Though Black female writer/director Ava DuVernay has only made three feature films (plus a documentary), she has already established herself as one of Hollywood’s boldest successes. In fact, DuVernay has already made several firsts in her short career. She became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her second film, “Middle of Nowhere.” She was also the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and for Best Picture for her breakthrough, “Selma.” Despite a small filmography, DuVernay possesses a distinctive aesthetic and thematic style in her movies. She highlight issues of race, womanhood — more specifically, Black womanhood — uncertainty, family dynamics, and resilience, while utilizing warm visual palettes, intimate close-ups, almost all-Black casts, an R&B-esque score/soundtrack, and extended scenes of silence (something that fellow director Martin Scorsese uses in several of his films). Even though she’s only directed a meager amount of movies, DuVernay has been involved in the industry for a long time, first starting out as a journalist covering the O.J. trial and then transitioning to being a publicist/distributor for films made by Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann, and more. In addition to directing an episode of ABC’s popular “Scandal,” DuVernay has been outspoken about the disproportionate amount of recognition directors/actors of color receive from studios and the Academy, especially since “Selma” was only nominated for two Oscars and robbed of other prominent awards. Her passion for filmmaking and social justice is something that certainly makes DuVernay stand out, which is why I decided to watch her body of work, and here are my thoughts:
“I Will Follow” (2010)
DuVernay’s feature debut “I Will Follow” is a simple, relatively short, but emotionally stirring melodrama that follows a day in the life of Hollywood makeup artist Maye Fisher (a great Salli Richardson-Field) after the death of her beloved aunt Amanda (“Lean on Me”‘s Beverly Todd). Considering that “I Will Follow” had a small budget, I was impressed by DuVernay’s use of space and environment, despite the film’s low production values and 15-day shooting schedule. During the movie, Maye spends the day cleaning out items, nooks, and crannies, which ignite memories that are shown through interspersed flashbacks of her time with Amanda, who was experiencing breast cancer. Though the story is touching and really compelling at times, “I Will Follow”‘s greatest weakness is its pacing and tonal shifts. Throughout the day of cleaning and packing, there are several tense moments between Maye’s three biggest relationships — her irritable rich cousin and Amanda’s quietly grieving daughter Tiffany (Traci Thoms), her teenage nephew Raven (Dijon Talton), and her sort-of crush Troy (Omari Hardwick) — that ultimately change during their time together. Tiffany and Maye lash out at one another, with Tiffany accusing Maye of coercing Amanda into staying home in order to be with her, instead of having Amanda go to the hospital for chemotherapy. Tiffany and Maye’s scenes together are somewhat histrionic, but there are some deep-seated truths behind the two’s relationship. Despite Tiffany’s unlikability, her feelings of subordination to Maye during her mother’s time of need feel real. But at the same time, Maye recognizes Tiffany’s lack of spending time with her mother, causing an even greater rift between the two. Ultimately, their argument isn’t really resolved, making for an unsatisfying subplot. Nevertheless, “I Will Follow” has some other good moments, especially the scenes between Maye and Raven. In the beginning of the film, Raven is made out to be an angsty, unhelpful teenager, but later becomes more open once he talks with Maye during a lunch break about their favorite NBA players and the Jay-Z/Nas feud. Their scenes are sweet and fill the film’s melancholic tone with levity. In the film’s last big sequence, Maye deals with two former love interests, first from her bitter ex-boyfriend Evan (Blair Underwood) and then from Troy, whom she contemplated having a relationship with while taking care of Amanda. Ultimately, the two men seem to have certain qualms about their individual relationships with Maye. Like Tiffany, Evan is angry with Maye over her letting Amanda slowly die from breast cancer, instead of getting proper treatment. In a completely different and more intimate setting, Troy explains that he is seeing someone at the moment and therefore cannot be romantically involved with Maye. These situations only add more emotional weight to the film and to Richardson-Field’s enchanting performance as Maye. “I Will Follow” was unique in that it was considerably a more low-key drama about mourning than one would expect. It wasn’t profound, but nevertheless an admirable first effort from DuVernay, especially with her depiction of strong female characters. Strangely, the film’s title derives from a U2 song, most likely due to Amanda’s fondness of the music of the Irish rock group in one scene. That type of characterization is something not normally represented in films with predominantly Black characters. I believe Roger Ebert perfectly exemplified that idea of race representation in “I Will Follow” with his review of the film. “This is a universal story about universal emotions,” Ebert wrote. “Maybe I mention [race] because this is the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made these days, offering roles for actors who remind us here of their gifts.”
