Filmmaker Ava DuVernay

The winner of this year’s best director award at the Sundance Film Festival describes her new feature, Middle of Nowhere.

Ava DuVernay has made a name for herself in the world of indie filmmaking. She's the first African American to win Sundance's best director award (this year, for her second feature, Middle of Nowhere), and she's created her own distribution company. DuVernay's feature directorial debut was the critically acclaimed 2008 hip-hop documentary, This is The Life. She also wrote, produced and directed the film, I Will Follow and directed and produced three network music documentaries. For more than a decade, the UCLA grad was a marketer and publicist, which included working on promotional campaigns for The Help and Dreamgirls.


Tavis: Ava DuVernay became the first African American woman to win best director at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with her latest project, “Middle of Nowhere.” The movie, set in south L.A., looks at the life of a woman whose husband is sentenced to eight years in prison. Here now, some scenes from “Middle of Nowhere.”


Tavis: I want to start at what might be an unorthodox place for most conversations with you. I want to come back to the film in just a moment, but – and I want to come back to it because the film is what everybody is talking about now. But I know from my own journey and I know from your journey that there’s a long back story to get to being the first African American woman to win best director at Sundance.

There’s a long back story to this huge “New York Times” profile of you just days ago. There’s a lot that happens before you get to that place. This project is the first movie that you wrote, basically, but you couldn’t get it financed, you couldn’t get it done. So you had to go do something else that you could get financed –

Ava DuVernay: Right.

Tavis: – to come back to this. So tell me a bit about the journey that led to this place. We’ll get to the film, but I want the audience to appreciate what you had to go through to get to this place where everybody now is talking about Ava DuVernay.

DuVernay: Well, thank you for having me on. I had to get to a place where I could actually make something I could finance myself, because we were getting nos. We were getting nos to stories about the interior lives of Black women. Not top on the list for films to be made by the studios.

So yeah, a lot of closed doors, and ultimately, yeah, to go through that, I think, to get to a place where I really understood that there’s a way to do it without permission, right, and to get to a place where I could empower myself to make the films and tell the stories that I want to tell.

So ultimately, the first film I wrote, “Middle of Nowhere,” is not the first film I made. The first film I made was a film that I wrote to be made for the money I had in my bank account, which was about $50,000 at the time.

So we made a film called “I Will Follow” on 50 grand, and everyone worked for $100 a day, and that film came out last year and proved the point that there is an audience for this kind of story, and we were able to put together a little bit more money for “Middle of Nowhere” finally.

Tavis: How does that make you feel? I ask that because on the one hand, it’s obviously a beautiful thing to see somebody who exercises that right to self-determination. They use the agency that they do have to bring their project to life. I’m mindful of the fact that most folk in this town don’t have stuff handed to them.

So I don’t want the audience to think that I’m whining on your behalf or that you’re whining. Everybody has a backstory; everybody struggles to make something happen. But the fight to bring certain stories to film is remarkably more difficult and infinitely harder to do than other stories.

I say all that to say how do you process, how do you emotionally process the journey you’ve had to take to get to this place?

DuVernay: I love it. I’m thrilled with it. It got me to a very, like I said, self-empowered place. I worked as a publicist in the film industry for years. I booked many a guest that sat on this couch. So that’s demystified for me in some ways. I know what it is. When I walk onto a red carpet I’m not feeling myself, I’m actually looking at the carpet and being like, “Oh, I know what vendor they got this carpet from,” (laughter) because I’ve actually been rolling it myself, you know, know what I mean?

So it’s all a little more demystified for me than I think the average filmmaker. So with that knowledge, coupled with kind of this newfound energy around doing things a different way, I feel like I’m in a really beautiful place to make films the way I want to make them.

Tavis: How did you navigate – it’s easy to say now and it’s a great one-liner and it’s funny – but how did you navigate knowing what you really wanted to do and knowing what you were gifted and talented enough to do, but you were booking other people to come on my show, my show and other people’s shows. How did you process that?

DuVernay: Actually, the process of being a publicist helped me to become a filmmaker. I didn’t start out thinking that I could ever make films. I started out being a film lover, loving films, and wanting to have a job that put me close to them and close to filmmakers and close to film sets.

