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Ava DuVernay Explains Her Approach of 'Normalization' Over 'Representation' in The CW's Naomi

Kaci Walfall stars as Naomi in the new series based on the DC Comics superhero

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Kat Moon

When Ava DuVernay heard that a DC Comics book about a Black girl superhero was about to drop, she thought, "That's got to be mine." The book is Naomi, and the series of the same name developed by DuVernay and Arrow alum Jill Blankenship —and based on the character who first appeared in the DC Universe in 2019—premieres on The CW on Jan. 11. 

"It was different than most fully-formed superheroes where we just dive into the comic and she's who she is and she knows everything that's going on," DuVernay said about why Naomi's origin story appealed to her during a panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. In the show, the eponymous character portrayed by Kaci Walfall is a charismatic teen and Superman superfan who discovers otherworldly powers hidden within her and begins to search for the truth about her identity. 

"This was really the steps to becoming powerful, the steps to realizing your destiny," DuVernay added. It's largely why even though the drama belongs to the superhero genre, the filmmaker said she thinks of the series as a coming-of-age story more than a sci-fi one. "I love that all comics are really personal human stories about the journeys that we all take writ large in issues of heroism and magic," she added. 

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For Walfall, part of authentically portraying Naomi's emotions in her self-discovery process comes from having few details about the specifics of the character's abilities. "When I first auditioned, there weren't talks about her superpowers so I was really intrigued about that," she said. "I think that as an actor, it's nice because I can tell the most truthful story when I don't know what's coming next." Walfall also discussed the layered dynamics of someone growing into a superhero as a teen. "I think anyone with power feels responsibilities," she said, adding that Naomi's sense of responsibility for those around her may be both good and bad. "She's only 16," Walfall said.

Asked about how Naomi tackles the subject of race at the panel, DuVernay said the show takes an approach that's "not about representation" but "about normalization." "We're doing really muscular things as it relates to race and gender and class, but we're doing it by playing it normal, like it's just a part of the everyday," she described. DuVernay explained that what's radical is "portray[ing] images without underlining them, highlighting them, and putting a star next to them"—and centering a different kind of superhero, like a Black girl, to start to make that normal. 

DuVernay also spoke about taking on Naomi and how she selects her next projects. "I'm in a lucky position that I get to do what interests me," she said. "A documentary on the prison-industrial complex interests me, a DC Comic about a Black girl who loves Superman and becomes like him interests me as well." And DuVernay easily finds common threads through her work. She shared an anecdote of editing Naomi earlier in the day, and how a scene between Walfall and Cranston Johnson, who plays the show's early antagonist Zumbado, brought a tear to her eye. "I was like, I'm literally editing a young adult drama," DuVernay described. "I'm here emotional like I am if I'm editing 13thand When They See Us just because of the human pieces of it."

Naomi premieres Tuesday, Jan. 11 at 9/8c on The CW. 

Kaci Walfall, Naomi

Kaci Walfall, Naomi

The CW