In addition to making history as the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance, DuVernay was honored with the 2013 John Cassavetes Spirit Award and the Tribeca Film Institute’s Affinity Award for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere.
In 2010, she wrote, produced and directed her first narrative feature, I Will Follow. Released theatrically in 2011, the family drama was hailed by critic Roger Ebert as “… one of the best films I’ve seen about the loss of a loved one.”
I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak recently with Ava for what turned out to be a terrific conversation about her background, movies, and independent cinema.
Today in Part 4, Ava delves into her movie Middle of Nowhere:
Scott: Let’s move on to Middle of Nowhere. Here’s a logline I found on IMDB: “When her husband is sentenced to eight years in prison, Ruby drops out of med school in order to focus on her husband’s well‑being while he’s incarcerated. Leading her on a journey of self‑discovery in the process.” The script begins with this young couple, Ruby and Derek. They’re cooking dinner. Perfectly ordinary, typical wife, obviously in love, when boom, in come the police and Ruby’s being handcuffed, Derek’s being arrested. The next thing we see Ruby getting on a bus to go visit Derek in prison for the first time. It’s a great way to start a movie. You hook the viewer right away. Not only with this dramatic event, but you’re also posing a what‑if, aren’t you? To the viewer, “What if this happened to me? What if my life was suddenly uprooted?”
Ava: Yes. Especially for women, the possibility of not truly knowing who you’re with and who you married and what he does when he’s not with you. I heard that quite a bit in the screening process for the film. That’s always a question for any of us. How well do you ever know anyone? So definitely, the early scenes play on that question. As to how close can we really be to each other? What do we hide from each other? We try to make it really clear, in the early scenes, that she’s completely taken aback and absolutely did not know what was going on. That was definitely a hook that I tried to use, early on.
Scott: And then building off that, the first scene when she visits Derek in the prison, it’s a really subtle one. It establishes not only the facts of the situation ‑‑ his prison term is eight years, five years with good behavior ‑‑ but also where the two are emotionally. With regard to Derek, it feels like he’s pretty much feeling ashamed. Essentially, he tries to suggest that Ruby move on with her life. Is that right?
Ava: That’s exactly right. I know I really wanted to establish that this was love. I was playing with expectations of what this young black man character would be like because he’s incarcerated. Automatically, you think that he’s sinister, or think that he is a bad guy. Of course he is – he’s in jail, right? Early on, in that first scene, the real goal was to get across that he loves her and he made a mistake. Every black man that’s in prison is not evil or the hardened, hard‑core criminal that you think. They’re people. With wives, daughters and sisters and mothers who they love, and who they’ve let down. I definitely played with a lot of that in there. It was a hard scene to calibrate and get right. Because the goal of that was to make certain you don’t leave that scene thinking she was stupid, completely dumb, for staying with him. You had to, in some way, be able to see why she would try to save him, try to stay with him, try to make it work. He had to be a good enough of a guy that you didn’t think she was a complete moron for fighting for their relationship. That was a careful dance, in that scene, both on the page and certainly when we filmed it and edited it, to make sure that, when you leave that visiting room with her, you may not agree with her, but you don’t think she’s insane. Because you’ve just seen him and you know he loves her. He made a mistake and doesn’t he deserve a chance? OK, maybe she’s going to give it a try. Let’s see how this goes. That was a big scene. I think the whole film hinged on that scene, if you were willing to go on the ride with her.
Scott: Absolutely. From her perspective, in that scene, he’s trying to intimate, “You can just go on with your life. Go back and do the med school thing.” She’s not willing to move on without him. She keeps reminding him about them being a couple. In fact, there’s a line of scene description I thought was quite telling where it says, “She is not going to fail at this.” Isn’t that an apt way of thinking about where she starts her journey? She’s refusing to give up her dreams of the life she and Derek used to have and she must believe that they still can have, in some way?
Ava: Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t read it in a long time, but you’re bringing back the memories of writing. There is a lot of pressure on that scene. I need to tell you who she is. I need to tell you who he is. I need to tell you who they are together. I need to tell you who they would be if they weren’t together. Ultimately, I need to get across that she’s an overachiever, that she is not used to things not going well. She has this innate belief in herself. It’s important to get all of that, so that you can watch how it unravels and builds up again. But ultimately, there were some real goals. I don’t usually write that way. I don’t write saying, “This is the goal of this scene.” Certainly, in the rewrite process, as you’re tightening and examining what is happening in each scene, yes. But as I’m writing that first pass, I’m not writing in a goal‑oriented way. Like, “I have to achieve this here.” But in that scene, I did. Because nothing else would work if you weren’t super clear on why she’s moving forward in the way that she does.
