“If I can see it, then I can do it.
If I just believe it, there's nothing to it.
I Believe I Can Fly"
— R. Kelly
Apparently Ava DuVernay, a Hollywood publicist-turned filmmaker, took these words to heart. After spending years on film sets watching iconic directors such as Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Bill Condon making movie magic, DuVernay believed that she could do the same. In 2011, she released "I Will Follow," which "quadrupled its production value." at the box office.
Earlier this year, DuVernay shocked the world — and herself — when her second feature, "Middle of Nowhere," earned the Directing Award (U.S. Dramaitic) at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, making her the first African -American woman to receive the honor.
"I was over at the table having some food. I didn't think I was in the running!" DuVernay said during a recent visit to Philadelphia with the film's star, Emayatzy Corineald, to promote "Middle of Nowhere." "Our film was very much under the radar. We had a lovely time there, but there were definitely some films that had higher profiles, bigger names and a lot of attention, and so I really wasn't even thinking of the possibility. It was a total shock! I was about to take a bite, and they said my name!
"I went up on stage, it was a huge room - the last day of Sundance. I went up, I was stunned. I said something and they handed me the crystal trophy. Then, as I was walking off they said, 'By the way, we think you're the first Black woman to win this!' I went, 'Huh?' That was when I found out."
So how does a Hollywood publicist go from talking up 120 film and television campaigns for others, to taking the top prize at one of the world's premiere film festivals for a project of her own?
"I was making them secretly while I was working in publicity — for the last maybe three years of my agency," said DuVernay, a UCLA grad who formed DVA Media + Marketing in 1999. "I made a short [film] and then a documentary for BET called 'My Mic Sounds Nice,' I was shooting Essence Music Fest — I did a lot of music documentary stuff, but I still had the agency open. The agency was open until last summer. The last thing we worked on was 'The Help.' So we made the transition from working on other people's films and promoting outside clients to working on my films and promoting AaFFRM [African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement]. Finally, with this film, this is the first year I've been a fulltime filmmaker and it's a different feeling."
DuVernay's accomplishments are even more remarkable when you consider the fact that she's had no formal training in filmmaking.
"I'm a publicist!" she said emphatically. "I have a full crew. I had a cinematographer and a gaffer and a lighting guy, but I was definitely studying on the side. I didn't have formal film school training, but I was reading. I was on a lot of film sets for years and years. I was a publicist for film, so I was on Steven Spielberg's set and Michael Mann's set asking questions about "this camera" and "this lens" — being able to soak it in."
As expected, DuVernay's surprising Sundance victory has been a major game-changer.
"I don't think my life has changed, but my film, 'Middle of Nowhere' has changed from a small, very grassroots-driven film that we were going to release through AaFFRM to something that's been getting attention from people in other corners," she said. "So I think for everyone involved, including Emayatzy, it really just ensures that the film will be seen and regarded in the same way. People should see their performance. People should see David's performance - the photographer, the two producers — everyone did so much work."
The rapidly rising filmmaker intends to pursue her career with the same sense of purpose and said, "The goal is to make a film a year and to really just keep momentum. Spike [Lee] made 20 films in 20 years, and I think that Canon is one I really respect. He does documentaries, he does narratives, and that's something that I definitely aspire to."
As she anxiously awaits the opening of her second film, DuVernay had a message for other African-American women with a vision.
"I'd like people to know that 'Middle of Nowhere' is for them," she said. "That there is a Black woman filmmaker that is making stories about the interior of our lives — our emotions, the nuances of who we are, as opposed to caricatures. So often we are given these films by the studio system that are not for us - to nourish us, and that's why I made it for us to be proud of the film — in a way that when people come, give it a chance - they'll find themselves in it."