Director Ava DuVernay: ‘If I Could, I Would Abolish Prisons.’

[Editor’s Note: Before Ava DuVernay became an Oscar nominee for directing “Selma” (2014) or exposed America’s prison system as an extension of slavery in “13th” (2016),  or directed a major Disney feature, “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018), she chatted with a future Skeeve editor to promote her second feature film, “Middle of Nowhere” (2012). That chat turned into the 2,000 word interview below, which appeared in September 2012.]

Ava DuVernay admits she is radical; that’s what it means to be a woman filmmaker.

Middle of Nowhere is a movie that starts with the premise of an African American male going to prison and defies expectations and stereotypes from there on out. Produced, directed and written by Ava DuVernay, the film focuses on the family left outside, never venturing deeper into the penal system than a penitentiary visiting room.

By turning prison movie conventions inside out, Middle of Nowhere dips deep into the well of universal truths about loss and living and moving on, and basically invents its own genre.

DuVernay’s superlative, subtle exploration was not lost upon judges at 2012’s Sundance Film Festival; she is now the first African American woman to ever win that fete’s Best Director Award.

A longtime film publicist who helped craft marketing campaigns for directors such as Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Robert Rodriguez, DuVernay shot her first feature film, I Will Follow (2011), using 15 saved vacation days and $50,000 of her own money.

The reception to I Will Follow, including a raving endorsement from critic Roger Ebert, was all the added impetus DuVernay’s natural drive needed, validating a creative momentum that has clearly carried over to her second feature. Middle of Nowhere, which was acquired by AaFFRM and Participant Media, is due in theaters nationwide October 12, 2012.

The kind of skin of this whole story is that of a black woman, but the heart of the story is the same heart that beats in all of us—the same heart that yearns, and cries for the ones that we love who are no longer with us.

DuVernay sat with the Skeeve and revealed the one interview question she is fully sick of; her ongoing plan to bring cinema from people of color to a theater near everyone; and a list of African American filmmakers the mainstream could do well to seek out.

The Skeeve: What is your elevator summary of Middle of Nowhere?

Ava DuVernay: Middle of Nowhere is a love story, a very complicated love story dealing with issues of identity and balance. There’s a woman named Ruby who’s happily married to her husband when he’s unexpectedly incarcerated. The separation causes her to have a bit of an identity crisis. As she makes her way through that, we follow a very intimate interior journey of a woman in search of herself.

The Skeeve: Why was it important for you to make this film?

Ava DuVernay: Films that show fully faceted women having complex thoughts and relationships, unfortunately, are a bit more radical than we would like. When you add the fact that this is a woman’s story told through the lens of a woman of color, it becomes even more of a rarity. I’m hoping that people see this film and the universal themes that are in it, and maybe look past the things that are not familiar to them, and find the things that we all share.

The Skeeve: Why did you place your heroine in her particular dilemma?

Ava DuVernay: The backdrop of this character drama is a very seldom talked about community of women who wait—who wait for men who are incarcerated, whether it’s their father, brother, son or husband. Millions of women of all types and creeds and ages and backgrounds are going through this complex interior life that you never see addressed cinematically.

The Skeeve: What is the difference between Middle of Nowhere and a prison film?

Ava DuVernay: We’re in the prison waiting room. We never go back into where the incarcerated men live. We leave the waiting room with the woman, and we go out into her life. We begin to understand how the victims of incarceration are not just the prisoner; their families are also imprisoned. They’re very much jailed and confined, emotionally, spiritually, and physically from their loved ones. So, I don’t see it as a prison film. It’ll be regrettable if this is how it’s defined.

The Skeeve: What are some of the universal human experiences explored in Middle of Nowhere?

Ava DuVernay: This film is about lost love and how you deal with the emptiness, the loss of identity, and the loss of anchoring when the person who defined you is no longer in the picture. That’s something every human being on this earth deals with, some of us better than others, whether it’s loss through death, loss through a separation of some kind, loss through relationships that just break apart. In this case, the relationship is broken by incarceration. The kind of skin of this whole story is that of a black woman, but the heart of the story is the same heart that beats in all of us—the same heart that yearns, and cries for the ones that we love who are no longer with us.

The Skeeve: How did winning the Best Director Award at Sundance feel, and what does it mean for you going forward?

Ava DuVernay: Sundance was an amazing experience overall. I’d been there eight times as a publicist, before I was a filmmaker, helping other people get their films out there.

I remember the night I got the call that we were in. You might as well have proposed to me. I was just like: “Me? What? I love you; thank you. I do!”

So on awards night, I was just there to watch some friends that I’d met get awards. Literally, I was there eating, just waiting to hear who got stuff.

And it’s a long show. You go through the international awards, the documentaries, the audience awards. They got to director, and I was literally doing something else, not focused on “Is it me?”

They said my name, and I was stunned. I don’t get stunned often. Some people are stunnable, not me. It was a moment when I had no speech, and I had to give one; so I went up and said something. I don’t know what it was, but I was very grateful just to be in a position where people were looking at our film in a very serious way, which is important when you’re trying to make a serious film.

The Skeeve: Tell us about your distribution company, AaFFRM.

Ava DuVernay: AaFFRM stands for African American Film Festival Releasing Movement. It’s is an experiment in independent film distribution. The Urbanworld Film Festival, ImageNation Film Series, Real Black Film Festival, Langston Hughes African American Film Festival, BronzeLens—these are all organizations that we work with around the country. We asked: “What if we got together and released a film together? Is it possible?” The answer was, “Let’s try.” That was four films ago. Middle of Nowhere is our fourth release.

