Ava DuVernay says 'deeply meaningful' to mark end to Hollywood strikes in Toronto

TORONTO — Trailblazing director Ava DuVernay said Thursday she was “overjoyed” to learn the Hollywood actors’ strike had ended while she was in Toronto to help salute Viola Desmond, calling the news “deeply meaningful” to happen while christening a new theatre in the Canadian civil rights hero’s name.

Her comments followed an eventful Wednesday evening at TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the Viola Desmond Cinema opened with a special presentation of DuVernay’s upcoming film, “Origin.” During the screening, news broke that unionized Hollywood actors reached a tentative deal with the major studios and streamers, ending a historic, months-long labour dispute that has shaken the entertainment industry on both sides of the border.

In a post-film Q&A with DuVernay, TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey began by remarking, “Congratulations on this incredible film, and it’s a big night for another reason: The strike is over!”

The cinephiles in the audience erupted in applause.

On Thursday, DuVernay said she learned the strike had ended from “Origin” star Aunjanue Ellis, who called during the screening.

“I put [Aunjanue] on FaceTime, and she’s screaming and she’s happy and she’s smiling,” said DuVernay, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated documentary “13th” and the Emmy-winning limited series “When They See Us.”

“And she just says, ‘It’s over! It’s over!’ And I just thought, ‘What a night. I felt like we were blessed by Viola Desmond in some way to say, ‘Keep going.’”

TIFF Bell Lightbox renamed its largest theatre the Viola Desmond Cinema in honour of the Black Canadian civil rights activist who took a stand against racial segregation in 1946, refusing to leave a whites-only area at a cinema in New Glasgow, N.S.

The rebranding comes with a $2 million fundraising campaign to champion Black women creators.

DuVernay joined Bailey and members of Desmond’s family for the unveiling of a silver plaque emblazoned “Viola Desmond Cinema.”

DuVernay said she hadn’t heard of Desmond until she was asked to participate in the cinema’s reveal.

“I was upset that I hadn't learned about her, not that I need to know everything in Canadian history, but this is pretty significant,” she said.

“I'm a Black woman in film. This woman made history in a movie house. I'd never heard her name before this summer, when Cameron Bailey called and said, ‘Would you like to come commemorate the theatre of Viola Desmond?’ I said, ‘Viola Davis?’ He said, ‘No, Viola Desmond.’

“And then I said, ‘Wait, she’s on your money?’”

DuVernay said Desmond’s story of defiance and courage immediately resonated with her.

“I feel a personal connection to people who are pioneers and people who've pushed past the obstacles of their birth, of the random selection of your gender and your race and wherever in the world you were born.”

The director said learning about the strike's end during the inaugural screening in Desmond’s cinema was “all so beautifully symmetrical and aligned that it felt like it was meant to be.”

Earlier this year, DuVernay became the first African American woman to have a film compete at the Venice Film Festival with “Origin.” She’s excited that the film’s actors can now join her in the promotional run.

“It’s been only me being able to talk about a picture that I collaborated on with other artists,” she said.

“Just to be able to sit side-by-side with the actors and talk about what we've done and present it and share it, it feels like a new lease on life.”

“Origin” is inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed non-fiction book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Ellis portrays Wilkerson as she researched and wrote the book while grappling with the loss of her husband, mother and cousin. It’s set for wide release on Jan. 19, 2024.

Ever since the strike ended, “Origin”’s actors have been blowing up DuVernay’s phone asking for the film’s assets.

“Everyone was texting me this morning saying ‘I need pictures! I need the trailer!’ Because they haven't been able to even post on social media. Niecy Nash hit me up this morning at 6 a.m. Toronto time. She's in Los Angeles, so that's 3 a.m. her time. She's like, ‘I need pictures to post on IG!’ So everyone's excited.”

– Alex Nino Gheciu is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2023.

Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press