In January, Ava DuVernay became the first African-American woman to win Sundance's best directing award for her second feature-length film, Middle of Nowhere. The film is about a young black woman named Ruby, who puts her life and dreams of going to medical school on hold while her husband is in prison.
In her research for the film, DuVernay conducted interviews with women whose partners were incarcerated, and was surprised to find that many of these women didn't feel like victims. "This isn't just something that was happening to them that they had to go along with," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "This was something that they could stay or they could go — and they decided to stay."
Before she started making movies a few years ago, DuVernay made a name for herself through her marketing and publicity firm DVA Media + Marketing, which has handled films by brand-name directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg.
She says that her movie publicity work gave her close proximity to filmmakers and allowed her to watch the mechanics of making movies. "For me as person who loves movies and thinks that they're magic, to watch the magic happen, it was a demystifying of the idea that only certain people can do it, and that this was a world being created outside of my reach," she says.
DuVernay's mother also changed careers later in life — from a human resources executive at a hospital to a preschool director — and inspired DuVernay to think that she could do the same.
But it hasn't been easy for DuVernay in an industry where she says common wisdom is that black audiences only want to see comedies, historical dramas and blockbusters, while on the other hand: "We're told that independent film lovers ... folks that are used to watching art house films, won't come out and see a film with black people in it — I've been told that in rooms, big rooms, studio rooms, and I know that's not true."
DuVernay is releasing Middle of Nowhere through AaFFRM, short for African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a distribution collective that she co-founded. She says that she's had more success with distributing the film in big chain multiplex theaters than in smaller art houses, where audiences are more likely to be white.
When talking about cinema segregation, DuVernay says there is one important question to answer: "What kind of black film will a non-black person go and see?" And unfortunately, at this point, she says, "It takes a lot, takes a Sundance award, takes a big New York Times profile."
Though her public relations career gave her a late start in filmmaking, DuVernay says she's grateful for what she's learned, and that it's actually helping her enjoy the moment now. "I've seen people that I represented or that I worked with get lost in what people are writing and what people are saying and the red carpets," she says. "I mean, I can't get excited about a red carpet because I walk onto a red carpet and know what vendor it came from — I'm like, 'Oh, they got it from this place; this is a 30-pile red carpet.' "
On what it's like to visit a loved one behind bars
"You get there early because the women want to get the full day. So they all arrive, and many of them will travel in the wee hours before dark, before visiting hours begin so they can be in line. And then the series of screenings. And then if one person has the wrong length of skirt, then that takes time — you're behind her so you've got to wait for that. Bags are being checked. Children are involved. And then there may be issues with your incarcerated loved one even coming out. [There have] been several instances when we visited where the person that I was going to meet couldn't come out that day. And yet, you'd gone through this whole trek to get there. These prisons are not centrally located either, so they're usually a ways out, outside the city — certainly in California, they're out in the high desert areas, so that's quite a drive. And if you don't have a car, then it's quite a bus ride. So it's an ordeal. ...
"And then you get in that chair, and you're facing someone who you have to become reacquainted with. And you have to share what's going on with you — it might be financial issues he can't help with. And then also trying to balance that with what's going on with him back there — it's a very, very complicated experience. "
On creating Ruth, the main character's mother in Middle of Nowhere
"I wanted to talk about the black mother because African-American mothers are portrayed in cinema and in television in very limited ways — either the supercomforting, perfect mother or the just harsh, unreasonable, just no room to breath. And with this character, I really wanted to get into the nuances of what her relationship with her daughters actually is and where her feelings about them come from. And it really comes from a place of high expectation, disappointment and just this inarticulate pushing to do better, to be better. And I see a lot of that in our communities — just this hope, this real striving to create a better life for our children."
