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Awards

Ava DuVernay looks for joy in every project. She even found it in ‘When They See Us’

Writer-director Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay’s five-part limited series, “When They See Us,” depicts the shocking events surrounding the 1989 Central Park Five case, in which young teen boys were convicted sentenced for a brutal attack on a female jogger that they were later cleared of.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Ava DuVernay always talks about creating things with joy. If you ingrain joy in the work, and that work is strong, she believes greatness will follow.

On her movie sets, DuVernay tries to embody that spirit. Even on her bold 2014 civil rights drama “Selma,” a film that required the reenactment of riots, beatings and murders, DuVernay says that feeling of exultation never dissipated. “Exude the joy, and your best work will happen,” she says.

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With her latest project, “When They See Us,” the Netflix limited series depicting the shocking events surrounding the 1989 Central Park Five case, DuVernay struggled to find the joy. She tried to create a positive atmosphere on set during the 66-day New York shoot, and by all accounts, she did. (“Underwater, she may be paddling for her life,” says friend and series co-star Niecy Nash, who has worked with DuVernay on three projects, “but head above water, she is the very picture of grace under fire.”) Inside though, DuVernay was laboring under the emotional weight of making this 5½-hour series.

“I remember one day, I got to the car in the morning and asked, ‘What day is it?’ ” DuVernay recalls. “ ‘Tuesday.’ ‘No. What is the number of days we’ve been shooting?’ And my driver, this great guy, asked, ‘Should I tell you the number of days we’ve been shooting or the number of days we have to go?’ I answered: ‘Which sounds better?’ That was where I was at. I had to drag myself out of bed every day. I don’t know how I got through it.”

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The answer to how DuVernay endured seems simple enough in hindsight. She kept her eyes on the prize — not shiny awards, though with 16 Emmy nominations, including for limited series, “When They See Us” has a chance to earn a few of those. But there was a greater goal. She wanted to honor the truth of the five teenage boys of color who were wrongfully convicted — and eventually exonerated — of beating and raping a white female jogger in 1989.

On top of that, DuVernay wanted to interrogate a criminal justice system plagued by institutional racism, showing how rights are stripped away from people even after they serve their sentence. (“It’s like indentured servitude,” DuVernay says, reiterating a prominent idea from her 2016 Emmy-winning documentary, “13th.”)

“There’s something prophetic about her,” says actress Aunjanue Ellis, Emmy-nominated for her portrayal of Sharonne Salaam, the mother of Yusef Salaam, one of the accused boys. Ellis notes that DuVernaycomes from a Baptist church background that talks about prophecy not just related to an ability to see the future but to speak with wisdom to troubled times.

“When we were making the film, we had no idea that it would affect the world in the way it has. But I think she saw that,” Ellis continues. “She saw that if she did this right, it wouldn’t just be a series but something that could exact some kind of justice that these young men deserved but failed to get. That’s prophetic. That’s wisdom. That’s being blessed of sight.”

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Though confident in her abilities as a filmmaker, DuVernay warmly deflects any discussion of her gifts. She does say that the finished version of “When They See Us” matches what she had in her mind when she began the project, the first time that has happened in her career. (“Hopefully not the last,” she adds with a laugh.)

Making the series reminded her of her early forays into indie filmmaking — “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere” — movies that were made quickly and with complete autonomy while she was still running her publicity agency.

“I didn’t have to serve anyone with ‘When They See Us’ other than the men I was trying to portray,” she says. By contrast, her two last features came with hefty, built-in expectations. “Selma” had Martin Luther King Jr. at its center; “A Wrinkle in Time” adapted Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved young-adult novel.

“So writing this just felt like freedom,” DuVernay says, “which was fantastic.”

The doing of it, however, was a different thing entirely. The series moves from the police interrogating the young boys, presuming guilt and coercing false confessions, through their tilted trial, juvenile detention, the brutality of the prison system, the adversity of life after incarceration and, finally, almost miraculously, vindication.

As a director, DuVernay needed to guide her young actors, and the daily emotional labor of doing that through an endless stretch of traumatic scenes wore her down. Nash remembers spending a Sunday at DuVernay’s apartment during the shoot when the two put on sweatpants and fuzzy socks, ordered Chinese food and frozen yogurt and relaxed, temporarily putting aside the pressures of work.

“Ava’s the type of director that feels what you feel in the moment,” says Nash, also Emmy-nominated for her work in the series. “If you’re crying in a scene, she’ll come up to you afterward to give you a note with tears in her eyes. She’s definitely co-laboring in her actors’ work. I knew it was a lot on her shoulders. So that Sunday was a lovely stolen moment in the middle of all that. And sometimes that’s all you can afford.”

When she finished “When They See Us” around Thanksgiving, DuVernay high-tailed it home to Los Angeles. Because Netflix localizes its content throughout the world, she had to edit and turn in the four episodes by early March in order to make its May 31 premiere date. Before starting, she and her team dove into Netflix’s mountain of data, paying particular attention to the numbers that showed when viewers stopped watching a show if they weren’t engaged. “You respect that science,” DuVernay says.

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She and her editing team, including longtime collaborator Spencer Averick, cut the opening episode 14 different ways, trying to figure out how to hook the audience and then keep them for another five-plus hours.

The answer came from honoring something DuVernay had repeated since starting the project. “When They See Us” is about the five boys, now men, known as the Exonerated Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. So the series begins with them, dropping in on their young adolescent lives in Harlem. Opening like that immediately told the audience what was most important.

Netflix is famously cagey with its viewership numbers, reporting them, without verification, only when it serves its interest. A spokesperson for the streamer says that 25 million households watched “When They See Us” in its first four weeks. DuVernay has seen the data, marveling at the percentage of viewers who finished the series. “I just wish everyone could know it because the numbers are fascinating,” she says. Pressed to share, she laughs. “Then the Mafia comes to my house.”

For DuVernay, everything comes back to reach. When she began as a filmmaker, she created her own distribution company (now called Array) to put “I Will Follow” in front of audiences. Making “When They See Us” for Netflix means that a challenging, 5½-hour series about race and the broken criminal justice system will be seen by millions of people who don’t have a movie theater in their neighborhood.

“I wanted as many people as possible to go on this journey with these boys,” DuVernay says, adding that the best thing about the Emmy nominations is that it “brings more light on the project through the whole summer.”

She’s spending her summer continuing to promote “When They See Us,” as well as work on the script for an adaptation of the DC superhero comic “New Gods.” DuVernay also recently signed a multiyear deal with the Warner Bros. Television Group, and she says she’s writing a lot of “TV stuff.”

“I like to surprise,” DuVernay says, avoiding specifics. She does note she’s no longer working on Netflix’s multipart Prince documentary, saying she had “creative differences” with the company after working for a year on the project. “It just didn’t work out,” she says. “There’s a lot of beautiful material there. I wish them well.”

Jettisoning that does solve one problem, though — at least temporarily. On her Twitter bio, DuVernay lists all her films, noting she’s a “mom of 10.” The tally, ending with a little love (“xo”), maxes out the space’s character count.

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She has contacted Twitter.

“I need more room,” she says, laughing, “because I’ve got more kids coming.”


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