So publicity was something that I loved and was good at and enjoyed and made good money for a nice amount of time, but it was those filmmakers that I booked on your show and those actors that I would travel around the world with on junkets and so forth that really I caught the bug from them.

The proximity to people who were making it showed me that I don’t have to just love them, I can actually create them.

Tavis: This is my question, and so when this hits the Twitterverse and Facebook I’ll take full responsibility.

DuVernay: Oh, no, what?

Tavis: I just want you to answer it, but it’s my question and I take responsibility for it. I’m not saying this to bash or to demonize or to cast aspersion on Tyler Perry or anybody else in that genre, but there is a formula in this town that you could have used to make this process a lot easier for you.

There is a certain type of film that if you make it, the studios will throw money at you that you didn’t even ask for. They will give you deals beyond those movies to do TV shows. Negroes will turn out in droves to go see them. So there is a formula in this town that Tyler Perry and others have used that makes money, and it makes it a lot easier to get your projects made because white folk will throw money at you to get that kind of story told.

That’s my statement, not yours. The question, though, for you to answer is why take the road less traveled. Why engage a process that you know is going to be difficult to climb, that you know you’re not going to get money for, et cetera, et cetera? Why do that? What drives somebody to want to beat their head against a wall when you know that there is another way, there is another formula that you could have employed?

DuVernay: Sure. That’s not a hard question at all. (Laughs) Those films are valid. My mom loves those films. She told me to do this so she knows that I’m thinking about her. She loves those films. She gets off of a hard day at work and she wants to go enjoy something that is liked and she should be able to.

I want balance, all right? I think those films have a place and there are people that enjoy them and that’s fine and it’s good. Enjoy those. But there needs to be nuance and there needs to be an expanse of our reality and our humanity, and there was a time when we were seeing those films and they’ve gone by the wayside.

So I’m really just trying to bring back films like (unintelligible) and Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. We have beautiful films that show the full array of our humanity.

Tavis: But why does Hollywood – and again, I’m not trying to demonize them. These are facts. The facts speak for themselves. Why does Hollywood have such a problem with that issue of balance?

DuVernay: It’s about the money. These small films don’t make money, you know what I mean?

Tavis: I’m going to jump in, though – but there are a lot of other small films that don’t make money. People go to Sundance every year with projects where they’re trying to get financed. Hollywood these days celebrates, and the industry celebrates and the critics love a project that comes out of nowhere that they didn’t see coming that was independently produced that succeeds.

So I don’t buy the argument that they have to make money, because these things that don’t make money initially do, in fact, get celebrated. I think it’s more about the story line.

DuVernay: I think that if we really want to break it down, that non-Black filmmakers have had many, many years and many, many opportunities to tell many, many stories about themselves, and Black filmmakers have not had as many years, as many opportunities, as many films to explore the nuances of our reality.

So there are less films, and when those films do kind of see the light of day, they are either rallied upon or they’re kind of forgotten. It’s really one of the two. We’re trying to kind of fit into an industry that really doesn’t have a place for these types of films.

So what we’re saying is okay, we’re going to stop knocking on a closed door and try to create something else over here, and I think that that is the difference now between the ’90s explosion of Black filmmakers that made beautiful independent films but were soon making films for the studios, and then you saw that kind of die down.

This kind of cadre of Black filmmakers that I work with now, there are about 35 to 40 Black filmmakers who’ve made their first or second film in the last five years. That’s a lot of folks.

They’re telling kind of the contemporary drama, the nuanced view of Black American life. It’s happening, it’s there. We acknowledge that there is not a current place for us in the system, and just choose not to bang our heads against the wall for it.

Yes, if we wanted to have that place there are certain types of films we can do. I think that’s true for if you’re going to make “Avatar 4,” they’re going to do that. If you’re of any color, any stripe, women, LGBT, brown people, native people. It’s not just us.

If you’re doing something outside of dominant culture there’s not an easy place for you. You will have to do it yourself. It will have to have a “New York Times” piece, it will have to be at Sundance, it will have to win Sundance, it will have to do quite a bit to kind of get to a level where it’s being heard by people who only look at a certain sphere of cinema.

Tavis: Which raises a few more questions. Your project has done all of that. Most projects, no matter what the story line is, no matter what the narrative is, most projects don’t do all of that.

