Juggling artistic goals and fiscal realities drives everything in the American cultural marketplace. But sometimes skilled, ambitious talents can reconcile these without letting one distort or subvert the other. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay demolishes the notion that indie filmmakers are all esoteric dreamers who refuse to consider commercial priorities. She's making challenging movies about subjects that aren't any studio's idea of high-concept fare, yet she's finding a substantial, even profitable market for them.
And this year, for her second feature — the relationship drama Middle of Nowhere, which opens Friday at The Belcourt — she became the first African-American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival's Best Director prize.
"I've never questioned there was an audience for the films I wanted to make," DuVernay says by phone during a recent interview. "I knew it would be a challenge to get them made and get them to that audience. I also knew they wouldn't make the kind of money you make on these blockbuster, big-budget Hollywood epics. But it doesn't cost anywhere near that much to make them, either, and if you take control of your marketing and distribution, and make certain that the audiences you are aiming for can see them, the rewards can be significant."
DuVernay has achieved within the cinematic world the same thing August Wilson did in the theater, crafting stories that are simultaneously targeted and universal. Both Middle of Nowhere and its predecessor I Will Follow are black love stories with predominantly African-American casts. Yet the subjects DuVernay addresses speak to everyone. Middle of Nowhere examines the alienation and loneliness a black woman experiences while trying to stay true to the imprisoned man she loves. The emotional turmoil experienced by Ruby (newcomer Emayatzy Corinealid, in a spectacular debut) will resonate with anyone involved in any type of difficult relationship.
While the vernacular and lexicon echo the black experience, Ruby's hesitation after being approached by a man eager to please and available (rising star David Oyelowo, from Red Tails and Lincoln) speaks to how tough being faithful can be, especially in the worst of times. The film doesn't follow a predictable or comfortable path, and its conclusion may surprise those viewing it through any standard political or personal prism.
The same is true of Duvernay's first feature, 2011's I Will Follow. It covers a 12-hour stretch in which a woman packs up her mother's home and faces a host of feelings the act engenders. It provides a framework anyone could embrace, even as the characters' encounters reflect community-specific areas and settings. DuVernay's other past projects include the hip-hop documentary My Mic Sounds Nice and Faith Through the Storm, which examined the struggles of women to cope in New Orleans following Katrina's devastation.
While DuVernay champions the necessity for black audiences to enjoy the same thematic variety as their white counterparts, she doesn't engage in diatribes or rants about contemporary studio failings or Hollywood machinations. Instead, she creates alternatives, using the business savvy earned during years spent operating PR campaigns for such major names as Spike Lee, Clint Eastwood and Bill Condon. Besides creating the DuVernay Agency, she helped found the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement last year. That movement joined forces with Music City's Independent Black Film Festival of Nashville to bring I Will Follow to town, and continues to push for black indie projects to gain access to theaters around the nation.
DuVernay's very confident in both the audience's hunger for the films she makes and her own abilities. She says she didn't really seek advice from her famous clients before she began making films.
"No, I always had a good idea of what I wanted to see and do on screen," she says. "I knew there were great stories that weren't being told and still aren't in many instances. Some of it has to do with myths and stereotypes, but a lot more is involved. You've got to get out there and take chances, be willing to trust that you can do it, and that the audiences will embrace it. There's really no secrets here, but there's been a reluctance to go out and do the work."
DuVernay herself works on a tight, quick schedule. She shot I Will Follow in 14 days, and it has grossed nearly three times its $50,000 budget. Middle of Nowhere took 19 days and cost nearly $500,000, and it debuted to all but unanimous praise at Sundance. On both her features, DuVernay teamed with another Sundance award winner, the gifted cinematographer Bradford Young, whose deftness with visual narration adds a second layer. His flair brings a strong, imaginative visual component to DuVernay's scripts without overwhelming her desire to let the characters speak simply and passionately, avoiding hysteria or cliché.
DuVernay is always juggling projects, one reason Middle of Nowhere took seven years from conception to final release. Her next project shifts the setting to the sports world. Venus Versus will be a documentary on tennis star Venus Williams' lengthy campaign to get equal prize money for female players at Wimbledon. The quest became a global one, and the likes of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and United Nations luminaries appear throughout the production, part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series. In her view, the only tough issue is trying to decide what to do next.
"There's no question in my mind that there are many more stories out there to tell," she says. "I consider it my mission to keep on telling them and making sure that they get to the audience that wants to see them."