We book in standard movie theatres, big chains, repertory cinemas, art house cinemas, museums, wherever the best place is to see film in your city. We’re just a little film collaborative is what we call it. It’s kind of like the farmers market to the supermarket. We’re the grassroots guys. We do it a different way, but it’s the same result. You have food on your plate, and you become nourished by it, and we hope that’s what our films will do.


The Skeeve: Speaking of shining a light, are there aspects of incarceration that mainstream America might be surprised to learn about?

Ava DuVernay: The plight of families who have loved ones incarcerated is not even talked about. Millions of people are affected by it in ways that you don’t even think about. It costs $1.90 to call Singapore from North Carolina for 15 minutes. The same call within North Carolina, if one of your calls is going into a prison, is almost $18. It’s almost $300 to make a call to your loved one for 15 minutes once a week. $300 is a lot of money for folks that live in at-risk communities. I mean, people are struggling with a lot of the issues that very well might have had their loved one incarcerated in the first place.

“If I could, I would abolish prisons. Literally. Factually, statistically, again and again for decades, it has been shown that incarceration does not improve rates of crime. It’s the wrong way to do it.”

When you really think about the fabric of a community, the trickle down effect that one person going to prison has on a family, the kind of depression that sets in, not just emotional depression, financial depression, all elements of that family life, the fabric, the thread starts to be pulled out. That affects the whole community, and eventually will come to your doorstep in some way or another.

The Skeeve: If you had legislative power, would you amend any laws concerning prison policy?

Ava DuVernay: If I could, I would abolish prisons. Literally. Factually, statistically, again and again for decades, it has been shown that incarceration does not improve rates of crime. It just doesn’t. It’s the wrong way to do it. Some folks see that as radical, but I’m a prison abolitionist. Incarceration is a moneymaking venture for some private companies. It doesn’t help people. It doesn’t help the communities. It doesn’t help the victims. It doesn’t truly help us grow as a society. The way that we punish is so arcane, outdated and just ridiculous that we’re spending money to let people out of prison who have not been reformed or rehabilitated. It’s a vicious, ridiculous cycle.

So that’s a little bit of a radical view. I invite people to come up with their own answers. “What do you think about prisons?” Not enough of us have been challenged to even think in that direction.

The Skeeve: How tired are you of people asking if Middle of Nowhere is based on personal experience?

Ava DuVernay: There is an assumption, especially for women filmmakers, that our films are very connected to exactly who we are as opposed to from our imagination or our research or our interests outside of ourselves. Whenever women filmmakers get together, this comes up. I guess it’s indicative of where we are in terms of women filmmakers and the evolution of how people see us.

“How do you sustain yourself as an artist, as a businessperson, when you are telling narratives that are perceived as an aside to the main action? That’s what we have to figure out.”

For the record, I do not have a husband in prison. It’s not my story, but it’s a true story of millions of people. I think it’s wonderful as a filmmaker that we can represent people outside of ourselves.

The Skeeve: What are the differences between the challenges for black filmmakers and the challenges for women filmmakers?

Ava DuVernay: The bottom line is both groups are not seen as mainstream. Think about the stories that Hollywood wants to tell. African Americans and women are seen as an aside to the main action. For me, I say that’s okay. You know, Hollywood is about business and making money. Avengers and The Bourne Identity—two fantastic films that I love—do that. The question is, if you have stories to tell that are on the perimeter of that main, how do you sustain yourself as an artist, as a businessperson, when you are telling narratives that are perceived as an aside to the main action? And that’s what we have to figure out.

Do I want to direct Lincoln? Yeah! Am I gonna? Probably not; so let me make something else and let me continue to stay motivated and happy and find my way. There are a lot of challenges, and I wouldn’t say that it’s just to black filmmakers or women filmmakers. We can talk about LGBT filmmakers, Latina filmmakers. I was at a conference, there was a Native American filmmaker, I was like, “Oh, my gosh! You’re like the Loch Ness monster. I mean really?” She was telling me about her plight. I was like, “What am I complaining about?” There’s nothing to support what she’s doing, and she’s still doing it. So there are a lot of riches in the niches. If you can just hang on and stay true to what you want to do, for me, that’s filmmaking and storytelling.

The Skeeve: Who are some African American filmmakers that the mainstream might do well to be more aware of?

Ava DuVernay: That’s my favorite question! So many amazing films and filmmakers I know are not on the radar of mainstream cinephiles. There is a woman named Tina Mabry who did a film called Mississippi Damned. There’s a woman named Tanya Hamilton who did a film called Night Catches Us. There’s a woman named Dee Reese who did a film called Pariah. A great guy named Barry Jenkins did a film called Medicine for Melancholy. A real cool film called A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy by a guy named Dennis Dortch. We’ve got Gun Hill Road by an Afro-Latino brother named Rashaad Ernesto Green. We’ve got some new films coming out by some exciting filmmakers, Neil Drumming, Nefertite Nguvu, Justin Simien.

There’s something going on in black cinema right now, in particular, black independent cinema. At last count, 36 black filmmakers in the past three- to four-year period are on their first or second film. We’re seeing them at Sundance, at Berlin, and South by, at Tribeca. We’re seeing them at the black film festivals, and valuing that experience as well.

The question is how do those films reach people who love film? People who don’t mind, or people who actually want to see people that don’t look like them? That’s a lot of what we work with on AaFFRM, and a lot of what I love talking about when I sit down with people: It’s not just me. There are a lot of really amazing artists, black and brown, who are doing great things. And you know they just want a chance to be heard.

Allan MacDonell Administrator
Director of Skeeve Allan MacDonell is the author of ‘Prisoner of X’, ‘Punk Elegies’ and ‘Now That I Am Gone.’
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