MEMBERS of the Ava DuVernay admiration society are everywhere. In September a stranger interrupted her breakfast at Stuff I Eat, a soul food restaurant in Inglewood, Calif., to say how meaningful her movies are to him.
In August a young actress cornered her as she was leaving the White Dog, unofficial canteen of the University of Pennsylvania here, to tell her how much she “loved, loved, loved” “I Will Follow,” Ms. DuVernay’s 2011 rookie feature. “Also your documentary about women in hip-hop!” she added as Ms. DuVernay flew out the door to the BlackStar Film Festival.
Awaiting her arrival the standing-room crowd vibrated with the kind of excitement that typically greets a new-product introduction from Apple. Ms. DuVernay, smile dominating a heart-shaped face, shared a scene from her new film, “Middle of Nowhere.” This Sundance award winner is a poignant portrait of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a nurse doing hard time in emotional limbo while her husband serves a prison sentence. When the clip was over, a wail rose from viewers, hungry for more. An ebullient Ms. DuVernay told them they just had to wait until this Friday when the film would open in New York and four other cities.
A film marketer turned filmmaker, she knows her audience and how to stoke its desire. She speaks both as an artist and as an entrepreneur who is clearing a new path for film distribution. To the predominantly African-American crowd at BlackStar she talked about how to end-run the studios and find private equity to finance indie films. “It’s not about knocking on closed doors,” she said. “It’s about building our own house and having our own door.”
At that John Cuie, a filmmaker, jumped to his feet and exclaimed: “Ava DuVernay — I could write a 25-page paper on how you inspire me!”
At a time when the percentage of female filmmakers is at a 12-year low of 5 percent, according to a San Diego State University study, and that of black directors is even lower when you consider the top 250 movies at the box office last year, Ms. DuVernay, 40, is swimming upstream with long, assured strokes. Not for nothing is her production company called Forward Movement. Her experience on the business side of filmmaking — asking questions like: For whom are we making this movie? — makes her more focused as a director.
Louis Massiah, a documentary filmmaker and MacArthur Fellow, said: “Ava is charismatic, someone who knows the Hollywood inside game, who knows the art of film and who makes popular movies in the best sense of the word. She’s creating a whole new distribution channel to get movies — hers and those of others — out there.”
That channel is Affrm, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which Ms. DuVernay helped found in 2011, a collaborative group that brings select black-themed art films —- like “I Will Follow” and Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City” — to multiplexes in major cities.
“Middle of Nowhere” has a scene that crystallizes Ms. DuVernay’s aesthetic and wry humor. Faithful to her husband, Ruby agrees to go out with an admirer (David Oyelowo). She shyly confesses that she likes films, indie films. He looks at her askance: “Movies a brother’s got to read?” click to read more