Ava DuVernay on ‘playing with caricature’ in Sundance champ ‘Middle of Nowhere’

“I was really interested in telling a love story about people who looked like me, who were from where I’m from,” says writer-director Ava DuVernay of “Middle of Nowhere.” “In doing that, I had to really look at women in the inner city and what their lives are truly like.”

Such was the starting point for her film that takes a fresh and honest look at the lives of African Americans. The film centers on Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who drops out of med school and devotes her life to her imprisoned husband (Omari Hardwick). “As I was doing research, I came across this repeated theme of husbands who were incarcerated. It got under my skin as a story that needed to be told, about the women who wait for these men. The love story took on all these different shapes and textures under this theme of incarceration.”

Ruby is pulled in a different direction by a shy love interest (David Oyelowo), her mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and her sister (Edwina Findley), who all think she should give up waiting for her husband. This leads her on a journey of self-discovery towards creating a better life for herself.

In January, DuVernay became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director prize at Sundance for “Middle of Nowhere.” The film won a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Performance for Corinealdi, and has been nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards — Best Actress (Corinealdi), Best Supporting Actor (Oyelowo), Best Supporting Actress (Toussaint) and the John Cassavetes Award.

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DuVernay’s screenplay, which is generating Oscar-buzz, features many familiar character types cast in unexpected lights. “I was really playing with caricature in this film,” reveals DuVernay. “You think you know what a woman who lives in Compton is like, you think you know what the husband in prison is like. It was really great getting underneath the skin of those archetypes and finding the human beings.”

DuVernay first got the idea for the film in 2003 while working as a publicist on “Collateral.” “It was sort of a chemical change for me, watching (director) Michael Mann shooting in parts of LA that weren’t exactly the pretty parts, using digital cameras. I thought, ‘I have a story on these streets as well.’” DuVernay wrote the script while still working full-time.

Breakout star Corinealdi got the part of Ruby while auditioning for the role of the sister. “We were talking to a number of big names for that part,” says DuVernay. “The lead role was very highly sought after because there aren’t a lot of complex, full-bodied roles for black women. A beautiful array of well-known actresses were interested in the part.”

Corinealdi won the role after impressing DuVernay in a series of auditions. “I was really astounded by a talent of that level being completely uncovered at this stage in her life. We decided to take a chance and I’m so happy we did.”

DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young took extra care in capturing the skin tones of the actors. “It was a really purposeful look at skin of color on screen. When you really deconstruct it, you don’t have a lot of examples of an artful approach to people of color on screen. How you light that skin, how it moves in the light. It was something we worked really hard on.”

Working with composer Kathryn Bostic and music supervisor Morgan Rhodes, DuVernay aimed to “create a soundscape where you couldn’t tell where the composition is starting and the source music is ending.” When selecting the source music, the three went an unexpected route. “We really wanted to expose amazing black independent artists who are doing things so outside the bounds of R&B and soul that you can’t even classify it as that.”

“We’re hoping more people watch it,” admits DuVernay. “It’s been a struggle getting people in the industry to watch the film.” The film was released through DuVernay’s own distribution company, AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), which specializes in independent films centered on African Americans.


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