On what she learned as a publicist
"I saw a lot of unhappy people, and I worked with a lot of big names, and I worked with a lot of folks that were just coming up in the industry as actors and directors and having problems negotiating attention. I think for me, just my publicity background has given me a knowledge of what that attention really means and how it was generated. My job was to generate attention, right? So I know what that is. It's not about me. It's something that is created or something that happens organically, and it doesn't mean much beyond that moment. ... And so it's like, I'm thankful for my life in publicity. It gave me a late start. I'm not a whippersnapper out of film school. I made a midlife change to another career, but I definitely know that the things I learned from being a publicist in the industry is helping me enjoy this moment now."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This yes, my guest Ava DuVernay became the first African-American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival's award for best director. It was for her second feature film, "Middle of Nowhere," which is now playing in select theaters. Getting the film into theaters required an innovative strategy, and DuVernay was up to the job.
She's the founder of DVA Media and Marketing, which has handled campaigns for films by Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann. What she did for them wouldn't work for indie films like hers, by and about African-Americans. That's why she founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
Before we talk, let's start with a scene from "Middle of Nowhere." Actress Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, a young nurse whose husband is serving an eight-year prison sentence. She's put her plans to go to med school on hold, along with just about everything else in her life, while she waits for his calls and takes long bus trips to regularly visit him.
In this scene, Ruby brings takeout food to her mother's house and turns on the TV to watch an awards show. Her mother is frustrated by how Ruby's life is turning out, and she's complaining to Ruby about how she's no longer allowed to babysit her grandson, the son of her other daughter Rosie. The mother is played by Lorraine Toussaint.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIDDLE OF NOWHERE")
LORRAINE TOUSSAINT: (As Ruth) Whatever it is I did to her this week, she's decided to put Nikki(ph) into an after-school program. She discuss this with you? Are you going to be picking them up?
EMAYATZY CORINEALDI: (As Ruby) The first I'm hearing. I'm going to be taking some extra shifts, so I'm not sure how much I'll be able to help, if that's what she's thinking.
TOUSSAINT: (As Ruth) Day shifts?
CORINEALDI: (As Ruby) I'm just trying to catch up on a few things.
TOUSSAINT: (As Ruth) Oh thank God, finally getting on with it.
CORINEALDI: (As Ruby) Today's a good day, mom, OK, please, let's just not...
TOUSSAINT: (As Ruth) That's right, I forgot this is a special day. Is this the way people spend their special day? Hmm? Is this the way they celebrate, watching strangers dress up on TV? I'm talking here.
CORINEALDI: (As Ruby) I don't know, mom.
TOUSSAINT: (As Ruth) Am I bothering you?
GROSS: That's a scene from Ava DuVernay's new film "Middle of Nowhere." Ava DuVernay, welcome to FRESH AIR.
AVA DUVERNAY: Oh thank you, so happy to be here.
GROSS: Why did you want to make a movie about a young woman who's put her life on hold while her husband is in prison?
DUVERNAY: You know, I wanted to make a movie about the interior life of a black woman and exploring a character that might live where I grew up, in Compton, California. It became impossible not to look at the many, many black and brown women who are kind of going through this every day, millions around the country, and it just became a part of Ruby's story as I was writing it.
GROSS: One of the questions your film raises is how much should a woman be so loyal that she puts her whole life on hold, her ambitions on hold while her man is in prison. And as you put it in the screenplay, it's like she's doing time with him.
DUVERNAY: Yeah, I mean, I interviewed over 100 women - mothers, daughters, sisters, wives - to really try to get this right in terms of the architecture of living in that space, this middle place when you are waiting for someone. I mean, these women are, you know, women that early on I didn't - I can't say I had a whole lot of sympathy for.
I grew up around many sisters who have men locked up, whether it be their brother, their son, their significant other, and - not that I have scorned them, but I just don't know that I completely understood what that was. I think I expected, kind of a - I don't know, someone that's being walked over, you know, someone that's being victimized as opposed to women that have made choices to stay in relationships that are - that have been compromised.
One woman described it as living with a ghost, you know, he's here but he's not really here, and her decision to stay in this kind of haunted place. Not to romanticize it, but, you know, the women that I spoke with, what linked them all together was a deep commitment and a loyalty that was fierce, and uncompromising and purposeful.
You know, this isn't just something that was happening to them that they have to go along with. This is something that they could stay, or they could go, and they decided to stay.