So even to get to this level it had to win, like, everything. It had to get a “New York Times” profile, it had to get A, B, C, D, through Z to get you to this place. So again, since most films don’t even have to do that, how do filmmakers, independents, people who want to tell different stories, how do they get over that hurdle? Because everybody can’t do what you did, no matter what color they are.

DuVernay: Well, the point is the film hasn’t opened yet, so we don’t know where “this” is. There’s a question as to does this film have an audience, and that’s what – I’m a distributor. We’re distributing this film from my distribution collaborative, the African American Film Festival (unintelligible) participant.

The conversations that I have with bookers, the theaters that will not take the film because they don’t believe there’s an audience for it, they don’t believe that’s an art house audience that wants to see complex images of Black folk, and that there’s a Black audience that wants to see complex images, period, and we know that’s not true.

But it is a fight. We are in theaters that have partnered with us to do it. We’re a full-run, standard booking like any other studio would book it. But it’s hard-fought, and the question is is there an audience for it. Will white folk come to see this film that is made about a Black woman by a Black woman, okay?

I think there’s a real question about the portrayal of images by Black women and girls, and the lens through which those are being kind of made. Will Black folk come to see it? We won’t know until Friday.

Tavis: That raises two other questions, to my mind. We talked a moment ago and some might think I was too hard. I do not. I can debate that, but we talked about Hollywood and its complicity in this process. Let me talk now about two other constituencies, and their perhaps complicity.

One would be Black filmmakers; the other would be Black people. Let me take them one at a time. Since you were just talking about Black people, what happens if Black folk don’t go see this film? I heard you suggest earlier that we know it’s not true that Black people don’t like seeing films with complex characters and deeper storylines.

DuVernay: I don’t believe it.

Tavis: That’s nice of you to say that –

DuVernay: I don’t believe it.

Tavis: – but I’m not – well –

DuVernay: Do you believe?

Tavis: Well, I’m not saying I believe it. I’m saying if you and I were having a debate, I can debate you on –

DuVernay: Well, I do not want to debate you, sir.

Tavis: Well, I’m saying if we were – I wouldn’t want to debate you either, because you’re awfully good at what you do. But if we were going to have a debate, I don’t want to believe that, but based on the evidence, based on the data, I believe I can make a persuasive case that you can’t get a bunch of Black folk in the theater.

DuVernay: Let me tell you why I disagree.

Tavis: Take me on. I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’m not saying I believe it.

DuVernay: Okay. I know.

Tavis: Okay, go ahead.

DuVernay: But let me just say what somebody would say –

Tavis: All right.

DuVernay: – that’s been in these rooms, that’s marketed films for every studio that you can name, that’s worked on big films. These films are not being marketed correctly to the Black audience.

Tavis: I take that.

DuVernay: These small films, the small jewels, A, if they get a distributor, B, are not being met with the kind of marketing campaign that reaches our folk. Even the booking – you can book a theater of these kinds of films at a small art house theater that our folks don’t even know where that is because there ain’t been nothing booked there for them in 25 years, right?

So what we’re trying to do with the films, we’re booking them at theaters that y’all know, we’re going to be on Tavis, we’re going to be on BET, we’re going to be on Black radio. We’re going to let you know that this film is for you, and I’ve worked on the campaigns where the Black community has not been invited and then has been demonized because they didn’t come.

There are certain things that we have to do. We have to recognize that this is the cultivation of an audience that needs to happen. Audience that’s had a steady diet of what you’re talking about, right? There’s nothing wrong with what you’re talking about, but look, we need to have variety on the plate.

I need some vegetables, I need some dessert, I need some meat. We’re trying to give films that nourish, and there’s a certain way you have to present those films in order to get folks fed.

Tavis: So I take that argument – nicely done.

DuVernay: Was that – am I getting props on my debate skills?

Tavis: (Unintelligible) major props, major props. (Laughter) So the other constituency would be that of Black filmmakers. Now I want to say this with all due respect – you have done what most people talk about doing. A lot of folk can talk about wanting to do something but never really make it happen. I run into those types of people every day in my life.

