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Nine years ago in Los Angeles, a young movie publicist stood on a film set and had a revelation.
"There was something chemical that happened to me on that set," Ava DuVernay tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "Something all came together for me then, and I thought maybe there could be a place for my story in this as well. And maybe I can get it done."
She did get it done. This year, DuVernay took her film, Middle of Nowhere, to the Sundance Film Festival and came back with an award for best director of an American drama, making her the first black woman to receive that honor. Middle of Nowhere begins where many prison movies trail off — visitation day. It tells the story of Ruby, an inmate's wife who struggles to start over after her husband's imprisonment. DuVernay says she interviewed more than 100 women in Ruby's situation in order to understand the complicated sacrifices they make.
"The question that the film asks is how much is too much, and at what point is that kind of self-sacrifice and loyalty damaging to our own identity?" she says.
DuVernay tells Cornish about her unusual path to directing and her role within a new wave of black independent filmmakers.
On the scene in which Ruby visits her husband in prison
"It's the beginning of the film and there is this kind of bargaining going on. Ruby is a woman who had a bright future in front of her. She was married to a man that she loved and he became incarcerated, and so it's a complete re-imagining of what her life will be like. And ... she's talking about what will be and how they will plan this out ... that there's a possibility with any sentence that there could be, you know, a parole period. And he's urging her to go on with her life. And she's saying, 'I will do this with you. You do the good time and I will wait.' And that's the ground rules that they lay for the relationship that unfolds throughout the film."
On what her research taught her about women like Ruby
"What we wanted to do is paint a picture that brought you into the life of a woman who's made a specific choice within this world. And as I talked to these women, you know, I found that I'd had judgments about what kind of woman this would be. This couldn't be a bright, smart, articulate woman. You know, this couldn't be someone who'd had goals for herself for more than waiting for a man behind bars. And all of that's just not true. There are women — and there are millions and millions and millions of them — women in waiting, women in this kind of middle place, and they're disregarded, they're invisible to us. So the goal's really just to kind of bring that out in the open and explore all the different relationships that these women are experiencing."
On the new wave of black cinema
"It's about opening up indie films to black audiences and black filmmakers, but also opening up black independent films to all audiences. I mean, there is really a kind of cinema segregation that happens when you say 'black film.' What do you think about? Films for black people that will only be seen by black people. And my films are open and I think emotionally resonant with all. There's definitely this space that's happening right now, this black independent new wave that's happening with filmmakers that are telling very complex, nuanced contemporary stories about black American life. And we just invite everyone to take a look ...
"It's such an exciting time right now. You know, there are about, you know, 35 to 42 black filmmakers in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s who've made their first or second film in the last five years. That's a good handful of people really looking at complex images of contemporary black life. So, you know, in the studio system we get a lot of comedies and we get a lot of historical dramas. But not a lot of black folk living in 2012 — living, breathing, loving, losing, that kind of thing — are the stories that this cadre of filmmakers are focused on. And I'm really proud to stand with them and be a part of it."
On transitioning from film publicist to filmmaker
"I was always a film lover. And my dad always said, 'Do something that you love.' And so I never thought I could ever make a film, so I decided to go into film publicity so I could be close to film. And [I] learned a lot working on big studio pictures. I had an agency, The DuVernay Agency, I started when I was 27. And it was quite successful. I worked on all kinds of things — Dream Girls, Collateral, Shark Tale, Invictus — you know, my film school was being a publicist on these sets. So I saw all kinds of people making all kinds of films. And so I took a little bit from all of it and cobbled together a film school experience for myself, and then proceeded to try to do my own thing."
On thinking as a publicist vs. thinking as a filmmaker
"If I would have had my marketing hat on while I was making the film, I probably wouldn't cast, you know, our lovely unknown lead, Emayatzy Corinealdi. [I] probably would have cast, you know, somebody I could put on the poster and everyone would know. So, luckily for me, for some reason, I have this split personality when it comes to filmmaking and film marketing my own thing. And at this point, I've been able to kind of balance the two and have one serve the other in lots of kind of weird ways."
On overcoming segregation in cinema
"When I talk about a cinema segregation, I really am speaking of audience, you know, and the question of what does it take for someone who's not black to be interested in a black film? Do I have to strip away and say, 'Oh, it's not black, it's just a universal film'? But it's, you know, it's made by a black woman about a black woman. And I stand by that. And yet, within the heart of that black woman beats the heart of all of us. I just invite other people to open their minds to it, both black and white. Let's redefine what we think of when we say black film and understand that it's a film about black people, but everyone's invited."