GROSS: What did you need to know about what prison visits are like and whether you're allowed to touch or kiss, you know, your spouse; and how much time you get, how much privacy you have or don't have, in order to create believable scenes in prisons for their visits?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, well, I had to go and make the visits, and then, you know, I was going and making the visits, but without having someone who's actually incarcerated, I don't know - I can go through the mechanics of what the visit is like and how violated you feel going through the searches, and the dress code and all of these kind of very technical aspects of the visit, but I can't really understand how it feels to sit across from someone who you love, and you can't touch them, and you don't know what they're going back to when they walk through those doors.
The unknown is a big part of those visits. And then also, this re-creation of chemistry and connection every single time. You know, these visits are kind of life mini-relationships. And we try to portray that in the film, that every time you have to get reacquainted, you know, and every time there's the peaks and valleys in the conversations that happen.
You know, you can't have a fight in a visit and then walk away because it took you two hours to get there and, you know, three hours to get in the chair once you got there. And so you have to kind of go through it in these visits. And those were some of the nuances of that kind of relationship that we tried to show and we worked really hard to get right.
GROSS: Does it take three hours to get to see somebody once you've arrived at the prison?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, yeah, in some facilities. I mean, there was one facility that I went to, and from the time that I arrived to the time that we were actually in the chair was two hours, 45 minutes.
GROSS: What took so long? Was it not visiting hours yet, or did you just have to go through that many screenings?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, that many screenings, and then also, you know, you get there early because the women want to get the full day. So they'll arrive, and they'll usually - you know, many of them will usually travel in the wee hours before dark, before visiting hours begin so they can be in line.
And then, you know, it's the series of screenings. And then if one person, you know, has the wrong length of skirts, then that takes time. You're behind her, so you've got to wait for that. You know, bags are being checked. Children are involved. And then there may issues with your incarcerated loved one even coming out.
There have been several instances when we visited where the person that I was going to meet couldn't come out that day, and yet you'd gone through this whole trek to get there. These prisons are not centrally located, either, so they're usually a ways out, outside the city. Certainly in California, they're in the high desert areas, and so that's quite a drive.
And if you don't have a car, then it's quite a bus ride. So it's an ordeal. It's definitely an experience. And then you get in that chair, and you're facing someone who you have to become reacquainted with, and you have to share with them what's going on with you. It might be financial issues that, you know, he can't help with, and then also trying to balance what's going on with him back there.
It's a very, very complicated experience.
GROSS: So let's get back to talking about "Middle of Nowhere," your new film. We've talked a little bit about how your new film is about a young woman whose husband is in prison. He's supposed to be serving eight years. She's hoping it's going to be five for good behavior.
But the movie also explores the relationship with this woman and her sister and their mother. And their mother is a really interesting character. The mother is just exceptionally disappointed in her children, because the daughter that we've been talking about, the mother's disappointed because the daughter's husband's in prison and also because the daughter has put on her hold her ambition to go to med school.
Did you go through this kind of thing with your mother? From what I've read, your mother was married when she was 16, had three children. Your parents divorced. Your father had abused your mother. She raised you alone. Did she have, like, high expectations for the children, and did you feel like she was overly critical or was pressuring you?
DUVERNAY: No, not with my mother, but I come from a family of women, and so there a lot of mother figures in our family. And I've seen her relationship with her mother and my relationship with my grandmother and my grandmother's relationship with my aunt, my relationship with my two sisters, and it becomes, you know, when you have a family with a lot of women, a lot of strong women, you know, a lot of what I talk about in my films is really watching us and trying to figure out why people are doing what they're doing.
My mother was emotionally abused by her husband, but she married early on. My father, the man who I call my father and that everyone knows as my father, was never abusive to my mother. Her husband, who was my biological father, was.
And my mother, her relationship with us was very, I think, corrective to the things that she experienced with her elders in the family, her female elders in the family. And so, you know, I think my ideas about these relationships really come from watching her relationship with her mother.
