Ava Duvernay: asking permission is so overrated

Filmmaker Ava Duvernay sees culture, work and film from a different angle--hers. Find out how she brings out her unique perspective.

Ava Duvernay, the celebrated, self-taught filmmaker, is enjoying the success of her blockbuster Selma.

Like the experience of so many entrepreneurs, Ava’s experience, which looks like an overnight success, is the actually the product of years of self-honing and self-training. She used to own her own public relations firm helping films build their reputations, but then she decided she’d like to get behind the camera.

How this female entrepreneur got started

“Secretly. I started writing a script at night and on weekends, and eventually I shot my own short on a Christmas vacation. It was imperfect and crazy and nerve-racking and not good, but I did it and then just kept going,” she said in a recent interview.


“There was a time when I was knocking on doors and concerned with being recognized in dominant culture,” she told Film School Rejects.

“I’ve found a space where the terrain is different, where I’m embraced by people like me, and where I’m building new ways of doing things, as opposed to trying to insert myself in a place that might not be welcoming.”

What is her secret for success?

“I’m concerned with my own house. If people want to visit from other houses, that’s great. It was something about turning my back on those desires and concentrating on what was in front of me and what was really beautiful, and organic within my own community and culture that started to ignite interest from the outside in.”

I can relate to Ava’s journey. In my book, How You Rule the World, I write, “We can’t go against our dominant culture–it’ll crush us or force us to confirm. We can’t go with it either–it’ll hobble us and hamper our visions. But if we dare to develop our own personal culture, we become an army inside.”

I came to this insight slowly. I used to think as a female leader, I wasn’t different. Then I realized I was different, if only because the culture around me insisted that was true. Ava’s experience seems to resonate with that and I find her inspiring. I binged watched Selma back to back with In the Middle of Nowhere yesterday.

Redefining work

She is, like so many female entrepreneurs, redefining what work looks like. Says Ava, “From the outside, it may seem as if I’m always working. But that’s not how I look at my life. There’s no “I’m here at work” and then ‘I’m off work.’ It’s more like ‘This is what I do, and I love it all.’ This is my life, whether I’m with friends and family or I’m on set or it’s date night or I’m editing. I know a woman who left the entertainment industry to open a bakery. She’s now in a commercial kitchen baking all day, and it doesn’t feel like work to her, because she loves it. That’s how it is for me.”

Advice to other female founders

Her advice to others who would like to take a page from her life script is,”To not wait for permission. The key is: What do you want? If you want to be famous and have a big car and a fancy house, that’s a different thing. You have to ask permission for that. But if you want to make a film, say, and your reasons are truly for the experience of doing it and for the storytelling and the art of it, you don’t have to ask anyone.”

So true. For me, just after forty, I made it to the place where I am more my own culture. Now, my inner culture and experience is grounded enough to answer the outer culture. I literally learned to breathe the year that happened, but that’s another story.


If you haven’t treated yourself to Selma yet, go support Ava and get out there already! Her lens is refreshing.

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