She’s a Graduate of an Unusual Film School
Ava DuVernay, has directed Omari Hardwick and Emayatzy Corinealdi in “Middle of Nowhere.”
By CARRIE RICKEY
Published: October 5, 2012
Josh Haner/The New York Times
Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Mr. Hardwick in “I Will Follow” directed by Ava DuVernay.
Ava DuVernay and the cinematographer Bradford Young on the set of “Middle of Nowhere.”
MEMBERS of the Ava DuVernay admiration society are everywhere. In September a stranger interrupted her breakfast at Stuff I Eat, a soul food restaurant in Inglewood, Calif., to say how meaningful her movies are to him.
In August a young actress cornered her as she was leaving the White Dog, unofficial canteen of the University of Pennsylvania here, to tell her how much she “loved, loved, loved” “I Will Follow,” Ms. DuVernay’s 2011 rookie feature. “Also your documentary about women in hip-hop!” she added as Ms. DuVernay flew out the door to the BlackStar Film Festival.
Awaiting her arrival the standing-room crowd vibrated with the kind of excitement that typically greets a new-product introduction from Apple. Ms. DuVernay, smile dominating a heart-shaped face, shared a scene from her new film, “Middle of Nowhere.” This Sundance award winner is a poignant portrait of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a nurse doing hard time in emotional limbo while her husband serves a prison sentence. When the clip was over, a wail rose from viewers, hungry for more. An ebullient Ms. DuVernay told them they just had to wait until this Friday when the film would open in New York and four other cities.
A film marketer turned filmmaker, she knows her audience and how to stoke its desire. She speaks both as an artist and as an entrepreneur who is clearing a new path for film distribution. To the predominantly African-American crowd at BlackStar she talked about how to end-run the studios and find private equity to finance indie films. “It’s not about knocking on closed doors,” she said. “It’s about building our own house and having our own door.”
At that John Cuie, a filmmaker, jumped to his feet and exclaimed: “Ava DuVernay — I could write a 25-page paper on how you inspire me!”
At a time when the percentage of female filmmakers is at a 12-year low of 5 percent, according to a San Diego State University study, and that of black directors is even lower when you consider the top 250 movies at the box office last year, Ms. DuVernay, 40, is swimming upstream with long, assured strokes. Not for nothing is her production company called Forward Movement. Her experience on the business side of filmmaking — asking questions like: For whom are we making this movie? — makes her more focused as a director.
Louis Massiah, a documentary filmmaker and MacArthur Fellow, said: “Ava is charismatic, someone who knows the Hollywood inside game, who knows the art of film and who makes popular movies in the best sense of the word. She’s creating a whole new distribution channel to get movies — hers and those of others — out there.”
That channel is Affrm, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which Ms. DuVernay helped found in 2011, a collaborative group that brings select black-themed art films —- like “I Will Follow” and Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City” — to multiplexes in major cities.
“Middle of Nowhere” has a scene that crystallizes Ms. DuVernay’s aesthetic and wry humor. Faithful to her husband, Ruby agrees to go out with an admirer (David Oyelowo). She shyly confesses that she likes films, indie films. He looks at her askance: “Movies a brother’s got to read?”
Over the past 15 years Ms. DuVernay has evolved from movie publicist who represented Spike Lee, among other clients, to introducing “Middle of Nowhere” at the Toronto International Film Festival alongside “Bad 25,” Mr. Lee’s documentary commemorating the silver anniversary of Michael Jackson’s blockbuster album. No black woman had won a Sundance award for best director of a drama until she received that honor for “Nowhere” in January.
“She has a principled, practical approach,” said Robin Swicord, screenwriter of “Little Women” and writer-director of “The Jane Austen Book Club.” “Not every director working in indie filmmaking actually has a business sense.”
A native of Los Angeles, Ms. DuVernay was raised in Lynwood, near Compton. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1995, with majors in African-American studies and English.
“Film school was a privilege I could not afford,” she said matter of factly over lunch in Philadelphia. But she had creative stirrings.
As a teenager she expressed them in hip-hop, sharing her ideas and rhymes at the Good Life, a club not far from the University of Southern California campus. “It was the first time I had the experience of being an artist,” she said.
But with her pragmatism, taking care of business came first. After working in publicity for small companies like Savoy Pictures, she opened the DuVernay Agency in 1999. Her father, who owns a carpet and flooring company, gave her useful guidelines for building a successful small business: “Cash customers. No loans. No credit.”
The DuVernay Agency’s mission is to create connections to African-American audiences. A-list directors like Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) and Clint Eastwood (“Invictus”) tapped her to plan and execute their marketing campaigns.
As a unit publicist she had a privileged perspective that many aspiring filmmakers might trade a major motion picture deal for.
“I had a front-row seat at the best film school,” she said. Something clicked on the set of Michael Mann’s “Collateral” (2004), the Los Angeles nocturne starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. “I just thought I could do it,” she said. When off the clock she wrote the script for “Middle of Nowhere.” “I wanted to write about the sisters I saw. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who’s locked up.”
But not everybody, Ms. Swicord said, could “give us a portrait of what that disruption costs the women who’ve been left behind to anchor their community.”
From conception to delivery the film took nearly nine years.
During that time Ms. DuVernay took on new clients, worked on her own projects and ministered to a dying aunt. Out of that experience came “I Will Follow,” its title taken from a U2 song, about Maye, who over 12 hours packs up her aunt’s house, unpacks her own emotional baggage, takes stock and takes action. Ms. DuVernay’s second screenplay, it became her first produced feature.
Between writing her first script and directing her first feature, Ms. DuVernay developed her filmmaking eye and editing skills by making documentaries, including “My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip-Hop,” shown on BET in 2010. It was her first collaboration with Bradford Young, the cinematographer whose work gives “Middle of Nowhere” an emotional vibrancy matched by the actors’ performances.
Ms. DuVernay shot “I Will Follow” in 14 days on a $50,000 budget. “That’s how much was in my bank account,” she said. “Middle of Nowhere” had a 19-day shoot, half the studio average of 40 days, and cost under $500,000. “Follow,” released in five cities through Affrm, made back almost three times its budget.
Everyone who knows Ms. DuVernay talks about how centered she is. “What’s strangely missing is the anxiety,” Ms. Swicord said. “She’s humble and open and wise and curious.” Not to mention enviably productive.
“Working with Hollywood studios, I’m just used to having seven different projects in seven different stages,” she said. In the prelude to the release of “Nowhere” Ms. DuVernay is completing “Venus Versus,” an ESPN documentary about the tennis star Venus Williams and her successful campaign to win female players equal prize money at Wimbledon.
Ms. DuVernay makes features and documentaries about women at turning points. She herself is one of those women. In “My Mic Sounds Nice” Missy Elliott describes Queen Latifah in a rhyme equally applicable to Ms. DuVernay: “She took her space. She made her place.”
At the same time she makes space and place for others.