GROSS: Did she have a career? Did she work?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, you know, she - I don't know how she did it, but she was born and raised in Compton, California. She got married when she was 16, which wasn't out of the ordinary at that time in our community. She, you know, graduated from high school and went straight to college. She studied child development.
She was working at the time. She had two more daughters; there are three of us. And she somewhere along the way, you know, decided that the marriage wasn't working and got out of the marriage. She did have a career as a - and does have a career. She started as a human resources executive, and she went very far in a big hospital out here in California.
But the one thing that I learned from her during that time after her divorce, she met a new man, and we were young, and so he became my dad, who I love dearly. They decided to kind of change course in the middle of everything and move to Montgomery, Alabama. And she pursued what was her true love, which was kids. And she became the director of a preschool.
And it really taught me early on that you can change, and so that was a big part of me having a lot less fear about changing careers midstream because I had seen my mother do it and knew that it could be done. She's a real brilliant lady, and she's one of these women that I'm really interested in depicting in the films that I make, these extraordinary people who just walk past you, and you don't even know that they're living these brilliant lives in a way that's, you know, far from Hollywood and far from the limelight but, I mean, really doing extraordinary things.
GROSS: You said your mother's experiences taught you that you can change careers, you know, midlife, and you've not exactly changed careers, you've added a career. You started off doing film publicity, film and television publicity. You still do that, but you added filmmaking on top of that. What made you think that in addition to promoting films, you wanted to and could make them yourself?
DUVERNAY: I think it was just the proximity to filmmakers. I mean, the process of moviemaking is demystified when you're standing on the set watching the director set the lighting with the cinematographer, watching the camera be brought in, watching it be loaded, watching the production designer and art director, you know, dress that set and all of the pieces that go into creating a scene.
To actually watch that happening in front of you time and time again, for me as a person who loves movies and thinks that they're magic, to watch the magic happen, it was a demystifying of the idea that only certain people can do it and that this is a world that's being created outside of my reach.
I still love movies, and I still think they're magic. I just know how to make magic myself. And, you know, most often I was on sets with men and on sets with white men watching it, and just the mechanics of it. Once I wrapped my mind around that and demystified that part of it, I thought, well, I have a story to tell, as well, and maybe I can use these tools and do it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ava DuVernay, and she wrote and directed the new film "Middle of Nowhere." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ava DuVernay, and she is a screenwriter and director. Her new film is called "Middle of Nowhere." She's also a film publicist, that's how she started her career, and she's publicized movies for people like Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee and many others. She's done a lot of work with TV networks, and now she makes her own movies, too.
I saw your new movie "Middle of Nowhere" at my local multiplex. It's an urban multiplex, it's not a suburban one, and they always show, like, action films and all the big-budget films, and all the quiet, character-driven indie films are at the art house. So I was sure that since your movie is really, like, a quiet, character-driven indie film that no one would be at the multiplex to see it.
And much to my surprise, as I waited on line, I found that the night before it was sold out, it turned out to be sold out or nearly sold out the night I saw it. And I wasn't expecting it to be, like, an event, but there was like, a table there with people with literature about the movie and questionnaires about the film. And then there was somebody from a group called The Reel Black Film Series, that's R-E-E-L, Reel Black Film Series.
And, you know, someone from there was there to introduce the film. There were prizes given away. The local Philadelphia access, cable access channel PhillyCAM was there shooting the whole thing. And I know that this is all connected to a group that you co-founded, which is called AFFRM, A-F-F-R-M, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
So describe what this is.
DUVERNAY: Well, it's a distribution collaborative of like-minded people who feel that there needs to be a new approach to black cinema, and the way that those images are presented and shared and how the audience is cultivated. I'm so, so, so glad that you saw it in the theater with kind of the full power of AFFRM.
I mean, basically these are people around the country who are just like Reel Black, who are just like PhillyCAM, who are just like the people that you saw in the theaters who care about the black cinematic image and will come out to watch a film that is not a blockbuster, that is not a comedy, is not a historical drama and is about people of color.