“Middle of Nowhere” (2012)
Like “I Will Follow,” DuVernay’s second film, “Middle of Nowhere,” is also a film about grieving, except not for a deceased loved one, but for an imprisoned loved one. With improved production values, amazing performances from perfectly-cast actors, beautiful cinematography, and sensitive direction (which DuVernay won a prestigious award for at Sundance), “Middle of Nowhere” is a story about promising medical student/nurse Ruby (Emaytzy Corinealdi) and her fight to get her husband Derek (“I Will Follow”‘s Omari Hardwick) out of prison. The film also had a low budget of $200,000 and was shot in a small period of time (about 19 days), but that barely shows. “Middle of Nowhere” is less about Ruby’s relationship with Derek, though it spends some time focusing on their journey together throughout his eight-year sentence. Rather, the film is more about Ruby’s self-discovery and the events and people who shape who she is and becomes. In the film’s beginning, Ruby is solely focused on getting Derek a shorter sentence and vows to stay devoted to him during several jail visits. In the meantime, she hangs out with her financially struggling sister Rosie (Edwina Findley Dickinson), her infant nephew, and her temperamental mother Ruth (“Orange is the New Black”‘s Lorraine Toussaint). Eventually, she meets friendly bus driver Brian (a phenomenal David Oyelowo), who becomes entranced by her. Ruby knows not to cheat on Derek while he’s incarcerated and makes that clear to Brian, who respects her choices. But things take a dark turn after Derek gets demerited for being involved in a prison fight. That’s not the bad part, actually. During a hearing regarding Derek’s actions, Ruby and Derek’s lawyer Fraine (Sharon Lawrence) provide enough evidence and alibi to justify Derek’s good behavior and circumstantial involvement in the fight. However, the judge at the hearing states that Derek has had a past sexual encounter with a female prison guard, which is a shock both to Ruby and the viewer. This particular scene is especially well-done, as the camera faces Ruby’s back during her reaction. We don’t see her facial expression, but we understand immediately her emotional torment over this crippling new truth. Derek is regretful and apologetic for this, but Ruby realizes she can no longer handle feeling imprisoned herself and shackled to their slowly crumbling marriage. Afterward, Ruby meets Brian again and the two flirt, dance, have sex, and ultimately begin a relationship together. In addition to Ruby and Brian’s mesmerizing, tender chemistry, “Middle of Nowhere” does a great job of showcasing Ruby’s journey as a woman who is attempting to find meaning and purpose in her life, based on her own terms and not from what others tell her. Her anxious uncertainty becomes visible in a dramatic and well-acted sequence between Ruby, her mother, and her sister. As the three sit down to eat dinner, Ruth unearths the growing tension between her and her two daughters, who have grown to resent her and one another. Ruth and Ruby’s scenes are especially heart-wrenching, as Ruth angrily berates her daughter for not being able to stand up for herself, in terms of giving up med school to take care of her husband and letting her life pass her by. Again, the camera doesn’t show Ruby’s face (only her profile), yet her seething rage is palpable, slowly unraveling in one climatic moment. The rest of the film channels those same emotions of pain, as Ruby grapples with ending her relationship with Derek in order to start a new one with Brian. Both Ruby and Derek share a sad but passionate final encounter, knowing that their love for one another is unfortunately not strong enough to last. “Middle of Nowhere” makes Ruby’s turbulent emotional journey into something spellbinding, thanks to DuVernay’s writing and direction, as well as Corinealdi’s fantastic central performance.