Scott: There are other key characters in the story. There is Rosie, Ruby’s sister, a single mom, constantly in search of a potential mate. Rosie’s young son, Nickie, who’s being shrouded from the truth about what happened to his uncle. There’s Ruby and Rosie’s mother, Ruth, who is a really interesting character. She’s very acerbic but, at times, tells the truth in a very honest and meaningful way. And then, Brian, this bus driver, with whom Ruby becomes involved. This may be a really difficult question for you to answer, because I feel like you’re pretty instinctive in your writing. But could you describe how that cast of characters emerged? Was it just from an organic process? Was there some intentionality in picking this character type or that character?
Ava: I knew I wanted to place Ruby in a family of women. Unfortunately, largely due to mass incarceration in black and brown communities, you have a lot of families of black and brown women. Families that are lead by matriarchs. There are very few men there. So trying to get that across, through illustrating how Nickie is without that father figure and wanting that. Then also just in this close‑knit family of women, I was truly trying to create complex portraits of what is usually and lazily “the sassy black mama” and the “love‑struck black woman.” Really, the goal was to deconstruct those stereotypes. Those lazy characterizations.
In thinking of a mother who might be a matriarch, to re‑imagine what that looks like and to get under her skin. She’s not gray‑haired in a house dress. She’s a woman with a job and a car loan and kids she loves. Her life hasn’t passed her by. She’s in the middle of it. She’s attractive. She’s concerned about her girls and she wants them to learn from her mistakes. That’s a deconstruction of “black mama.” As a black woman, we get a lot of black mamas on screen that I actually do not recognize. They’re always super‑noble or super‑slapstick “honey child” and not much in between. Very rare that you get those portraits of the between. Like the great role Dee Rees gave Kim Wayans in “Pariah.” A woman juggling her own relationship, sexuality, and that of her child. I mean, c’mon that’s good stuff. The stuff we want to see just as much as the dominant culture gets to see those kinds of complex looks of people like them. So, our mother character “Ruth” was very deliberate, as was the “Rosie” character.
Beyond that, I always knew that this was a romance that was in turmoil, a love story in turmoil. Brian was the foil to Derek.
Scott: Let’s talk about that triad dynamic of Ruby, her commitment to Derek and those dreams tethered to her past, contrasted to Brian who’s set up to, in some ways, represent possibilities for the future. There’s an interesting moment where Rosie, who goes along in the story and you feel like she’s almost there for comedic relief… But she has a moment with her sister where she says, “Why can’t you do you?” Which is really, I think, a very interesting and compelling question. What’s holding you back from being you? Isn’t that, in some ways, the underlying philosophical question in this story, about Ruby and her journey? Why can’t you do you?
Ava: Absolutely. Ruby is really at the center of two triangles. Her mother and her sister, and Brian and Derek. In both contexts, she is a supporter of everyone else’s world. And not living her own life fully, sacrificing for everyone around her. We lose ourselves if we aren’t careful. the core of it.
Scott: Pointing out that other triad, Ruby, her sister and her mom. But that makes the ending so much more resonant. She makes a decision that’s not ultimately about Derek, nor ultimately about Brian. It’s about Ruby and her own destiny, as opposed to trying to save Derek or whatnot. She makes a decision based on herself.
Ava: Absolutely. The great thing about independent film is that you can have an ending like that. That ending wouldn’t fly in the studio system. She’d have to pick one, driving off into the sunset with one. Derek would have to come back or Brian would have to be at the altar with her. That’s not what this film was about. I think that’s why it was never financed [laughs] because I always refused to make it the studio happy ending. To me, it’s a beautiful ending and a happy one. It’s a woman who’s stepping into herself and being in a relationship with herself for the first time in a long time.
Scott: When I got to the end of this script, I was reminded of a Joseph Campbell quote: “We’re not on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.” Would you consider Ruby’s story and her metamorphosis to be a heroine’s journey?
Ava: Sure. If that’s how you see it. People see it in many different ways and I like that. The film, when you strip away the incarceration issues and the skin color and the geography and all the architecture around the film, ultimately, it’s the hero’s journey. Aren’t they all? It’s a woman trying to get to herself. The core of it is the classic tale. It’s just got different DNA. Or the same DNA, different skin maybe. So yeah, I would agree with that.
In Part 5, Ava shares what it was like to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and AFFRM: The African American Film Festival Releasing Movement she co-founded.
For Part 1, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Ava and ask any questions you may have.
Ava is repped by Paradigm.