Photo: Liz O. Baylan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Using Her Outside Voice
Ava DuVernay was standing on a run-down street corner in East Los Angeles nearly ten years ago, looking on as Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx shot a scene for Collateral. "I was on this set with Tom," says DuVernay, a publicist for the film," and someone else's story was being told on the streets where I had personally experienced things. And it hit me: I have stories of my own to tell. Would they garner Hollywood attention? Probably not. Were they still valuable? Definitely."

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

Photo: Getty Images/Courtesy of ESPN Films

The Film: No Limits
The Athlete: Freediver Audrey Mestre

Her Legacy: Training under the supervision of her husband, freediver Francisco Ferreras, Mestre died while attempting to dive 561 feet—what would have been a world record—at age 28. Did her husband push her too far? This movie investigates.

Airs: July 16

Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

The Film: Swoopes
The Athlete: WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes

Her Legacy: Sports journalist Hannah Storm profiles the three-time Olympic gold medalist, who fearlessly helped jump-start the WNBA, gave birth during her first season and then came out as one of the first high-profile gay athletes.

Airs: July 30

Photo: Robert Riger/Getty Images

The Film: Runner
The Athlete: Distance runner Mary Decker

Her Legacy: The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles could have been Decker's big win—until a nasty collision with fellow competitor Zola Budd in the midst of the 3,000-meter race. The film follows how she coped with the life-changing fall, including the two runners' reconciliation.

Airs: August 13

Next: Game on: Pat Summitt on the fight of her life