The publicist is now getting all of the publicity.
In a rich, delicious twist of irony that’s worthy of a screenplay itself, former full-time movie publicist and marketer Ava DuVernay became the first African American woman to ever win the Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere.
In the spectacular snow-capped mountains high above Salt Lake City where Sundance is held, Duvernay said in her acceptance speech that it was important that Nowhere be seen beyond the film festival and for “Filmmakers of color to see one another’s films and have them seen.”
DuVernay has long been studying the movie industry, even as she made her name in Hollywood marketing major motion pictures through her award-winning firm, DuVernay Agency that she started in 1999 (now called DVA Marketing + Media). She mortgaged everything up to her eyeballs — and practically shed a few layers of her skin — to fulfill her dream of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker.
She proved to be an excellent student.
The acclamations began pouring in with her directorial debut in the critically-praised documentary, This is the Life, which a Los Angeles Times critic said “vaults to the upper echelons of hip-hop documentaries.” The plaudits from high places continued when she wrote, produced and directed I Will Follow starring Salli Richardson, Omari Hardwick and Blair Underwood that played to great fanfare at festivals and theaters. Legendary movie critic Roger Ebert surmised it as “one of the best films I’ve seen about the loss of a loved one.”
Middle of Nowhere is about loss of a different kind — a woman’s loss of a boyfriend (starring Hardwick again) to the urban jungles who’s then swallowed up in America’s voracious penal system. But, as DuVernay points out, it’s about much more than that.
“Middle of Nowhere is a story about a woman named Ruby who has lost her husband to incarceration,” DuVernay told Jason Scoggins of the Sundance Project 2012. “It touches on the prison wives’ tale, but really the story of a woman who’s living in a relationship that’s imbalanced.”
DuVernay’s directorial prize shocked Sundance attendees and pundits alike as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a story inspired by the Hurricane Katrina stragglers who refused to leave New Orleans, was considered the runaway favorite.
She’s not done either. The UCLA grad is also a film distributor who founded AFFRM — the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement — a cooperative initiative among black film festivals nationwide designed to distribute independent black films and get them a wider viewership.
Instead of waiting for Hollywood to invite more black movies into the mainstream, DuVernay, as a certain commander in chief once said, is being the change she wants to see.