"I've always had this voice," Ava DuVernay said Friday night, comparing her deep, full-bodied voice to her mother's "little Minnie Mouse voice."
DuVernay, the director of Walt Disney Pictures' highly anticipated "A Wrinkle in Time," which launches March 9, spoke about her mother and growing up in Compton during her appearance at the "What She Said" series in Hollywood's W Hotel.
She recalled how bill collectors calling her family's home sounded skeptical that her mother, Darlene, with the high-pitched voice, was the head of the household. Darlene would then hand the phone to Ava, her oldest daughter.
"We'll pay next week," DuVernay would tell them. The filmmaker re-created the scene in front of an audience of about 75 people by simulating a phone receiver with her fist, drawing laughter from the room.
DuVernay now is using her voice to demand that Hollywood be more inclusive of women and people of color. Although Patty Jenkins directed last year's blockbuster "Wonder Woman" and Ryan Coogler directed "Black Panther," the biggest film so far this year, DuVernay questioned whether true progress is being made to correct the longstanding gender and racial imbalance in Hollywood.
"There are some moments that are happening," DuVernay said. "But I'm an anomaly, Ryan Coogler is an anomaly, Barry Jenkins ["Moonlight"] is an anomaly, and Dee Rees ["Mudbound"] is an anomaly. When you can name us all on two hands… that ain't change."
She questioned whether the current trend will be sustainable. A recent USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report, for example, documented that women made up only 4.3% of all directors of the 1,100 top films released from 2007 to 2017. And only four black females, three Asian females and one Latina directed any of those 1,100 films. The picture is only slightly better for African American males.
"We kind of sit on the top of a broken system," said DuVernay, who worked as a TV and movie publicist before pursuing a film career. "Until that system is fertile ground for real growth, then we will just kind of sit on top of it as sparkly, shiny things for people to feel good."
The W Hotel's "What She Said" series — which launched in 2016, before the #MeToo movement sprang up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal — was designed by its organizers as a celebration of femininity "in all its forms, nuances and glory." DuVernay's appearance kicked off this year's series of conversations.
With "A Wrinkle in Time," DuVernay becomes the first African American woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of more than $100 million. She also is executive producer of "Queen Sugar" for the Oprah Winfrey Network: OWN, which is owned by Discovery Communications.
After her 2014 film, "Selma," and her prison reform documentary, "13th," on Netflix established her as a strong and vibrant voice, Disney invited DuVernay to direct the fantasy based on the 1962 children's classic by Madeleine L'Engle. DuVernay described her new film as "a blessing" after spending years on films about weighty topics.
"It saved me in a lot of ways," she said. "I'm the kind who will stay on Twitter all day, stewing and tweeting mean things to the president. And this kept me from doing that."
She cast Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling as the three "Mrs." characters, the celestial guides for the young protagonist Meg Murry, played by Storm Reid.
"I wanted the Mrs. of all different shapes, sizes, ages, cultures, races," DuVernay said."I knew I wanted a black one and a white one and someone who was not either."
Kaling, who is of Indian descent, "was actually the first one who came to mind," DuVernay said. "I don't think people really give Mindy credit. She's a woman of color with a show with her name on it. … She represents someone you never see in television and on film; she is so important to the culture in that way."
She described Witherspoon as "a force," who has expanded to become a producer who champions stories about women. "She's a blond, pretty actress and she could have just been that. In this town, that's enough, but she has a fire in her."
And Winfrey? "What is there to say about… the woman who needs no name?" DuVernay asked. "Sometimes I sit with her and forget that she is a billionaire two times over… I won't even think about that — until the butler walks in."
DuVernay said she hopes "A Wrinkle in Time" will be "something cool for kids to see." She tried to capture some of the awkwardness and lack of confidence that she remembered from her own youth in the Meg character. And, yes, she might have even incorporated the subtle influence of her mother, Darlene.
"She was a soft heart in a hard world," DuVernay said. "My mother was always my Mrs., my champion."