Last January, Ava DuVernay became the first African American woman to win the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival, for her sophomore effort “Middle of Nowhere.” But the biggest thrill had come earlier in the festival, when the film — the story of a Los Angeles nurse whose life is upended while her husband serves time in prison — was screened at a venue outside of Park City, Utah.
“This was not industry,” DuVernay recalled recently over lunch at Howard University, where she would address a group of students later that afternoon. “This was regular white folk, just people from Salt Lake City, from town. And we were floored by that screening. It was one of the most emotional — ”
“It was beautiful,” interjects Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays the film’s protagonist, Ruby. “It was overwhelmingly beautiful, their reaction.”
It’s not surprising that “Middle of Nowhere,” which opened in Washington on Friday, elicits a strong reaction. The quiet, scrupulously observed drama, anchored by a galvanizing breakout performance by Corinealdi, gives viewers an intimate portrait of contemporary life that is neither self-consciously naturalistic and or glossily romanticized. Rather, it gains its considerable cumulative power by telling its bittersweet truths simply, with sensitivity and an understated but elegant visual vocabulary.
On its face, “Middle of Nowhere” shouldn’t necessarily be a rarity. But as a contemporary drama by an African American woman, about working-class black people who aren’t gangsters, victims or entertainers, “Middle of Nowhere” is blazing trails aesthetically and narratively. DuVernay is part of a growing cadre of filmmakers of color — including Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”), Dee Rees (“Pariah”), Tanya Hamilton (“Night Catches Us”) and Andrew Dosunmu (“Restless City”) who are creating a new vernacular for black cinema, one that owes as much to the white independent tradition of John Cassavetes, John Sayles and Richard Linklater as to such African American pioneers as Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, John Singleton and Spike Lee.
“If I gave you a list of all the films that have been released by studios in the last five years, you’d have less than 10 percent that are contemporary dramatic representations of black people,” DuVernay says. “You’re going to have historical drama, you’re going to have Jackie Robinson, you’re going to have ‘The Great Debaters’ and ‘Red Tails,’ everything in hindsight. And you’re going to have contemporary comedy, which is useful and should be there. But no contemporary dramas, and that’s the stake that these filmmakers are planting.”
In creating films that occupy a singular space, both in terms of content (recognizably real life in 21st-century America) and form (perhaps best described as artful realism), DuVernay and her peers are also cultivating a particular audience — welcoming black filmgoers to consider small, non-star-driven movies and challenging white, art-house crowds to reconsider their own assumptions.
“At the L.A. Film Festival, we had a gala with 1,200 people — huge,” DuVernay recalls. ”And [the audience] was half white, half black. The white people there were mostly industry, cinephiles. And I asked the question: What does it take for a white person to go see a black film?”
Too often, what it takes is the kind of aestheticized “otherness” of such art-house darlings as “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” in which the marginal, impoverished life of a young black girl is depicted with an exoticism that borders on the condescendingly fetishistic. With movies like “Beasts” (and “Precious” before it) garnering praise and commercial success that have eluded less-sensational portrayals of black life by DuVernay and her peers, it bears asking what images of black lives white indie-film audiences are willing to see on-screen.
“I think there’s a spectacle around that film that is fine,” DuVernay says of “Beasts,” which also won an award at Sundance. “But I do ask about intention, and I ask about objectification. When is it okay to traffic in images of a black girl in poverty, as opposed to a black woman in the every day, and the interior movement of her heart? [Why is] that less than?
“I loved ‘A Separation,’ ” she continues, referring to the 2011 Iranian film. “Did they make it for me? No. So why can’t others love our cinema? I think that’s a question, but it’s not our primary question. Our primary question is making sure our films are available to anyone who wants to see them, particularly black people who feel [there’s] no balance in the images.”
Toward that end, DuVernay recently helped create the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AaFFRM), a distribution collective that releases films with the help of black film festivals and arts organizations around the country. Working with those local partners — in Washington, it’s Howard University’s MFA film program — AaFFRM books theaters and leverages the grass-roots network to aid in marketing and publicity. “We don’t go into a market unless we have family there,” says DuVernay, who brings her own expertise to bear on the enterprise: She’s a former publicist who worked on campaigns for such Hollywood productions as “Dreamgirls” and “Invictus.”
“We’ve basically created a bunch of people holding hands and distributing a film nationally,” she explains. “On the same day, with full national publicity and a little bit of ads, booking major theaters.” She emphasizes that AaFFRM isn’t a “four-wall,” whereby a filmmaker basically rents a theater to show her film, or a DIY effort. “These are standard bookings [within] national day-and-date, multi-market distribution outside of the studio system.”
DuVernay’s maiden voyage with AaFFRM was with “Restless City,” a poetic portrayal of an African immigrant’s life in New York. She has also released “Kinyarwanda” and her own feature debut, “I Will Follow.” Releasing only two films a year, she says, results in “a slow burn. On something like ‘Restless City,’ I was writing very small checks, and on ‘I Will Follow,’ I was writing very nice checks.” (The film made three times its $50,000 budget.)
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.”