It's really going against everything that we're taught industry-wise, that there are a certain type of black film that people want. They want comedies, they want historical dramas, but they don't want contemporary representations. We know that that's not true. We're told that independent-film lovers like yourself or folks to that are interested in watching art-house films won't come out and see a film, you know, with black people in it. I've been told that in rooms, big rooms, studio rooms, and I know it's not true.
So part of what AFFRM does is we make sure that the films are in places where our core audience, which we feel are very much, you know, African-American moviegoers, know where to go and feel comfortable going there.
Early on, we were putting our films in art houses, and we would get the question of where's that from our black moviegoers, because there hadn't been a film there for them in the last 20 years, so they really didn't know where that was or feel comfortable going there.
They felt comfortable going where they went to see "Think Like A Man" or some of the bigger black studio fare. And so that's real purposeful that we are in, you know, multiplexes where black audiences are used to patronizing films.
GROSS: You answered one of my questions there, was how come it was at a multiplex and not, you know, one of the indie movie houses, because I was wondering about that as I was watching the film. But was it hard to convince - I don't know anything about how films are booked. Did you have to, like, convince a multiplex that you could bring in enough money to make it profitable for them to book your movie. Like how does that work?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I'm one of the few, someone had said I'm the only, I don't know if that's true, black woman booker in town, booking films. So yeah, you know, I get on the phone for our films, and this is our fourth AFFRM film. So the relationships are there. But certainly it was hard at first to convince them that this kind of film would play.
And we've done it a couple of times. So we have trust now from the chains, and we don't have a problem booking our films in anymore in the chains. What we have a hard time, though is the art houses, to be honest with you. You know, it's - and those are relationships that, you know, I decided that I was going to develop our chain relationships first, because we felt like those locations were in the places where the African-American community was most likely to go.
But certainly, like in somewhere in, like, California, in Los Angeles, we're in both art houses and in multiplexes, and we're doing well in both. And so it's now part of my kind of strategy to start to acquaint the films that are being released through AFFRM with the art houses.
There are some that are very supportive, but there are others who refuse to book these films, and...
GROSS: Why? What do you think the resistance is?
DUVERNAY: Well, I know, from what they've told me, that the resistance is they don't feel there's an audience. I mean, it's a very particular kind of film. It's a black - it's an art house film, it has an art house aesthetic, it has an independent, American independent aesthetic, but it's all black folk, and it's made by black people.
That's a very particular distinction because we have a space now in American independent cinema where we have a number of non-black filmmakers making films about black American life. It's very much an interpretation, and it's valid. But to talk about films that are a reflection, that are being made by black people about black people in a certain way with a certain aesthetic is something that feels a little more dangerous, I think, to some of these art houses that have actually refused to book the film.
And so, you know, at some point, you know, how long do I keep that quiet? You know, I mean, I don't think that I've really talked about that candidly before and openly, about some of the problems that we have in that space. It was easier to get the chains onboard than it was to get the art houses onboard, I'll say that.
I mean, when you're talking about cinema segregation and the idea of what kind of black film will a non-black person go and see, what does it take to go see a film starring a black woman by a black woman. It takes a lot. It takes a Sundance Award. It takes a big New York Times profile. It takes Terry Gross. You know what I mean? It takes a lot to get that done.
And it's happening, but it's a process.
GROSS: Ava DuVernay will be back in the second half of the show. She wrote and directed the new film "Middle of Nowhere." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, Ava Duvernay. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, she became the first African-American woman to win the award for Best Director. It was for her film "Middle of Nowhere," about a young woman who puts her life on hold while her husband serves an eight-year prison sentence. It's now playing in select theaters.
DuVernay has been doing a lot of the distribution and marketing for the film through a group she founded called the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, known by its acronym, AFFRM. Before making her own films, she promoted movies through her company DVA Media & Marketing.
You are a movie and TV publicist and now you're also a filmmaker. How did the publicity you did for films like Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" and - which was the Spielberg film that you did?
DUVERNAY: "The Terminal."
GROSS: "The Terminal." OK. That's not one that did very well.
DUVERNAY: It wasn't my fault.
GROSS: Not your fault, I'm afraid.
