Director Ava DuVernay explores lives of prison wives in 'Nowhere'

Ava DuVernay (left, with Emayatzy Corinealdi), won a Sundance Film Festival best director award. Photo by Sharvon P. Urbannavage
Ava DuVernay (left, with Emayatzy Corinealdi), won a Sundance Film Festival best director award. Photo by Sharvon P. Urbannavage
Posted: October 09, 2012

GROWING UP in Compton, Calif., director Ava DuVernay was surrounded by people like Ruby, the main character of her award-winning feature film "Middle of Nowhere." She calls people like Ruby women-in-waiting: They are the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of men who are incarcerated.

DuVernay always wanted to explore that world, but thought it would be in the form of a documentary. "What happens if the anchor in our lives is removed from us, whether it's [by] death, incarceration, divorce?" DuVernay wondered. "How do you reclaim your identity?"

The answers she found by exploring that question netted DuVernay the best direction award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, making her the first African-American woman to take home the prize.

"Middle of Nowhere" opens at the UA Riverview on Friday, through her distribution company, African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AaFFRM), and Participant Media.

And she did it all for a budget that was "less than a half of a half-million dollars." She's keeping mum on the concrete figure, but a number in that range probably wouldn't even cover the catering for most studio-system movies.

"Middle of Nowhere" is the second feature-length film for DuVernay, who spent 12 years as a movie publicist before stepping behind the camera. This film centers on Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a nurse on track to be a doctor before her husband Derek ("For Colored Girls'" Omari Hardwick, who also starred in DuVernay's first feature, "I Will Follow") is in prison on gun charges. Ruby insists on staying with him, putting her own dreams of medical school on hold so she can make the two-hour bus drive to prison every weekend, taking night shifts so she can be home for every phone call.

But when Derek lets her down, Ruby finds herself gravitating toward Brian (David Oyelowo, "The Help"), the sweet bus driver who takes her home from work every morning.

"I felt prejudice and assumptive about what those women are. They're weak. . . . 'Those are not the strongest of us,' " DuVernay said. "But really they have their own reasons, and they are quite strong. They are quite loyal, and they have these tender, tumultuous inner lives."

What happens to Ruby wasn't her doing, DuVernay said. "This was a choice that was made for [her]. What would you do? It happens, and these lives are valid."

The film has a dreamy quality, yet it's imbued with visceral detail. In one scene, an exhausted Ruby goes home after a long shift and imagines her husband wrapping his arms around her as she falls asleep. It's a quiet, affecting moment that shows off DuVernay's deft directorial hand.

"She's a master of tone and understands her characters. The rhythms that are present are very unique to her style of storytelling. The stories that she chooses to focus on are people you see every day, but you never think about their interior worlds," said Mike D. of Reelblack, a Philly-based partner of DuVernay's AaFFRM. "What she's getting rewarded for is shedding light on these character portraits of black women you never get a chance to see."

Yet, she never thought she'd take home the best direction award when her film appeared at Sundance. "You might have heard of a little film called 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'?" she said, referring to the Sundance sensation that was favored to sweep the awards ceremony.

"The entire decisions committee was drawn in by the beauty of the film and the powerful performances in 'Middle of Nowhere,' " said Shari Frilot, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival. "We recognized a clear and distinct new directorial voice in this film."

DuVernay only went to the awards ceremony in the first place so she could say goodbye to other filmmakers and get a bite to eat.

"She's getting this recognition now and it's only her second. I can already see growth," Mike D. said. "I'm looking forward to her next film and her next film and her next film."

The festival success of "Middle of Nowhere" has afforded DuVernay other opportunities, including a spot in ESPN's much lauded "30 for 30" documentary series.

DuVernay's in-progress documentary focuses on tennis player Venus Williams and her successful fight for equal prizes for women athletes at Wimbledon. "This had been something Billie Jean King and others had worked on for decades and were never able to get equalized," DuVernay said. "Venus Williams being the baddest that she is was like, 'Um, no.' She really galvanized a whole country to pay attention."

Despite her newfound mainstream success, DuVernay plans on staying independent, comparing mainstream film with a supermarket, rather than the farmer's market of indie film.

"The wonderful thing about independent film, for better or for worse, is my vision. There is no studio, there's no producer, there's no financier saying, 'It can't end this way, this is the marketable way, this is the commercial way,' " DuVernay said. "It's important to see our own gaze [on-screen]."


Contact Molly Eichel at eichelm@phillynews.com or 215-854-5909. Follow her on Twitter @mollyeichel.

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