If the name Ava DuVernay isn’t immediately familiar to you, I guarantee you that her work is. The director of documentaries This Is the Life, which detailed the alternative West Coast hip hop movement of the '90s, and My Mic Sounds Nice, a historical look at women in hip hop, DuVernay is also the writer and director of the 2010 television special, TV One Night Only: Live From the Essence Music Festival. This former publicist–turned–filmmaker’s first feature release, the stirring indie drama about loss, I Will Follow, starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Omari Hardwick and Blair Underwood, arrives on DVD today.
BET.com recently spoke with DuVernay about I Will Follow, her journey into filmmaking and the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), the Black independent film collective she created to give other Black filmmakers an opportunity to have their movies released in theaters across the country.
Your film, I Will Follow has a personal, simplistic "slice of life" feel to it. What inspired it?
It was based on a true story. It’s my true experience and the women in my family when we lost one of our own. A lot of what was said and done in the film actually happened in some shape or form. Me, my sisters and my mother [experienced it] when my aunt passed away from breast cancer five years ago—so it’s all kind of rooted in real stuff.
I Will Follow gives us an inclusionary and colorful view of Black life that’s not one-dimensional. You include rock and rap references and straight and gay characters. Was that intentional?
That’s my life—that’s the way I live. When I was thinking of characters, I began to tap on personal experiences and things that interest me. So it came out into this stew of things that are all not necessarily what people denote as quote, unquote Black. I think that so many of us—we’re not stereotypically Black. It was natural to the story that I wanted to tell.
Everyone has their own unique tale of how they got into showbiz, and you have a particularly interesting one. Can you tell us how you became a filmmaker?
I didn’t go to film school. I got my education on the set as a niche publicist in the film industry. I started my [movie publicity] company in 1999 when I was 27. Before that, I worked for FOX and another big PR firm. Two of the first films [I promoted] were Scary Movie and Spy Kids, which were sort of cultural elements that the studios didn’t quite know what to do with. Through that [my work as a publicist] I had proximity to creative people—especially directors, and I got a chance to watch people direct. I began to think, “Wow this is a possibility, this [filmmaking] is something that I’m interested in doing.”
Was it hard transitioning from a publicist to movie director?
I did go the traditional route in trying to get a films started. You write a script, then you attach talent and then you attach producers and go around to all the production companies and the studios. But when you tell them you want to tell a story about Black women, most likely the answer is 'no.' So, for about four years I was getting a lot of closed doors until I started making films with the money I had, and marketed them with the experience I had.
Which led to the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM). Tell us more about the collective and what you do.
I founded AFFRM, a Black film distribution collective, last year. The mandate is to release two films theatrically a year all by hand. [We do] grassroots promotion and grassroots marketing and [have an] alliance with the top Black film festivals in the country. We release films simultaneously on the same date all over the country—it’s not a tour or a one–off screening; all the films are playing at your local theaters. The idea is to be able to create an infrastructure for Black independent films that otherwise wouldn’t be screened theatrically and to allow Black filmgoers and filmgoers of all colors to see them.
Black filmmaking has gone thru lots of changes in the past thirty years. In the '80s we had Spike Lee, Robert Townsend and Julie Dash, then in the '90s we had John Singleton and a huge Black film boom. Now we’ve seen it yo-yo back and forth in '00s. With the advances in technology would you say it’s easier to be a filmmaker today?
Now the barriers and entries are much wider. You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out, you just have to be really enterprising and hustle. It’s a great time to be an independent filmmaker and it’s a great time to be an artist. All the traditional models for doing things are collapsing; from music to publishing to film, and it’s a wide open door for people who are creative to do what they need to do without having institutions block their art.
I Will Follow is now available on DVD.
For more information about the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement visit:
(Photo: Fernando Leon/PictureGroup)