10.13.12

With ‘Middle of Nowhere,’ a New Light on Prison’s Toll on Black Women

Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed new film was lauded at Sundance for her groundbreaking look at the toll of incarceration on African-American families. A Q&A with the breakout director.

Ava DuVernay is a tad giddy and with good reason. Oprah Winfrey tweeted her congratulations not once, but twice this week regarding the release of Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay’s critically acclaimed film that opens in limited release today.

DuVernay has more than just the Queen of Daytime Talk’s best wishes to feel good about. She won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, making her the first black woman to earn that distinction. As a writer, director, and producer with a meager $200,000 budget, DuVernay says she takes unique pride in knowing she not only found uncharted territory in the black community but kept her focus on the continuing demise of African-American families.

The central character of Middle of Nowhere is Ruby (portrayed by the mesmerizing Emayatzy Corinealdi), a medical student well on her way to attaining a new and better life when her world is turned upside down by her husband’s conviction and jail sentence. Viewers watch Ruby fight for her marriage and family as her spouse is taken out of the equation, a circumstance and fate far too many women of color face with little support, discussion, or acknowledgement. DuVernay, 40, deftly tells the story of lost love, loneliness, and dreams interrupted through the eyes of a woman rarely given much thought by mainstream audiences.

Middle of Nowhere doesn’t attempt to teach or preach, but the film does leave its audience with a sobering reality check of just how difficult life can be when your options are zero to none. DuVernay explains to The Daily Beast why she felt this particular story needed to be told right now.

So how does it feel to get a shout-out from the likes of Oprah Winfrey?

It was surreal to have a true icon tell me how much she enjoyed my work. She tweeted it twice, so I was incredibly happy to see her share that with all her followers like that. To do twice means she really meant it. This is a little film that cost about $200,000 to make, so I never thought it would get that kind of attention and certainly not from someone like Oprah. It means a lot to have her support and encouragement.

All black women aren’t sassy, loud, difficult, or subservient. We are in fact very complex and very diverse, living very complex and diverse lives. That point cannot be made enough.

Middle of Nowhere is a story about people of color that you don’t see on the big or small screen very often. We’ve seen prison films with black men and women, but not in this way or from this viewpoint. Where did your viewpoint come from?

This is a story I know very well. I’m from Los Angeles and I know countless women who live this kind of life every day, year after year. You see women struggling to keep it all together while a loved one is in jail. But we don’t hear about them or their struggles in a way that resonates with others. Their stories are so compelling. It’s as if they are in their own little world and no one else sees them. I also wanted to talk about the love between two people in a setting that isn’t the norm and how they survive.

Do you think this country fully appreciates the devastating affect that having so many black men behind bars ultimately has on their community as a whole?

No, because who’s talking about it? That’s why I wanted to do this film—because it’s a story that offers the entire picture of what those statistics mean. Having so many men from the community placed behind bars tears down not just the prisoner but those who love, support, and depend on him. Everyone suffers connected to the person in jail. But the film is about more than that. I also wanted to show a black woman who loves fully and isn’t just one thing, as we see so often in the media. All black women aren’t sassy, loud, difficult, or subservient. We are in fact very complex and very diverse, living very complex and diverse lives. That point cannot be made enough.

You are the first African-American woman to win Best Director at Sundance. What does an award like that mean to you for a film like this?

To win Best Director at Sundance was beyond anything I could have imagined for myself. It’s still an incredible feeling to know I won. But as happy as I am about winning, I also know many other women of color have directed amazing films over the years that were equally deserving and didn’t win. Women like Judy Dash and others have done great work and were not awarded. I can’t forget that.

What’s next on the horizon? Will you continue focusing on women, women of color, and their lives?

Yes, without a doubt. My next project is Venus Vs, which is a documentary that follows tennis star Venus Williams and her effort to get equal-award pay for women at Wimbledon. Most people don’t realize that Venus fought for years to make sure women and men winners of that tennis championship received the same amount in award money. It didn’t get much play here in this country, but it was and is a pretty big deal. The documentary shows her passion and determination to make change happen. Venus put herself out there for something she really believed in and made it work. It airs next year on ESPN and it’s exactly the kind of story I love being a part of.