GROSS: I saw that one. That was not your fault. You did the publicity for "Dream Girls." So how did working for like on like, you know, major motion pictures, big budget pictures, what did you learn from that that you could apply to the indie films that you're promoting now, and that really wouldn't be applicable to the indie films you're doing?
DUVERNAY: Well, what's not applicable is money. And what I've learned is how...
GROSS: Oh, and brand names. And brand names.
DUVERNAY: And brand names. Exactly. It's what I've learned over the years. You know, I had an agency, The DuVernay Agency. I started when I was 27 in 1999, and I was working very hard as a publicist and was a strategist and handled marketing and publicity and promotions and advertising and was brought on as a consultant for a lot of this stuff. And what I learned was the way to do it - with tons of money. But as I was doing it and had budgets that were obscene, I was also thinking about how would you do this if you didn't have money? And so that's a lot of what a firm is. It's kind of substituting what I did with money for my studio clients with, you know, passion and elbow grease kind of substituting money with energy.
GROSS: I want to talk with you about the first fiction film that you directed, which is called "I Will Follow." And this is about a young woman in her 30s who is a highly sought after makeup artist, but she leaves her home, gives up her work for a while to take care for aunt who is dying of breast cancer. And she's moved in with her in a lovely little home in Topanga Canyon because her aunt wants to die surrounded by, you know, trees and birds and beautiful things. I know that this is based in part on your experiences taking care of your aunt when she was dying. Did she die of cancer?
DUVERNAY: Yes, she did.
GROSS: Did you move in with her and how much of your life did you put on hold to be with her?
DUVERNAY: We moved into a new space. She had her place and I had mine. And when we got the diagnosis that she was terminal, there was a place near the ocean that she had always wanted to live and so we got a place there and we lived there. She was given I guess maybe about six months. But she lived for two years and we lived in that place where she could look out of the window and see the ocean and walk to the ocean. And in the later days, she didn't go out too much and didn't look out the window, but she was there and I was glad she was.
GROSS: How did you get to be so close with your aunt?
DUVERNAY: Movies, Terry. She loved movies and that was our thing. Gosh, the first film I remember her showing me where I was awestruck was "West Side Story." The brown people and the colors and dancing and the love. And, yeah, we would just always see movies together and talk about film. She introduced me to movies. She introduced me to theater. She introduced me to music of all kinds. To just get outside of where we lived and to look beyond that, to not get bogged down in the every day without kind of seeing the wider world, and she did that with me through art and specifically film.
GROSS: In your movie the aunt is a drummer who backed disco acts like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees, The Village People. Did your aunt work?
DUVERNAY: No. No. She was actually an actress in community theater. She was, you know, what it was trying to get across in "I Will Follow" was just the artist that's kind of in the background. So in that script I made the aunt a drummer who was a background drummer, session drummer. But in real life, Denise, Amanda Sexton, my aunt, was a nurse who acted in community theater on the weekends and at night and would be, you know, making sets and playing her part in the plays and just always had a artist's heart.
GROSS: So, Ava, when your aunt was dying, what are some of the things you had to learn to do in order to take care of her?
DUVERNAY: Oh goodness, the mechanics of just, you know, the mechanics of oxygen and drugs and medicines and prescriptions and appointments and doctor politics and all that stuff that those of us who have been caregivers know. But, you know, I don't even remember any of that, you know. It's the quiet moments, the time when no one else is there in the house and it's just the two of you and you know that one of you is sitting with thoughts of going away and it gets heavy. And sometimes you don't know what to say or do, and you just have to be present and get through it. You know, it chokes me up even to think about it. But the film was a tribute to that time and it was basically as close as I can get. You know, the film explores after the aunt has passed away. I just don't know if I was ready or even am now to explore what the experience really was. And folks that have gone through it know. So it was as close as I could get and, you know, I'm happy I made it.
GROSS: Did you move from that home that you lived in with her after she died?
