something about these large casts, a bunch of artists, people with really open hearts coming together.

You can create a bad experience with them or a nourishing experience with them. I’ve found that if you can create a beautiful vibe with them, they come and they do their best work. They want to be there and you work together to mold the piece, craft the piece that you want to put in the world.

I mean, our names are on this stuff, you know?

DaVette: Yes.

Ava: I mean, this is your legacy. These are the messages you want to put out in the world, so I take it very seriously. I always am attracted to artists who also take it seriously. The casting process, for me, is not just about talent. I’ve passed on some actors who were super-talented but they just didn’t quite have the right energy to be a part of a family. That’s what I like to try to create: that family atmosphere. There are enough talented people out there who are kind, who have open hearts, and those are the people I like to work with.

DaVette: About Zach, and Mindy too, actually: their scenes are extremely powerful. Zach’s scene with Storm is just amazing. Mindy’s spirit as Mrs. Who was so gentle and warm. Comedians like Robin Williams and Richard Pryor were gifted dramatic actors as well. What do you think it is about comedians that gives them the ability to give powerful dramatic performances?

Ava: That’s a great question. I don’t know, I think it’s something about a balance, kind of like what [Zach’s character] talks about [in the film]. A balance of light and dark. It really is being able to know both sides of the human experience in such a profound way that it allows them to just create these really, really poignant [moments].

I was awestruck by Zach, with the work that he did with Storm in that scene where he talks about not being afraid to ask the big questions, and to leaning into the more uncomfortable parts of life. It was just poignant. But, just two minutes earlier in the film, he’s jumping around and making jokes. There’s something about the comedian’s ability to embrace both sides of the human experience that makes them extra special. I really experienced that with both Zach and Mindy. It was pretty extraordinary.

Ava DuVernay
Mindy Kaling in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.

DaVette: You’ve created this beloved children’s classic for the big screen for Disney, and you’ve already been to Disneyland, so what are you going to do now? I hope you’re going to take some time off!

Ava: (laughing). Oh gosh! You know, I really want to continue to push myself in genres. You look at Stephen Spielberg, and Michael Mann, and Ron Howard, and Spike Lee, and Ridley Scott, Mike Nichols; all of these directors, who’ve had such long careers. None of them are women. They all pushed themselves to break out of their boxes, to do different things.

That’s what I want to continue to do. I don’t have a desire for a vacation or a break. I would rather make more things that mean something to me.

DaVette: And create.

Ava: Yeah, create! It’s fun, it’s a privilege to be able to do what I do. I’m happy in my life right now and I just wanted to keep making stuff.

DaVette: Do me a favor then, now that you’re at a “huge film” level, would you push Mattel to put out more Ava Director dolls? I wanted one of those so bad, they sold out in minutes, and you can’t even get them on Ebay anymore! I want one!

Ava: [laughs] I can’t even get one! Yeah, I can’t even get one!

Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time opens everywhere March 9th.

Written by DaVette See

DaVette See lives in Inglewood, CA with her husband, Rob, her mother, and her seven (yikes) kitties. She has a BA in English and Theater and a Law degree. When not writing, reporting, and video editing for BGN, she operates Running Lady Studios and produces animated short films and the web series Afro Bites! She was a geek before geek was chic. She loves books, plays, movies, and more than anything, she loves telling stories.

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