At University of Alabama, U.A. Stands for “Understanding Ava” DuVernay

Courtesy: Courtney Williams
Ava DuVernay did a master’s class with UA Students Sunday.  Dr. Rachel Raimist (left) facilitated the session. Photo Courtesy: Courtney Williams

I can’t claim to be a film enthusiastic or even a fan of award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

But after seeing Middle of Nowhere Saturday night and hearing the first African American woman to win the Best Director award at Sundance Film Festival in January 2013,   I am convinced there is so much to be learned about the intersection of race, gender and motion pictures.

The native of Compton, Calif. told the crowd at the Second Annual Black Warrior Film Festival on the University of Alabama campus that she embraces her identity as black woman filmmaker and her “organic closeness” to present an authentic view of the black woman’s experience, one she believes is too often less than well-represented on film.

UNTOLD NARRATIVES

“My gaze is very focused on untold narratives,” DuVernay said.  “If black women don’t tell our stories, who will?”

One example of one of those untold narratives is the process black women go through to manage their hair at night.

In Middle of Nowhere, the main character, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) wraps her hair before retiring for the evening.

When she visits her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), at a maximum security prison, the viewer is not shown what happens inside prison.   Instead, the camera focused on the exchanges between in the crowded meeting areas.

“We’ve seen the guy in the prison story,” said DuVernay, who explained how she made a deliberate decision not to go inside and to focus on the woman outside.   In shining the light on the prison industrial complex,  DuVernay said the “untold” story is the one about the separation scores of women go through when their spouses and significant others are incarcerated.

DuVernay says she believes her film provided a “full-body narrative” of people who like me” without having a conversation about race.

Courtesy:  Ann K Powers.
DuVernay took questions for more than hour after the screening of her film “Middle of Nowhere” Saturday in Lloyd Hall on the University of Alabama campus. Photo Courtesy: Ann K Powers.

ON TO SELMA

Even as she visited Tuscaloosa this weekend for the Black Warrior Film Festival,  DuVernay is only a few months from filming SELMA, a biopic on 1965 landmark voting rights campaign that is regarded as the peak of the civil rights movement.

The film, produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, will coincide with upcoming 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the March 7, 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where demonstrators were met with tear gas and nightsticks.  The images of the seventeen people who were bloodied and severely injured made national headlines.

One of the actors from Middle of Nowhere, David Oyelowo, will play Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma film.

But, that situation of working with people she knows is not always the case of DuVernay, who recalls stepping onto the set as director of an episode of the hit ABC drama Scandal and into unfamiliar territory.

EXPANDING HER SCOPE

In one scene, she found herself directing two white male actors, something she had not previously done.

In that experience, she also had access to resources as a director that were not necessarily available to one doing an independent film.

Even in winning the Best Director Prize last year at Sundance, DuVernay recalls how different it was being viewed as a director of a film and not just a publicist.

In understanding Ava DuVernay’s journey from publicist to one of the biggest new faces on the filmmaker circuit,  I have a better sense of what it is it to be black, female and totally immersed in telling untold stories.

 

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