After helping to market the films of venerable directors like Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann, DuVernay, 40, realized "it was time to create, to not be the caretaker of other people's work." She has since worked tirelessly to establish herself as a gutsy storyteller of female strife, most notably with last year's soul-stirring Middle of Nowhere. She debuted the film, which follows a nurse whose husband is in prison, at Sundance to ecstatic praise (Oprah tweeted that it was "powerful and poetic") and became the first black woman to earn the festival's Best Director award for drama.
Soon after, ESPN asked DuVernay to create a documentary for this summer's Nine for IX film series, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Elated, she pitched the story of Venus Williams's fight for equal prize money for female tennis pros at Wimbledon. Within two weeks, she had the green light for Venus VS.
Her ideas haven't always been as eagerly received. When DuVernay first shopped around gritty tales about her hometown, Compton, both big studios and independent companies shied away. Undaunted, DuVernay spent her free time mastering lighting and editing with small-budget documentaries. In 2009 she "made a down payment on a new career," spending all $48,000 of her savings on creating I Will Follow, a semiautobiographical drama about overcoming the death of her beloved aunt. To release the film, she founded a distribution group for black cinema, called AFFRM. "After experiencing many closed doors," she says, "I wanted to build a house for independent filmmakers of color who might be on the outside elsewhere."
In her latest act of storytelling, which premieres July 2 on ESPN, DuVernay is particularly proud to focus on Williams. "Venus has been in the spotlight since she was 12, yet she is this bright, funny, wildly intelligent black woman from my same inner city," she says. "From her feminism and activism to her quiet focus and subtle strength, her presence alone is inspiring." — Carrie Rickey
Next: 3 more not-to-be-missed stories from ESPN's Nine for IX series