Black intellectualism, particularly in the public sphere, tends to be associated with male figures from the academy. This trend risks excluding a broader range of viewpoints and traditions – particularly the contributions of Black women, artists and community organisers whose intellectual praxis has been wrought from experiences outside the academic paradigm. This article argues that filmmaker and activist Ava DuVernay should be recognised as a Black female public intellectual. It demonstrates how DuVernay uses her work to grapple with the racial histories, philosophies and ideologies which have permeated American history and society. An artist-intellectual-activist, DuVernay sits in a historical lineage of Black artists employing visual cultures to interrogate and resist the operation of racism in the United States. Her work centres and explores Black lives, particularly women, rendering Black characters as complex and multifarious – an act of intellectual rebellion against a hegemonic narrative that centres whiteness, a narrative which has long dominated mainstream film. Through intellectual labour adjacent to her filmmaking, DuVernay also works to promote the perspectives of women and people of colour as interventions in the national imaginary. Ava DuVernay’s work and approach demonstrate that a multiplicity of intellectual identities exist beyond the academy.