Ava DuVernay is making a name for herself in Hollywood on her terms. Without a major studio or high-budget publicity, her films via AAFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) are garnering critical acclaim and exceeding box office expectations. Although Ava identifies as a Black woman filmmaker, her stories transcend race and gender. “Let's not be afraid to say we're making Black films. Let's challenge people to open their minds — making Black films doesn't mean that no one else can watch it. This is the lens through which this was made. You watch through your lens.”
Here, Ava DuVernay talks her historic win at Sundance, adds a fresh perspective on the Nina Simone biopic controversy and opens about Middle of Nowhere, which has been praised by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the New York Times.
Is it true that after being the first Black woman to win best director at Sundance that it didn't change your life professionally in any noticeable way?
It did not change things to the point where I'm like George and Weezie. [Laughs] It would be a mistake for people to think that was the golden ticket that unlocked the riches of Hollywood for me. There were no studio meetings. There were no studio calls. There were no offers to do things, which is standard. I don't know if that is the case for my non-Black women counterparts. For me, that wasn't it. So when you talk about, "Did things change?" Certainly, it shed more light on the current film, Middle of Nowhere. In terms of a filmmaker and my ability to make my next film — no one was knocking down my doors. I got a call from ESPN to make a documentary. I got some calls for commercial work that keeps food on the table and keeps AAFRM's door open. In terms of popping collars and rolling with Kanye — whatever people think! [Laughs] It's not happening, but it's lovely. What has happened, I am happy with it. I didn't expect more. I didn't expect to even be at Sundance, let alone win anything.
Tell us about the journey of AAFRM.
I am just so proud of it. It's interesting, I'm in a place where I got two passions and they are both full-time jobs. I could just be making films. I could just be distributing films. Because of the amazing people that are around me on both sides, I am able to straddle both. I’m incredibly fortunate and blessed. It is not me alone. AAFRM is a three-person staff in Los Angeles and it's supersized by amazing leaders in all of the different markets. These are Black, grassroots organizations around the country: Reel Black in Philly, Urbanworld and Image Nation in New York, the Howard University Film School in D.C., Langston Hughes African-American Film Festival in Seattle, the Houston African-American Museum in Houston — folks who love Black film who understand what our image is and that produces legacy. That's AAFRM.
For people who can relate to the main character in Middle of Nowhere, Ruby — a woman who has the love of their life behind bars — what message about love does Middle of Nowhere give them?
It's a question I can only answer in hindsight. When I was writing it, I wasn't writing it as a message movie. I’ve always resisted answering the question, "How do you want people to feel in the end?" My answer is, "I just want people to feel something." I don't want to dictate what those feelings are because we all come with a different set of experiences. What I'm hoping people might tap into is just to ask: What would you do for it and what have you done for it? What lengths do we go for love — I think that is something we all grapple with. Whatever your issues are, it's so tied up in the people we love, sometimes to our determent.
In many of your interviews you've gotten questions about being a Black filmmaker. Idris Elba recently said on being a Black actor, "The less I talk about being Black, the better." Do you agree with Idris — are you ever tired of answering the "race" questions?
It's not just Black, every time a woman filmmaker does an interview it's, "Let's talk about the state of women filmmakers." We're not making films in dominant culture. We will always be seen — for as long as we allow ourselves to be seen — as an aside to dominate culture. So those questions naturally come up. They don't bother me. I identify myself as a Black woman filmmaker and nothing else. I am not a woman filmmaker, I am not a Black filmmaker — I am a Black woman filmmaker. That is something I am very clear about and I don't see any problem with declaring that. I’ve been a marketer in the studio system and I know the talking points. You try to take the edge off — you do what Obama and Romney are doing. You move to the center. But for me, I am not taking that strategy. I am not taking any strategy; I am just trying to be myself.
As a Black woman filmmaker, I am curious to know your thoughts on this: Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone and the reaction by some that it is miscasting.
I don't think much about it. I am thinking about my films, not that woman's films. [Laughs] The sooner we can focus on what we're making, the happier we'll be. To look outside of Black filmmakers to make the representations that we feel are proper for Black stories is to relegate yourself to being unhappy. We're doing it with Django Unchained, we're doing it with the Nina Simone film and we’re doing it with the Beasts of the Southern Wild. These films are interpretations, they are not reflections. It's not a bad thing, but we can't demand they be accurate because it's someone else's interpretation, it's their opinion. The only way to work around it is to make your own thing.
I don’t say that lightly for anyone who has strong feelings about it. I feel like we are spending so much energy on it. I would've so preferred to spend the same amount of energy on dissecting the nuances of the cinematography in Dee Rees's Pariah as opposed to going to town on something that is completely not in our control, not from our voice. I wish them luck; I think Zoe is a fantastic actor but I don't think a lot about the project because that project is outside of me and outside of my interpretation of that story. I can only look at them and say, "Do your thing!" I understand people being up in arms about the decision. But ultimately there is nothing you can do, except to make our own reflection as opposed to being up in arms about someone else's interpretation.
When is the last time you felt like you were in the Middle of Nowhere?
Maybe in the last years of transitioning from being a publicist to a filmmaker… I really knew I wanted to be doing something else. Not just, "Oh, I want a new job." Literally, as an artist, feeling pain in my chest and depression because I couldn't move. I couldn't articulate what I wanted to do because what I wanted to do took place in a very large system. In order to do my art, I had to have this whole apparatus behind me and for so long I couldn't figure out how to tell my stories within that Hollywood apparatus. It was a depressing time until I started to find my way and understanding that I can do this, it just may not be the way everyone else is doing it.
Middle of Nowhere is currently playing in select theaters and expanding to seven cities today (Chicago, Detroit, Oakland/Berkeley, Seattle, Houston, East Miami and Cherry Hill, New Jersey).
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(Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)