It’s not easy to get a film about the interior life of a black woman made. In 2003 director Ava DuVernay, best known for her stunning 2014 Martin Luther King film Selma, wrote a script about a young med student putting her life on hold when her husband is incarcerated for weapons dealing. At the time DuVernay was a Hollywood publicist, working on the Laurence Fishburne/Derek Luke action film Biker Boyz. While on set she got to know the director, Reggie Bythewood and his wife Gina Prince-Bythewood (director of Beyond the Lights). They read her script and wanted to produce it. “So we went out and we attached Sanaa Lathan and Idris Elba and shopped it in the traditional way that you did in 2003 when you were in black Hollywood. You’d go to the studios and it was, ‘Oh, wow, great script, but we don’t make movies about the interior life of black women. If you want to make that, make that, and then we might be interested in an acquisition, right?’ That’s what we heard everywhere. Gina and Reggie were great. They got me into these rooms. The bottom line was the rooms. They weren’t ready then, and they still ain’t ready now for this type of story.” (Nekisa Cooper Filmmaker, 11/1/12)
The film was shelved, and Ava DuVernay went back to publicity, but her view of moviemaking had changed. “I [started] to recognize that being so close to really great filmmakers and watching them direct on set, although different from film school, [was] still super valuable. I learned just from being around. I coupled that with some very intentional study and practice—picking up a camera—and started just making it.” (Emma Brown Interview, 10/11/12) It was in 2004 on Michael Mann’s gritty L.A. thriller Collateral that DuVernay saw a different way of making movies. “I recall standing on the street saying, ‘I have a story on these streets as well… but it’s a completely different kind of story.’ […] Dion Beebe, the cinematographer, chose to shoot digital, and that wasn’t normal, but he used it with such ease. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a new way to make film.’” (Jeanne Veillet Bowerman Scriptmag, 5/10/12)
She began shooting shorts, then documentaries, and then in 2010 she took the $50,000 in her bank account and made her first feature, I Will Follow, an intimate portrait of a woman packing up the home she and her aunt shared (available on Netflix streaming). DuVernay is a tremendous artist, she is also an equally talented businesswoman, and she is not afraid or ashamed of the practicalities of marketing what she has made. She released I Will Follow through her own distribution company, AFFRM, and it made back three times its budget. “When I’m directing, I’m not thinking about how this is going to play when I get to distribution. In my creative moments, I become business dumb. On the other hand, when I’m in marketer/distributor mode, I find that side of things to be highly creative. You have to be able to break through the clutter, to get people to listen. You have to always bring a creative mind to business.” (Dan Schoenbrun Filmmaker, 1/23/12) She was ready at this point to return to that shelved script, which like its main character had been waiting for years to find out what was going to happen to it.
What happened was Middle of Nowhere, a quiet portrait of dreams deferred. Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, a woman, who as Ava DuVernay puts it, is living in a Langston Hughes poem. Her days are slept away, her nights are spent working at the hospital, and her weekends are sacredly kept for the long pilgrimage to the prison to visit her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick). It is not a coincidence that much of the film is spent on buses, in the in-between places that Ruby inhabits. DuVernay is an incredibly intimate filmmaker, she gets under the skin of her characters, allowing their emotions to play across the scene in close ups and reactions. Often the speaker is not in shot, instead she’ll throw you in the middle of a scene, and then catch you up while the character talks with a beautiful editing technique that shows you what happened to get the character to that place. Other times she will hold with steely focus on the listener, adding layer upon layer to the words. This style is forged in deep collaboration with her editor Spencer Averick, who has worked with her on all her films, and her cinematographer Bradford Young, who worked with her on Middle of Nowhere and Selma, but also is responsible for the beautiful camerawork in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Most Violent Year. DuVernay describes Young as: “A monster when it comes to handheld imagery. One of the best. But for this film, I was also interested in controlled movement. So it was a true collaboration to bring those ideas together. We were invigorated by the idea of creating fluidity within more still, smooth images. Still doesn’t have to mean static.” (Dan Schoenbrun Filmmaker, 1/23/12) This idea of stillness propels the movie forward, and it is conveyed not only in the camerawork but also in the startlingly restrained performances of Emayatzy Corinealdi and Omari Hardwick. It is David Oyelowo’s supporting role as Brian a bus driver that adds a spark to Ruby’s hermitically sealed life.
Ava DuVernay is often talked about in terms of firsts. She is the first woman of color to win the directing prize at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere, she is the first woman of color to be nominated for a directing Golden Globe, and she should have been the first woman of color to be nominated for a directing Oscar, instead she had to settle for being the first black female filmmaker to direct a Best Picture nominee with Selma. To focus too much on these achievements can serve to push her into a corner of the film world, ignoring the inherent beauty and power of her films, but she also does not deny that who she is is reflected in her work. “Some black filmmakers will say, ‘I don’t want to be considered a black filmmaker, I’m a filmmaker.’ I don’t think that. I’m a black woman filmmaker. Just like A Separation is [by] an Iranian, male filmmaker and his film is through that lens, my films are through my lens, and I think it’s valuable and fine and worthy to be seen by everyone.” (Emma Brown Interview, 10/11/12)
The writer and director Ava DuVernay is after something exquisitely simple in Middle of Nowhere: she wants you to look, really look, at her characters. […] A plaintive, slow-boiling, quietly soul-stirring drama about a woman coming into her own, Middle of Nowhere carries the imprimatur of Sundance, but without the dreary stereotypes or self-satisfied politics that can (at times unfairly) characterize its offerings.” – Manohla Dargis, NYTimes, 10/11/12