DUVERNAY: You know, it's an interesting question. No one has asked me. It took me a year - it took me a year to move out, and I still to this day don't know why. I said to myself so often, oh, I'm looking, I'm looking. I can't find anything. I can't find another place. But I know deep down I wasn't really looking as, you know, I could have been out of there. But I stayed for about a year afterward. And it was a long drive to work and a long drive to where my life had been previously. But I stayed there for a while. I think I was just needing some time.
GROSS: So the first film that you remember watching with your aunt that made a really big impression on you was "West Side Story." I love that film.
GROSS: I saw it in one of those really big Times Square theaters when it opened. So it was just a kind of like thrilling screen to see it on. You probably saw it on DVD or video. I don't know what year it was. What did you love about the movie? What made a really big impression on you when you were a child and watched "West Side Story?"
DUVERNAY: Ah, you got me emotional here. I saw it on a rainy day. It wasn't on DVD. It was on local television.
DUVERNAY: Our local television here. I had to be, I don't know, 7 maybe? And I just remember the brown people. I remember, you know, I grew up in Compton, Lynwood area. It's Black and Hispanic, and I didn't remember seeing Latino people on screen before that. I remember they looked like my friends at school. And, you know, I mean, not in Hollywood, of course, but everyone else. I would look at the Rita Moreno and, you know, and George Chakiris and that whole - the dancing and it was that part of it. It was the brown people. And I just, I remember clearly thinking, oh, that looks like my friend, you know, oh, this is what they do when they go home? You know, like as a little girl feeling like I was seeing a new world of folks that I knew but maybe didn't know except through the magic of movies. And, you know, the colors and the dancing and the love and all that stuff was so awesome. I still love that film to this day.
GROSS: And did your aunt talk to you about the film, point out things that a 7-year-old girl might not have noticed still would understand?
DUVERNAY: You know what she did? It was a rainy day and I remember exactly where we were. And she worked at night. She's like Ruby in the "Middle of Nowhere," that's why Ruby is a night nurse because Denise was a night nurse. And she worked at night and she was trying to get me to be quiet so she could sleep during the day after I came home from school. I would go to her house. And it was a rainy day and I remember her looking through the channels on the remote control and saying oh, yes. And she put, she said, watch this is. Just watch this and wake me up when it's over.
DUVERNAY: And I watched it. It was just riveting. I remember I ran into the room afterwards and woke her up. I was like, oh my gosh, that was so good and we sat there on the bed and we talked about it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ava DuVernay and she is a filmmaker. She's a writer, director, producer. Her new film is called "Middle of Nowhere." But she is also a film publicist and that's how she got her start. She's still doing that work. And she's also the co-founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ava DuVernay. She is a screenwriter and director. Her new movie is called "Middle of Nowhere." She is also a film publicist and co-founder of the group African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which is a kind of grassroots distribution organization that distributes African-American-themed independent films to theaters.
So a couple of your films are documentaries about hip-hop.
GROSS: And one of them is a documentary about a venue that is closed. It closed and I think 1995. And it was like a weekly hip-hop night at a health food store called The Good Life near UCLA. And I want you to describe that scene for us.
DUVERNAY: Oh, gosh. What a great vibrant community of young artists who didn't even know they were artists, you know, didn't even know what we were doing. We were meeting up at this health food store that would have these open mic nights, and the health food store was called The Good Life and the open mic nights became The Good Life. And it became legend, legend, Terry, in Compton, South Central, L.A., all over Los Angeles. If you loved hip-hop and you really loved the real hip-hop, that you would go to The Good Life on Thursday nights. And so, I was fortunate enough to be one of the kids while I was at UCLA I would travel into. It's not close to UCLA. It's actually in South Central, off of Adams and Crenshaw. And we would go and be there and sign our names and watch the show. And at one point I decided to get up and spit my own rhyme. And it became just the first time I ever was living life in any way as an artist, and not even fully grasping what that was, but just feeling free and the expression was just something that I really needed and just loved. And so, yeah, the documentary chronicles that real little-known time outside of the hip-hop world. In hip-hop it's very known, but nothing had ever been done on it so we did the documentary and it's something that I'm really, really proud of.
GROSS: So there were stage rules for this series.
