Director Ava DuVernay focuses lens on storytelling at Pan African Studies Forum

Ava DuVernay

Trailblazing filmmaker and entrepreneur Ava DuVernay told a packed house at Cal State L.A. that films and television shows need more nuanced, complex characters to accurately portray real-life stories.

DuVernay, who directed Selma, was the keynote speaker Thursday night during the 8th annual Pan-African Studies Forum at the University’s Luckman Theatre.

As a Black woman, DuVernay said, she brings a different perspective when writing screenplays or directing films.

“The story is in the eye of the storyteller,” said DuVernay, who took part in a conversation on the Luckman stage with Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar, a Cal State L.A. professor of Pan-African Studies.

For Selma, DuVernay became the first African American woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe and the first to have a film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, she won the Best Director Prize for her feature film Middle of Nowhere. She was the first Black woman director to win that award.

DuVernay came to campus after leading a daylong “Rebel-a-Thon” on Twitter that involved dozens of Black filmmakers and artists. The goal was to raise awareness for the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a distribution collective of Black arts organizations dedicated to quality Black independent films that was founded by DuVernay.

Her keynote address capped an evening of celebration of and recognition for Cal State L.A.’s Department of Pan-African Studies. The department was established in 1969 and is the second such department in the nation.

Earlier in the evening, department chair Melina Abdullah welcomed guests at the Scholarship Awards Dinner. Scholarships are named in honor of C.R.D. Halisi, a department faculty member who passed away two years ago. The event featured drummers, poets and speakers discussing the importance of Pan-African Studies in preparing students to become leaders in the struggle for social justice.

Among those who attended were Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Cal State Long Beach, who is a prominent activist-scholar, and Ayuko Babu, who is executive director of the Pan African Film Festival and a Cal State L.A. alumnus. As a student, Babu helped found the Department of Pan-African Studies.Ava DuVernay in conversation.

Also attending were President William A. Covino, Provost Lynn Mahoney and College of Natural and Social Sciences Dean Scott Bowman.

The dinner featured a moving tribute to Monique Rivera, a Pan-African studies major who recently passed away. Family members attended and received a letter of condolence presented by a representative of Congresswoman Karen Bass.

The forum was sponsored by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who attended the DuVernay event, as well as the Department of Pan-African Studies, Office of the President, College of Natural and Social Sciences, Division of Academic Affairs and the California Faculty Association.

Photos: Top, Ava DuVernay takes the stage at the Luckman. Bottom, DuVernay in conversation with Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar, a Cal State L.A. professor of Pan-African Studies. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State L.A.)


Cal State L.A. is a university dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 24,000 students, and 235,000 distinguished alumni, who are as diverse as the city we serve. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, Cal State L.A. has long been recognized as an engine of economic and social mobility. Led by an award-winning faculty, the University offers nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education and the humanities.

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