So you own what you do, you control it. I own what I do, I control it. PBS didn’t give me a show; NPR didn’t just give me a show. I had to work to get to a place of owning these outlets, so I know this journey better than most, or certainly as well as anybody else.

Yet I see so many people who are more gifted and more talented than I am, but they don’t want to put the muscle behind their own idea. So you talked about making this first film for $50,000. I know from doing the research it made its money back three or four times over, so you did well on –

DuVernay: Eight times over.

Tavis: Eight times, see? So my research wasn’t so good. So eight times over you made your money back on a project that you invested all that you had into, $50,000.

Now, $50,000 for somebody who has nothing may seem like a lot of money, but you and I – $50,000 is not a whole lot of money. You just had to make the choice that you believed enough in your idea and that you had a good idea to put your money where your mouth was. You put your 50 grand up and it worked out where you made your money back.

That’s a long way of asking whether or not in the world that we live today, with all this available vis-à-vis technology, with all that you can do on your computer at your house, with the minicam that you can buy yourself, with all this available to us, how much of this is excuse-making now where we don’t at least put the project out there and try to make it happen?

DuVernay: The films are being made. The films are being made. The barriers to entry in terms of making these films is gone. The barriers to entry to actually get them distributed at a level where you make it to this couch are difficult.

Like I said, there are about three, four dozen Black filmmakers in their thirties, early forties, late twenties, men and women in equal numbers, making beautiful films. The question is is there an audience for them, and once we prove that there’s an audience for them, then the Hollywood machinery will come.

If they don’t come, then we create our own ways to do them. But I don’t think it’s a lot of excuse-making. Of course, we know people who are like, “I want to write a script.” “Oh, yeah? Do you have Final Draft? Have you read the books?” “No.” “Okay, well, what are you going to do? Pencil and paper? How are you going to do that?” “I want to act.” “Oh, great, well, where do you study?” “Oh, yeah, no, I don’t study.” (Laughter) You understand, like, we know those people.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

DuVernay: But I also know brilliant people. Brilliant brothers and sisters that are making this Black independent cinema, this new wave that we’re calling it, and a few of us are getting a studio deal (unintelligible), Barry Jenkins, “Medicine for Melancholy” had. But there’s tons of us, and we just need to find the ways to reach our audience.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be with studio permission. There are new ways to reach folk.

Tavis: All right. So now that you have been accommodating for me in a conversation that has gone everywhere, let’s talk about the “Middle of Nowhere.” Talk specifically about this project.

DuVernay: This is a love story. It’s a love story set in a world that doesn’t get a lot of love, set in a world of women in waiting who are really in dark, unexplored places as they await their loved ones who are incarcerated. So we explore the world of this woman named Ruby whose husband is unexpectedly locked up, and the identity crisis that she goes through.

It’s just really looking at the interior lives of sisters, is really what I’m interested in right now. “I Will Follow” explored similar themes, to the loss of a loved one with a death in the family. This explores it through incarceration. So I’m really trying to show a fuller view of us.

Tavis: Who’s the audience for this film?

DuVernay: Anyone who likes a good movie. It truly is. I think we have to redefine what Black film is. Black film is – a lot of filmmakers, specifically Black filmmakers, don’t want to be called Black filmmakers. Call me a filmmaker first.

I say I’m a Black woman filmmaker. This is what I do. I make films about Black women and it doesn’t mean that you can’t see them as a Black man, doesn’t mean that he can’t see them as a white man or she can’t see them as a white woman.

I see Iranian films, I see Japanese films, I see films about everyone. Why, when it comes to Black film, that’s just for them? I think it’s because of how it’s been marketed, how it’s been presented to us. We’re saying it’s time to do away with that.

This is a beautiful film, it’s made by and about Black people, but everybody’s welcome.

Tavis: They did not have, they did not have an African American director, as you are, for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but the storyline centers around a Black father, his Black daughter. That movie’s done remarkably well. It’s made money and all the critics love it, everybody’s talking about it.

So talk to me about whether or not you think there is evidence that suggests that white people specifically will go see a film – they’ve gone to see “Beasts.”

DuVernay: Yeah, they’ve gone to see “Beasts.” It’s been marketed not as a Black film; it’s been marketed as an independent jewel.

Tavis: Correct.