DUVERNAY: Oh yeah.
GROSS: No profanities. And...
DUVERNAY: Couldn't curse.
GROSS: Couldn't curse. What else?
DUVERNAY: No cursing. No cursing because there was Miss Bee Hall who was at the door was the woman who ran the open mic night, a very regal sister. No cursing. No leaning on the paintings because there were paintings on the wall and all the kids would be in there. You couldn't lean on the wall. You couldn't do miggidy. At the time in hip-hop there was this little trend where people were using the word miggidy and flipping their words in a certain way. You couldn't do that. You have to come with an actual creative style, your own distinct style. He sounded like someone else, they would we boo you off the stage. It was like the Apollo. It was brutal. Brutal.
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. I thought you couldn't boo somebody at the stage, you had to say, pass the mic.
DUVERNAY: Please pass the mic. Yes indeed. You could - well, there were boos. You know, there were boos. Now and then you get a piece of paper thrown at you on stage, like, get off the stage. Come back next week and be original. It was all about originality, pushing things forward, very strict rules. It was very, very - it was a hierarchy. There were crews. It was just such a great, great time. And all kids. All kids that made these rules themselves and adhered to them and enforced them and it really pushed everyone to be more creative than we ever thought we could be.
GROSS: Do you remember the first rhyme you did on stage?
DUVERNAY: I do. It was horrible. But, hey, I didn't get booed. Look, at some point you're just, like, can I make it off the stage without get out passed on, please pass the mic. If you can make up the stage without that, you're good. And it might have helped that I was, you know, a girl and, you know, you know. But they let me finish my rhyme and I got a nice cheer afterward and I was hooked and I kept going back and eventually we started a group with a couple of other girls and we would, became a little attraction there. It was very cool. I was 19. It was awesome.
GROSS: Can I get you to do the rhyme?
DUVERNAY: Oh, no. Miss Gross, No.
DUVERNAY: Never. You know, part of if you watch the documentary, you know, part of The Good Life principles is that excellence. You had to be excellent. So if you're not excellent, you don't open your mouth, and I have been rhymed 25 years, so I will be keeping my mouth closed.
GROSS: So one more question. Since, you know, you are both a very successful film and TV publicist and also now an Indie filmmaker. How has helping other people become successful affected your own feelings about the importance of success? And by that I mean fame. I think I mean fame. Because you can be famous but not very talented and you could be talented but not very famous.
You've probably dealt with a lot of very famous people, some of whom are happy, some of whom are not. Some of whom have been derailed by their fame, some of whom have really enjoyed it. But what have you learned about success and what has it made you think about what you want for yourself now that you are, you know, you're out there yourself?
DUVERNAY: That's a good question. Yeah. I saw a lot of unhappy people. I saw a lot of unhappy people and I worked with a lot of big names. And I worked with a lot of folks that were just kind of coming up in the industry as actors and directors and having problems negotiating attention.
I think for me, just my publicity background has given me a knowledge of what that attention really means and how it's generated. My job was to generate attention, right? So I know what that is. It's not about me. It's something that is created or something that happens organically and it doesn't mean, you know, much beyond that moment.
I've seen people get lost that I represented or that I worked with. Get lost in what people are writing, what people are saying and the red carpets. And, you know, I mean, I can't get excited about a red carpet because I walk onto a red carpet and I know what vendor it came from. You know?
I'm like, oh, they got it from this place. This is a 30 pile red carpet. You know?
DUVERNAY: And so it's like I'm thankful for my life in publicity. It gave me a late start. I'm not a whippersnapper out of film school. I made a mid-life change to another career. But I definitely know that the things I learned from being a publicist in the industry is helping me enjoy this moment now.
GROSS: Well, Ava DuVernay, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
DUVERNAY: Thank you, Terry. I have enjoyed it.
GROSS: Ava DuVernay wrote and directed the new film "Middle of Nowhere." You can watch clips from the film on our website freshair.npr.org.
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GROSS: Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward tells the story of how Big Joe Turner, a six-foot-tall, 400 pound singer in his 40s, became a rock and roll star. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.