Films like “Selma” are painful, vivid reminders that America has a difficult and often ugly past. It’s similar in subject matter of other 2010s films about racial inequality, such as 2011’s “The Help,” 2013’s “The Butler,” and 2016’s “Race.” Yet “Selma” is the rare historical film that neither sentimentalizes its plot nor lionizes its characters, but instead sends a powerful, uplifting message about the long journey towards freedom. “Selma” isn’t so much of an MLK biopic as it is a portrait of MLK’s relentless drive to get Black people the individual rights and political autonomy they deserved. It’s also a film where DuVernay’s cinematic vision is fully realized, making it her best effort yet. Despite a few historical inaccuracies (which will inevitably occur in films that dramatize history), “Selma” is a gorgeously shot, extremely well-acted, and unflinching depiction of one of the darkest times in American history, particularly for African-Americans in the South. David Oyelowo makes his second DuVernay appearance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., playing him during 1964-1965 (3-4 years until his untimely death). Oyelowo’s performance as MLK is amazing, not only in mastering King’s Southern accent, smooth cadence, and methodical mannerisms, but also in portraying his ferocious passion for social and racial justice. What surprises me most about “Selma” is how it also recognizes both the quirks and faults of its protagonist. The film observes MLK’s gentleness, personality, smoking habits, and alleged infidelities. That last part is especially jarring, as many do not know that MLK apparently had some quiet affairs, which causes friction between him and his loving wife Coretta (British actress Carmen Ejogo) in one intense, blistering scene. Nonetheless, this makes MLK’s character all the more nuanced and flawed. “Selma” is mainly concerned with MLK’s marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which he helps lead with James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), and Diane Nash (“Creed”‘s Tessa Thompson), all of whom are deserving of praise for their performances. Along with some inspiring scenes of marching, protesting, and preaching, most of “Selma” is filled with heartbreaking, often uncomfortable moments, particularly in one opening jump-scare sequence, in which several young girls are instantly killed by an explosion inside a church. Other hard-to-watch scenes include the rejection of Annie Lee Cooper’s (Oprah Winfrey) voter registration; MLK’s peaceful protest against racist Sherriff Jim Clark; a shootout scene in a restaurant where civil rights protester Jimmy Lee Jackson (“Short Term 12″‘s Keith Stanfield) gets killed, and so on. These moments are punctuated by the stinging racial slurs and discrimination that still exist in some parts of our country today, which is troubling but nevertheless should be watched and heard. A problem I initially had with “Selma” upon my first viewing in theaters was its demonization of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who stunted MLK’s demand to allow Black people the right to vote unencumbered by police. History would say otherwise, but it should be noted that these kinds of limitations made it even harder on MLK, leading him to create the Selma-Montgomery marches on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The first march is unsuccessful and violent, with state troopers beating protestors and blinding them with tear gas. The march and its aftermath are televised, leading hundreds of viewers to go out to the South to march with Dr. King and others. The second march — the film’s climax — gathers everyone together, both Blacks and whites, giving the state troopers the OK to open up the bridge. However, in a bone-chilling moment of silence, Dr. King kneels, with everyone following him, almost as if they’re praying for this madness to truly be over. When MLK stands back up, everyone follows, and the civil rights leader pushes his way through the crowd, turning the march back around. Perhaps, as interpreted by some characters in the film, Dr. King was asking for God’s help and God did not answer. It’s unfortunate even for the viewer not to relish in what could have been an incredible groundbreaking moment in American history. But later, it seems as those King’s prayers were indeed heard. Southern judge Frank Johnson (a surprising cameo from Martin Sheen) allows the march to happen without fear of endangerment; President Johnson subsequently creates and signs a bill that eliminates restrictions on voting. “Selma” concludes with a hopeful, if slightly harrowing, takeaway about the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle to attain its long-standing goal of freedom. Even with all the progress made in America today since that time, “Selma” is a strong reminder that we still have a long way to go to in terms of combating racism against Black people.