*The 16th Urbanworld Film Festival kicked off this past weekend with some of the best film content you would could ever hope to see plastered across the big screen at the Loews Theater on 34th street in midtown Manhattan. Each year audiences come down to the festival with hopes of being even more entertained and enlightened than the prior year, and each year the festival doesn’t let them down.
During my annual pilgrimage to what is quickly becoming a Mecca of sorts for black filmmakers I’ve met quite a few extraordinary people, but none more extraordinary than director Ava Duvernay. She seems to walk the line between Hollywood and black empowerment with the stealthy precision of a acrobat on a high wire. Duvernay’s work with AFFRM, and her own film works screams “black power now,” but I’ve never heard her raise her voice, nor have I ever heard her use the term “black power” in a sentence. Ava was recently given the “Best U.S. Director Award” at the Sundance Film Festival for her work on the UWFF closing night offering “Middle of Nowhere”, which was masterfully shot by cinematographer Bradford Young. The UWFF closing night was a veritable hive of commotion and confusion, but Ava was kind enough to stop and chat for awhile.
“I love Urbanworld and I feel like I’m an Urbanworld filmmaker with every film that I make,” said Duvernay. “It’s been really important helping me in my growth. (My film) is a narrative, it’s a love story that’s very complex. It’s about families who have loved ones incarcerated. I’ve always been interested in writing about the complexity of women’s lives and interested in complex, nuanced films that depicts women’s lives.”
“Middle of Nowhere” stars actress Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby, a registered nurse who is dealing with the incarceration of her husband. I asked Ava what lessons she learned from “I Will Follow” that she was able use while shooting “Middle of Nowhere.”
“What I learned from ‘I Will Follow’ is that it could be done,” she explained. “It can be done without a lot of money, it can be done without a big studio, it could be done without a lot of advertising. It was a film that was made for $50,000 that is being distributed with our own hands. It was a film where all the rules were broken.”
“This film was harder because ‘I Will Follow’ was shot all in one house. We were in one location during the whole thing in that film. This film (‘Middle of Nowhere’), everyday we were moving and getting acclimated to a new location every time That’s something in film making that I have to get used to. I liked the idea of shooting in that one house. Kind of like the old days when they used to shoot films on a stage. When you do that, it’s really beautiful and you start to feel at home in a place.”
Often times audiences hear about how certain directors have certain writing styles, so I couldn’t help but ask Ava what type of directorial style does she have.
“That’s a great question and an interesting question! My directing style? I don’t know what it is. I know that I like to be in love with everyone that I’m working with it. I like to make it feel like a collaboration.”
Ava has done something that many directors do not do, she has written both screenplays for her films “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere.” I asked her what advise she had for aspiring writers of any medium.
“Writing is horrible. It’s a horrible process, I do not like it. It’s a painful, pride-swallowing process and I don’t like it. But it’s something you have to do. My process is a lot of procrastination and then getting a hold of myself and trying again.
We guess everyone has their burdens to bear in labors of love. Though Ava says that the writing part is the hardest part, I could hardly tell from the finished product. “Middle of Nowhere” is masterfully written with little wasted dialogue. When a character speaks it is for a reason.
Emayatzy Corinealdi portrays the character Ruby as both tough as nails and as vulnerable as a wayward child while she tries to traverse rocky emotional terrain in pursuit of herself after placing her life on hold awaiting the return of her incarcerated husband Derek, played by Omari Hardwick.
“Middle of Nowhere” is being described in other publications as Emayatzy’s breakout leading role, and we couldn’t agree more. She is majestic and graceful in her mannerisms.
The film also stars Lorraine Toussaint as Ruby’s mother, Ruth. Toussaint has always been known to bring life and intensity into each of her characters and continues in that regard with her “Middle of Nowhere” role. Ruth blames herself for the condition of Ruby’s life, and that of her youngest daughter Rosie, a single parent played by Edwina Findley of “The Help,” as well. David Oyelowo is featured heavily in the film as Brian, the gentleman who eventually catches Ruby’s eye. My initial take on the character of Brian was that he was too pedestrian. However, I soon realized it was that very “normal” quality that attracted Ruby to Brian. Well played Ms. Duvernay. Well played indeed.
“Middle of Nowhere” shares with “I Will Follow” a special commonality that appears to pull the beauty from the mundane existence of the respective characters’ everyday goings on. It is in this way that the viewers see much of themselves on the screen. We won’t tell you much more about the film, but we can say that it is original, wonderfully shot and pulled straight from the everyday black life. But the message is transmitted with the beauty and class we’ve come to expect from Ms. Duvernay.
“Middle of Nowhere” will be released nationally on October 12 via the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement or AAFFRM for short. You can find it in L.A., New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia and D.C. After that it’s set to expand to 19 more cities. Ava Duvernay is currently working on “Venus Vs.,” a sports documentary for ESPN. We’re going to definitely keep an eye for that. For more information on other films being released by way of AAFFRM log on to www.aaffrm.com.