The Sundance Film Festival recently honored Ava DuVernay with its Best Director prize for her new drama, “Middle of Nowhere.” Since she began her second career as a director just five years ago, DuVernay has represented the best of what Black cinema can be. With as much entrepreneurial spirit and drive as Spike Lee and Oscar Micheaux combined, she quickly expanded her vision beyond herself, daring to cultivate a community of filmmakers of color who support one another from pre-production to distribution and exhibition. In 2011, DuVernay launching AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) to do exactly what the acronym says and sounds like: to affirm and empower a collective of filmmakers dedicated to re-imagining us on screen.
Social media first started buzzing about DuVernay two years ago, thanks to her BET feature documentary on women in hip-hop “My Mic Sounds Nice” (partly because the thing looked so good). Her debut “I Will Follow” is often called “quiet”, but is really just a nuanced, dignified approach to the relationship between two women in a family, one of whom is dying. We are desperate for growth and sophistication in Black film; Ava DuVernay, who seems like she’s never met a task to big to take on, brilliantly brings those much-desired qualities to the screen. Here we talk about her weekend win, big budget flicks versus small ones and the millions of women waiting on their men to come home.
EBONY: How significant is it for you to be the first Black woman director to win Sundance? How amazing did it feel? Were you anticipating a win?
I wasn’t anticipating it. Every filmmaker in dramatic competition knew going into awards night that “Beasts of The Southern Wild” was going to sweep. We showed up to hang out, say goodbye to each other, have a drink, but no one thought anyone but “Beasts…” would win in the major categories. It was regarded by many as a groundbreaking, visual spectacle and it was a sweetheart of of the festival. I was literally stunned stupid when they called my name, I didn’t even know which way to walk onstage, it was so unexpected, I had no hope of winning. My win has been written about as an upset. When I was called up I heard screams and I heard gasps. The women and the people of color erupted in cheers and when I got up to the mic I could see the other half of the audience scratching their heads like ‘What just happned?’
In terms of the significance of the award, it’ll help draw eyeballs to the film. And for me, as an independent distributor working with Participant, (that’s) two very boutique companies coming together to do something special. The award helps draw attention to the film. It’s an honor that I cherish as a new filmmaker who’s transitioning to a second career, it affirms so much for me. As a filmmaker who didn’t go to film school, who‘s working off of instinct and observation and a lot of tools that aren’t traditional and who sometimes wonders ‘Am I doing this right?’ it’s great for my confidence. It’ll look great on a poster and hopefully people will come to see the film… But there’s no point in feeling too haughty about it, it’s all subjective. I’ve seen too many examples of work being awarded and it not doing anything for the career of the person getting the award.
EBONY: During your acceptance speech, you spoke to the need for independent Black films to be seen beyond the festival circuit and for other Black filmmakers to see and support each other’s film. Can you discuss why you founded AFFRM and your goals when it comes to distributing indy films?
The goal for AFFRM is to further and foster the Black cinematic image. I don’t feel that there’s any care being taken as a community in regards to our images on the big screen, and if we leave that responsibility to the studios we see where we get. I think that too often it’s just people working in vacuums, as opposed to people holding hands to do something meaningful together. Part of the reason I started AFFRM was to connect some dots. I knew so many people around the country who were really concerned about the Black cinematic image and it was at the front of their advocacy and artistry, but they just weren’t connected to each other or to the heads and curators of these film festivals and film series. There just wasn’t any conversation. We launched last year and had a trio of dinners at Sundance in 2011. We launched two films; one year after the day we launched, we’re back at Sundance and our film was acquired by Participant and AFFRM. In a couple of weeks, we’re going to announce our third film by another director.
EBONY: “Middle of Nowhere” is about a romantic relationship between a man who’s locked up and a woman on the outside. Please tell us more.
It follows the story of one sister whose just lost her husband to incarceration. The film opens with a conversation between them about how they’re going to proceed now that he’s locked up. (The fllm explores) the decision that she makes and the decisions that are made for her and the woman she becomes and how she maintains this relationship as she holds onto her own personhood. We never go further into the prison than she does; it’s from her point of view, so we only go as far as the visiting room. We walk through her life as the wife of an incarcerated prisoner. The prison industrial complex certainly hasn’t been addressed cinematically by progressive people or people of color. I’m aware and knowledgeable of women who are waiting. Whether it be mothers or sisters or wives or lovers, it’s an epidemic. But “Middle of Nowhere” is really about her inner life as she waits, as she struggles, as she tries to maintain this relationship beyond bars.
dream hampton has written about culture for 20 years. She’s a mother, an activist and an award-winning filmmaker. She lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter: @dreamhampton