The Ava DuVernay narrative, having now been told by some of the finest newspapers and magazines around the country, including stalwarts like the New York Times and Vanity Fair, is filled with themes of perseverance, innovation and an unwavering spirit of self-determination.
Yet in actuality, Ava is not about any of that superficial ish. She’s not “caught up” in the Hollywood and/or celebrity trip: dinner parties with famous people, an eyebrow raising rolodex, signing big checks. DuVernay may indeed have access to much of that now, following endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, and a recent buzzed about appearance on The Tavis Smiley Show, but she’s clearly not about that life.
No, what she’s about is art. She’s just the somewhat rare artist who seems nearly as adept at, and passionate about, her business and the mechanics of branding as she does about making films that challenge the stock characterizations of black women in American cinema. That’s what her first narrative feature film, 2011’s I Will Follow, did. It starred the criminally under-appreciated Salli Richardson-Whitfield, and was the first official AFFRM release. Not only was the movie a critical success; earning, for example, sustained raves and support from iconic film critic Roger Ebert, but it also made a lot of money, well beyond its approximate $50,000, self-funded by Ava, production budget.
I Will Follow’s success led to AFFRM acquiring and releasing two other films: last year’s Sundance Audience award-winner, Kinyarwanda, by Alrick Brown, and most recently, Andrew Dosunmu’s atmospheric gem, Restless City. Both releases were largely heralded for their cinematic quality, as well as for the “new model” utilized by AFFRM to provide both films with national releases, all proudly done outside of the claustrophobically white, mainstream Hollywood system.
And so that brings us to Middle of Nowhere, Ava’s second narrative feature film, which besides the Oscar buzz that it is generating for both her, and breakout star, Emayatzy Corinealdi, has already received multiple nominations at the prestigious Gotham Independent Film Awards. And this is just the very beginning of the awards season, folks. The film was already distinguished by the fact that Ava became the first African-American woman to win Sundance’s Best Director Award, for it, earlier this year. And prior to the movie’s release in just a handful of theaters last weekend, the mythical O, aka, Oprah Winfrey, tweeted praise for the film, which further raised its already high profile. And then there are the reviews; astonishing in their uniformly positive critiques, and notably from top publications, like the aforementioned New York Times, Vogue and The Atlantic.
The film centers on the life of Ruby, portrayed by future star Emayatzy Corinealdi, who works as a nurse, while enduring a separation from her beloved husband, Derek, portrayed by Omari Hardwick, who is currently serving time in prison. All of that is exquisitely explored, as is Ruby’s growing relationship with Brian, portrayed by David Oyelowo of Red Tails fame. Besides its potent direction by Ava, the film also benefits from the ethereal style of cinematography that is being patented by DuVernay’s frequent collaborator, Bradford Young.
Reportedly shot for about half a million dollars, Middle of Nowhere was the highest grossing film in theaters last weekend, per screen average. This art-house film, distributed by AFFRM in partnership with Participant Media, expands to 22 theaters this weekend, including a screen here in Norfolk, at Cinemark Military Circle Mall.
It is on the occasion of the movie’s first VA opening that I got to speak, by phone, to Ms. DuVernay about the film, and of course, AFFRM, as well as her take on the larger movement by artists of color that she is clearly a primary part of. She was remarkable to talk to, completely unaffected by all of the attention and buzz, but resolute in her desire to share Middle of Nowhere with as wide an audience as possible. And that includes us. Excerpts are below:
When you found out that your film, Middle of Nowhere, had the highest per screen average of any film in release last weekend, how did you react?
…We saw it happening, that we were having a good turnout, but we didn’t know that it was going to be number one, because we can’t see everyone else’s turnout. So when we got to the end of the weekend, and all the numbers were published, so we could actually see what we did comparatively… We then really understood the full impact of the fact that we won the weekend in the independent space, had the highest per screen average of all films that weekend, including Taken and Argo, and that it was a real accomplishment, not only for just a black independent film, but for AFFRM.
Before, the idea of being able to distribute in a different way, without permission, with our own hands, and that it can really work in a lot of different ways… We don’t really predicate success on industry standards as much…but to have that kind of, very industry win, certainly was a thing that kind of sends a little ripple through the AFFRM organization to just know that we could move the dial in a major way…so, it was definitely exciting, we were able to kind of celebrate for a good sixty minutes (I laugh), until we had to figure out how to rebook, and get into next week…You gotta keep it moving…
I wanted to ask you, as far as the Oprah endorsement on Twitter, did you know about that, prior to the official tweet going out?
Yeah, well you have to remember that I’m the distributor, so (laughs), I know about everything that is happening with the film. So yes…I had no clue that it would be as effusive and as consistent, that it would be more than one, but I did know that she’d seen the film. And, she was kind of enough to reach out to me personally, beyond Twitter… I didn’t expect the second one. I didn’t expect the third one, and I didn’t expect the Facebook… It was lovely. And she’s been very kind to me. She’s been everything that you would hope she would be, in terms of off Twitter… It’s been really gorgeous.
Can you talk a bit about this renaissance, this movement that is happening right now, for black independent film?
Sure, I call it Black Art Rising. It’s really not even just in film. I mean I can talk specifically about film, but we see it happening with Katori Hall and Lynn Nottage and all these amazing people in theatre. We see it happening in the whole independent music space…In this last, kind of 5 year period, there’s been a real, just resurgence of meditative, complex, nuanced art from black people. And it’s in literature…Isabel Wilkerson. It’s happening all over the place. Within cinema specifically, I think because of the traditional walls that are collapsing around the barriers to entry, for film… We can pick up cameras, and great cameras, that are much more cost-effective, and that we can reach audiences without permission, without the traditional publicist, studio route. And that we can, tap into all of these different ways to make film and reach audiences that we were never privy to before, because we were locked into this Ivory Tower known as the studio system. So what we’re now seeing, are folks taking advantage of that, in a really amazing way…
So what is Middle of Nowhere centrally about?
The film is a love story, about a woman who is really in a middle place, literally. Her husband is recently incarcerated, very unexpectedly; she had no clue that he was involved in any activity that would possibly place him behind bars. So she’s faced with the decision, whether or not to stay with him, or to kind of go on with her life. And her choice is to stay with him. The film chronicles her journey and the ways in which that decision affects her own identity and her own personhood… So yeah, that’s what we explore…We have an amazing sister named Emayatzy Corinealdi in her first starring role in a feature film. She smashes it. Really for no other reason, if the love story doesn’t appeal to you, if the social action piece doesn’t appeal to you…if you don’t like black movies, or independent films…all the reasons that you may not want to go see this film, go see it to see for the performance of this woman who has just come out of the blue, and really has every frame of this film on her shoulders, and does an amazing job.
Middle of Nowhere premieres on BET on Wednesday, July 23 at 9/8c.