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Known to millions of readers, Madeleine L'Engle's beloved fantasy book "A Wrinkle in Time" is breaking into a new dimension: as a big-budget Disney film. Director Ava DuVernay is the first African-American woman to lead a $100 million film production, and is actively working to change the culture of Hollywood. Jeffrey Brown reports.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay has been breaking down walls in her industry for several years with widely acclaimed films.
Now, as Jeffrey Brown tells us, the pioneering director is taking on a different challenge, overseeing the adaptation of a much-beloved book, a movie with a big budget and big expectations to boot.
It's a trip to a fifth dimension of space travel through what's called a tesseract, a kind of portal through the galaxies, better known to millions of readers as "A Wrinkle in Time."
Madeleine L'Engle's beloved 1962 science fiction novel for young readers now comes to new life as a big-budget Disney film, as young Meg Murry and her companions search the universe for her missing scientist father, and do battle with dark forces of evil.
I saw the girl. I saw the girl as hero, Meg Murry.
This week in New York, I spoke to director Ava DuVernay.
The girl who's the leader, even though she doesn't think that she is or can be. I loved that story and wanted to make sure that it was told, but also told from a perspective that included images where all kinds of girls and boys could possibly see themselves in it.
It's the same story. Just has different skin.
It's a deeply emotional story of love and loss, but one in which science and brains are more important than brute force.
The features Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon as the three mysterious astral travelers who serve as guides to the young adventurers.
At the heart of the story here, a mixed-race family, with 14-year-old Storm Reid playing Meg.
I'm conscious of the fact that there hasn't been a hero, kind of a cinematic leading lady who's the heroine of her own story, that's been in the body of a black girl.
And so to have the opportunity, with Disney's blessing, to say, let's expand this and make sure that all kinds of kids can see themselves in the film, and I'm proud of that, simply because, really, something that Mindy Kaling said to me, I used to love this genre, youth fantasy/sci-fi, but it never loved me back. I never saw myself in it.
Is this something you thought about from the moment you took it on, or as you were thinking about what you were going to create?
I don't have the privilege of not thinking about it, to be honest with you. It's not like a quirky thing that I think about, or it comes to mind. It's life.
And so, when I'm making a film, asserting myself in images of people like me, women and people of color, in places where we have been long absent isn't a kind of cool thing to do for the movie.
Asserting my presence in a film is not anything that requires any thought. It just is, because it must be if I'm working on it.
On Twitter, the 45-year-old DuVernay calls herself a girl from Compton who got to make a Disney movie.
Today, she's a top director, producer, and screenwriter, as well as film marketer and distributor, actively working to change the culture of Hollywood.
Her 2012 film, "Middle of Nowhere," made her the first African-American woman to win the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival. She received wider fame and recognition in 2015 with her historical drama "Selma," which received an Oscar nomination for best picture.
The next year, she made "13th," a critically acclaimed documentary about the intersection of race and mass incarceration. And she's the creator of the OWN Network television drama "Queen Sugar," set in Louisiana on a family-owned sugarcane farm.
As the show's executive producer, DuVernay has made a point to hire all women directors.
With "A Wrinkle in Time," DuVernay becomes the first African-American woman to lead a $100 million film production.
Is it surprising that that's still a thing?
No. I mean, we live — I work in an industry where, unfortunately, it's no surprise that it's taken until 2018 to make this so. So, it doesn't surprise me.
It's bittersweet. It's not anything that I applaud in myself or anything that I wear as a badge of honor. I think it's a real indictment of…
Because you look back at why it hasn't happened before.
Yes, it's an indictment of an industry that's ignored incredible black women, brown women, all kinds of women of color filmmakers for decades, a century, over a century.
So the fact that there's been a decision to put a light on me has nothing to do with me. It has to do with a trend in the industry and the moment, and I happen to be standing here.
She recently formed a partnership with the city of Los Angeles and others to fund 150 Hollywood internships for women, people of color and those with low income.
And DuVernay herself became a different kind of role model when Mattel made a Barbie Doll of her. At Sunday's Oscars, she appeared in a video calling for wider inclusion, and though she praised this year's event, she says lasting change in the industry is still to come.
I think change is a big word. Is there a spark? Is there a leaning-in, an interest, an awareness that change should occur? Yes.
But change involves systems. You know what I mean? True change involves a real disassembling of architecture and systems that we have not achieved, we have not even gotten close to.
So, what does it take to change at this point, beyond the kind of work individuals like yourself are doing?
There's so many different layers, you know, filmmaker proficiency, what images are seen as valuable, who are the curators, who are the people who are deciding what the audiences should see, cultivation of audience, selection of where theaters are around the country.
There's a cinema segregation that happens in this country. I just took "Wrinkle in Time" to Compton, a city that has no movie theater. We had to create a movie theater. We had to create a movie theater in Selma to show the film "Selma," because it's a black community with no movie theater.
So then you get into, which images are valuable and which audiences are valuable? So it's a complex question.
Yes, not only what is getting made, but who gets to see it, right?
Do you see yourself as an artist who is always interested in this examining and remaking the world?
Art is simply entertainment that has meaning, you know?
There are some things that are empty calories, and there are some things that are soul food. And I prefer soul food.
With "A Wrinkle in Time," DuVernay says she has the chance to speak directly to young people.
It's really about the times that I have been the most content in life are the times that I didn't focus on the darkness, didn't focus on where I was from or what I didn't have.
And it's just a shift in perception about the way we walk through our days. Imagine if you had a million people living in that heart space. It would be transformative for the culture.
A shift in perception, like that wrinkle in time that transports the characters in her new film to unimagined worlds.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
DuVernay's next project is a miniseries about the Central Park 5 case, in which black men were wrongly convicted of a brutal rape.
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