‘Middle of Nowhere’ puts director Ava DuVernay on Hollywood’s radar

Independent filmmaker Ava DuVernay is riding high ahead of the release of her latest flick, Middle of Nowhere.

Not only is she basking in the success of being the first African-American woman to win the best director prize at Sundance, DuVernay has just been endorsed by Oprah.

Oprah tweeted, not one, but two tweets on Tuesday to her 14 million-plus followers. The media mogul wrote that she’d watched Middle of Nowhere and described it as an “excellent job especially with no money” and later called the film “powerful and poetic.”

“Oprah is an amazing icon of our culture; her life is a testimony of what you can achieve with persistence,” says DuVernay in an interview with theGrio. “For me personally, this [the Oprah effect] is one of the highlights of the journey.”

Indeed, it has been a fearless journey to the top. “I try to shallow my fear and move forward and then keep on going,” says DuVernay.

In fact, only a few years ago DuVernay was working as a sought-after film publicist in Los Angeles until she realized she could do it herself. As her passion for being behind the camera grew her day job became a background prop.

“As a marketer I was used to being around films,” she says. “That process of watching and analyzing films has served as a good film school as opposed to a traditional film school,” adds DuVernay, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California in 1995 but did not go on to film school.

In 2008, DuVernay made her feature directorial debut with the documentary, This Is the Life. She went onto direct a handful of other documentaries. Her rookie film, I Will Follow, starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, was released theatrically in 2011.

Within a short time DuVernay has achieved the near impossible and amassed a loyal fan following along the way.

Middle of Nowhere is DuVernay’s second feature film. The main protagonist, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), has lost her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), to incarceration.  The movie chronicles Ruby’s struggle to redefine her identity while she attempts to put her life on hold to stand by her man, in the midst of falling in love with a bus driver, Brian, played by British actor David Oyelowo.

“It’s a film about love, loss and loyalty,” says writer-director DuVernay.

Nowhere was made on a micro-budget: around $200 dollars. DuVernay, however, says lack of funds didn’t stifle her creativity. “That’s the only way I know how to work.”

Critics have applauded Nowhere for its subtle, multi-dimensional characters that aren’t stereotypes. DuVernay, a Los Angeles native, who was raised in Compton, California, concedes she’s unafraid to deal with storytelling that reflects African-Americans, “As a black or brown person it isn’t hard not to know someone who’s been incarcerated.”

Speaking to DuVernay you get the impression her motivation is not focused on money. She seems driven by a desire to revolutionize the black cinematic experience and use her status to portray the complex tapestry of African-American culture, especially the portrayal of female characters.

Nowhere is being distributed by the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) for Participant Media. It’s also the fourth release by AFFRM, the black independent label co-founded by DuVernay. The collaborative group, among other things, helps organize black film festivals and orchestrate theatrical releases for black independent films.

DuVernay’s I Will Follow was AFFRM’s first release, followed by the Rwandan saga Kinyarwanda and then Restless City, a drama about a young man surviving on the fringes of New York City. “It’s never been a better time for black independent films,” says DuVernay.

Middle of Nowhere opens theatrically on Friday, October 12, 2012

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti