In bringing AaFFRM films into theaters and markets where natural constituencies exist, DuVernay says she hopes to cultivate a black indie-film audience that has historically proved elusive. (The issue is lightly touched on in “Middle of Nowhere,” when a character played by David Oyelowo playfully says to Ruby that if she’s going to take him to a movie “a brother’s got to read.”) Cinematographer Bradford Young, who shot “Middle of Nowhere” as well as “Restless City” and “Pariah,” observes that, just as the white indie filmgoing tradition emerged along with the art form, the black audience will develop in time.
“The people who were left out of that are just now pushing through,” says Young, who adds that the typical AaFFRM film “may not speak to everybody, but even if speaks to a handful, that’s great. I think we have an audience, we just have to keep pushing to make the films we’re making. The more ‘Restless Cities’ there are, I think the more we can create and curate a better eye in the audience.”
Now that she’s become a distributor and a booker, DuVernay has entered a part of the film business known for being tough, even ruthless. Although she’s found allies in such theater chains at Laemmle and Regal Entertainment (“Middle of Nowhere” is playing at the Regal Gallery Place in D.C.), she admits that others have been less supportive.
“If I told you some of the stories and things that I hear booking, your head would spin,” she says. “Things that people wouldn’t even say out loud in other forums.” A theater in a well-heeled, predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn told DuVernay that “Middle of Nowhere” was “not for our audience.” The filmmaker responded, “Well, what is your audience?” she recalls. “ ‘The art-house crowd.’ I said: ‘Well, this film won best director at Sundance; it was a special selection at Toronto. What do you mean?’ And they said, ‘Well, we just don’t think it’s gonna play.’ . . . [As] one of the two or three black people handling hands-on distribution, what are you saying when you tell me that you have an art-house crowd, but this film can’t play there?”
What they’re saying is that, like so many churches on Sunday mornings, movie theaters on Friday night are subject to a form of cultural self-segregation — one that dismays DuVernay but doesn’t discourage her. “The question is: Does it matter?” she says. “I think that’s what I and a lot of my colleagues in AaFFRM are asking. Isn’t it enough that people of color are getting their own vibe, energy, movement around these films? Do we work in a place where we’re always running after outside approval, from an industry that does not make a place for us?”
The way she and her colleagues are answering that question — both in making films and making sure they find their audience — “means a lot,” she says. “It’s the way we see ourselves, and it’s the way that we’re seen.”