"Positive characterizations are complex characterizations," says writer-director Ava DuVernay, tucking into a serving of roasted potatoes. "That's all we need to know. They shouldn't be saccharine. They shouldn't feel like medicine. You know, often films that are deemed positive, nobody wants to see them."
It's a recent Sunday afternoon, and we're at a wall table in Stuff I Eat, the popular vegan soul-food spot in Inglewood, California. Compton-born-and-raised DuVernay, who first flexed her artistic muscle as half the rap duo Figures of Speech in L.A.'s underrated Good Life hip-hop scene in the '90s, dashed straight from the airport to make the interview, having just completed a cross-country promotional tour for her critically lauded film Middle of Nowhere. She made film history when she won the Best Director award at Sundance earlier this year, making her the first African-American woman to do so.
"I talked to some colleagues at Sundance," DuVernay continues, "and a lot of their films have deeper characterizations than some of their black counterparts because they don't have to tackle the basics. There are a million films about white love, so [white filmmakers] can branch off and say, 'Let me write about love this way. Let me write about love that way.' But we still have to show that black people actually love each other. We're in such the toddler phase of the themes and characterizations we're exploring because not enough of our filmmakers have been allowed to mature, to explore their artistry, to push the themes that interest them."
Her own maturation has been swift and impressive. Last year's I Will Follow (her first narrative film, following on the heels of her 2008 self-distributed documentary This Is the Life, about the Good Life scene), laid her gifts on the table: a fantastic ear for dialogue, a facility with actors, the ability to relay psychologically complex character dynamics with an economy of exposition.
In the exquisitely rendered Middle, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is a woman whose husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is imprisoned, and the struggle to sustain their relationship is complicated by her deepening attraction to another man. At the same time, volatile emotional fault lines between Ruby, her mother, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint), and her sister Rosie (Edwina Findley) set the stage for some of the year's best big-screen acting.
"I'm exploring the same theme in Middle of Nowhere as I did in I Will Follow: lost love and how it affects you when it's gone," DuVernay says. "One was through a familial relationship and a death. The other is through a relationship between a man and a woman when the man is incarcerated. What happens to the person left behind? I'm fortunate that in my second film I can still explore themes that I'm interested in, because you can't just do it one way. Paul Thomas Anderson, in a recent interview discussing The Master, said: 'It's the same theme as all my films. I'm trying to break it down.'
"I think if we were allowed to do that, the characters would get deeper, they'd get more complex, they'd get to be more layered."
Middle's power lies in the grace with which it does a lot of heavy lifting, from its smart exploration of the tensions between mothers and daughters to its unforced class commentary; from critiques of the prison industrial complex and DuVernay's principled choice not to turn Derek into a villain ("I refused to demonize the brother. I was determined to respect his humanity") to the way that the varied skin tones of her cast defy both the Eurocentrism of mainstream Hollywood and the facile conflating of hue with pathology or desirability, as occurs in too much modern black film. In Middle, a trio of gorgeous, chocolate-hued women sits at the film's center, and a dark-skinned black man is positioned as an object of desire without emasculating or diminishing a lighter-toned man.
Given that her body of work thus far focuses on smart, strong women (in addition to the films already cited, there is the BET documentary My Mic Sounds Nice, about women in hip-hop, and a forthcoming ESPN documentary on Venus Williams), some critics have pegged DuVernay as a feminist filmmaker. When asked if that's how she considers herself, she pauses thoughtfully.
"I'm a black filmmaker," she says, shrugging. "That covers all my politics. I'm a prison abolitionist because the prison system as it is set up is just not working. It's horrible. I'm concerned about a lot of issues."
One of those issues is the inability of modern black filmmakers to actually build careers. To that end, DuVernay (founder of DVA, her successful media and marketing PR firm) co-founded the indie distribution collective AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Movement), to distribute independent black films across the country. In addition to DuVernay's films, they've also released Kinyarwanda and Restless City. But she knows there is a lot more work to be done.
"There's a professor doing a study [for the Sundance Institute] to figure out what is attributing to the drastic falloff, the fact that women are not making films beyond two," she says thoughtfully. "But that's in the larger society. When you look at black filmmakers, the averages go the other way. Sisters have much higher output than men in terms of more women making that first film than men making a first film. You have more sisters who made a first film in the last five years than at any other time. OK, cool.
"The question is, how do we get more women to make a second film, and more men to make a first? That's where my attention is — building some kind of legacy around these films and filmmakers. They can't all be one-offs. We have to start creating names for these directors so you know a Tina Mabry film when you see it. And you know the difference between a Tina Mabry film and a Dee Rees film. And then, yo, where are the brothers? Barry [Jenkins], Dennis [Dortch], everybody's trying. I think my fear is a Theodore Witcher syndrome, which I really don't wanna see people fall into. He made a beautiful first film [Love Jones], and for all kinds of reasons, a decade has passed without a followup. I just don't want this moment we're in to be a wave that comes and goes."