DuVernay: That’s fine. I take pride in the fact that this is a Black film. My partners at a participant firm, all of our people around the country that are working to make this happen, we recognize and we say this is a Black film, and that should not stop you from seeing it. I refuse to strip it away.

I also think there’s something to be said about films that are interpretations. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is an interpretation of a Black girl’s life, which is valid.

Tavis: True, right.

DuVernay: And reflections of films that are made by Black women about Black women. It’s a different gaze through which this film is made and offered, and we think it’s just as valid and valuable.

Tavis: Since you are such – have been; you’re obviously a director now, and producer. But since you were for so many years such an excellent publicist, why be so stalwart – and I’m saying this not to cast aspersion – but why be so stalwart about marketing this as a Black film?

I love the pride thing, but if at the end of the day you want the movie to work, and “Beasts,” for example, suggests that you can get a story sold, not just told, but sold and supported by marketing it a certain way, whatever that means – you know how the game is played – why be so – why market it that way or this way?

DuVernay: I think I have more faith in people than traditional marketers do. I was a traditional marketer for years. I know that this film played at Sundance to a predominately white audience and that people were leaving in tears. We played at Toronto to a predominately white audience, and people were moved.

We’ve shown this film at the Urbanworld Film Festival with an all-Black audience, people sitting in the aisles, standing room only, and people were moved. The place, it –

Tavis: But that’s my point, though. If you’re at Toronto or Sundance, you are at a festival with overwhelmingly white people. I’m talking now about how you market the film to everyday Americans. If they see it marketed to them as a Black film, they’re not –

DuVernay: What’s marketing as a Black film? That’s my question.

Tavis: Well, you said that.

DuVernay: No, no, no.

Tavis: You said you –

DuVernay: I said we say we’re a Black film.

Tavis: Right.

DuVernay: This thing’s going to be on NPR, it was in “The New York Times,” it’s – we ain’t got money to buy ads anywhere, so you’re going to see it through publicity, right? (Laughter)

Tavis: Right.

DuVernay: It’s not like we’re not doing shows that reach dominant culture, but ultimately, we do say, just like the director of “A Separation,” this is a film that’s steeped in that culture. It’s a love story within that. Yes, there are easier ways to do it. I think we’re making a point.

The point that I’m making is that these films star Black folk. It’s about a Black woman, and that a story about a Black woman is no different than a story about any woman when she has lost something and is trying to recover from that.

Tavis: I love the point, and –

DuVernay: So if it means lesser box office, so be it. I have faith that people who are interested in this story that has won Sundance, that was a landmark winning film, that has been receiving lovely reviews, would be interested in seeing something that might be outside of themselves like I see every day when I turn on the TV.

Tavis: I love your unapologetic embrace to that. I just wanted to ask to see what your question, what your response was going to be.

DuVernay: Yes.

Tavis: Here’s the exit question, I think. What is on this project specifically, Ava, what is the benchmark, the success benchmark, for you? Or have you already crossed it?

DuVernay: No, it’s a great question, because I think one of the things that we need to, I know, as independent filmmakers, wrap our head around is that, especially as filmmakers of color and women filmmaker and all the things that I am, and the folks that do the same thing that I do, is that these films are forever. They’re much more than opening weekend, you know what I mean?

They’re much more than all the campaign and all of the work that we put into it. Much more than this conversation. This is something that we want people to think about a year from now, 10 years from now, 25 years from now. There’s legacy with any of these films that are made, Black, white, or otherwise.

So the benchmark was getting it made, getting it made. Everything else has been a beautiful wave of joy after that.

Tavis: I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now on PBS and I’ve not been prouder to have anybody as a guest on this program. She’s already won best director at Sundance, and now that NPR and “The New York Times” and everybody else is paying attention, I hope that you will pay attention as well.

When this movie opens this week in L.A. and New York and select cities and rolls out over the coming weeks, I trust you will go see it, and I think you will be impressed by it and moved by it. Her name is Ava DuVernay. Don’t forget it. I think you will hear it into the future. Ava, congratulations. Good to have you on.

DuVernay: Thank you.

Tavis: The project, again, is called “Middle of Nowhere.” That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: January 30, 2013 at 1:14 pm