Friday, March 11, 2011

Ava DuVernay Opens Up The Door And Gets It Herself

Ava DuVernay, filmmaker, publicist and director of "I Will Follow", which opened today in five U.S. cities.  

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, March 11, 2011

OVER THE TELEPHONE recently you could hear filmmaker Ava DuVernay smiling.  Yes, that really is possible.  The sun in her voice -- if you can picture the apparent impossibility -- rose as she talked about how grateful she was that her first dramatic feature film, "I Will Follow" is now a theatrical release.  The independent film opened today in Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York.

"I Will Follow", about a woman picking up the pieces after the passing of her closest aunt, has received high praise, most notably from Roger Ebert, the nation's preeminent film critic.  The film is poised to make its way around the country over the next few weeks and months.  The Popcorn Reel also reviewed "I Will Follow", which stars Salli-Richardson Whitfield.

Inspiring Ms. DuVernay's first feature drama was Denise Sexton, the director's aunt.  Ms. Sexton, who helped produce "I Will Follow", succumbed to breast cancer in 2003. 

"She looked like a regular woman.  She would challenge you.  I was honored to be able to see that every day with her," recalled Ms. DuVernay last week as she spoke on the phone from Los Angeles. 

The director said something that exemplifies Denise Sexton's presence and philosophy, something Ms. Sexton may have said to Ms. DuVernay during tough times to express her graceful, loving and non-confrontational way: "Sometimes the fears are silent.  Sometimes the pain is quiet."

Ms. DuVernay was raised by her mother and stepfather -- her "new dad" -- as she called him.

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"I Will Follow" is borrowed from the title of rock band U2's 1980 song written by Bono, about his love and remembrance of his dying mother, who passed in 1974. 

Ms. DuVernay is not a U2 fan.  She's a U2 freak.

"In fourteen years I've been to thirty-two U2 concerts," Ms. DuVernay confessed. 

"That's not typical for a black girl from Compton."

The director's obsessive love for U2 was fostered by Ms. Sexton.  "It was what my aunt and I bonded over.  We loved movies, art, plays.  She really gifted me with a whole new world."

That world is showcased deliberately and lovingly in "I Will Follow", and in distinct, natural ways.  A beautiful, peaceful presentation of everyday life, the film charts Maye Fisher's course on a single day as she gathers her late aunt's artifacts during a move from her aunt's house. 

Ava DuVernay lived with her aunt and was very close to her.  The filmmaker, by the way, has directed the acclaimed rap documentaries "This Is The Life" and "My Mic Sounds Nice".

In her new film the director's aunt Denise is named Amanda, played in flashback scenes by the distinguished stage and screen veteran Beverly Todd.  Ms. Todd brings wisdom, charisma, warmth and an unabashed joy to Amanda.  Her scenes with Ms. Richardson-Whitfield are affectionate, vibrant and tender.  Some of the film's best moments occur when both are on screen together.

If the name Salli Richardson-Whitfield sounds familiar to you, then that's because she has been in more than twenty feature films over a couple of decades, including "Posse", "Antwone Fisher" and "I Am Legend".

Ms. Richardson-Whitfield has also appeared on television in "Roc", "NYPD Blue" and "CSI: Miami" among other series.  As Maye in "I Will Follow", the actress is masterful, underlining Maye with melancholy and filling her with wistful memories of her greatest love.  Maye contemplates the past, future and present surrounding relationships in her life.  She has an opportunity to behold her aunt in ways that are real and identifiable to everyone who has a favorite relative. 

Ms. DuVernay has her laments however, about Ms. Richardson-Whitfield's positioning on her big screen resume.

"She's never had a chance to do anything other than be someone else's wife."

That changes in "I Will Follow".  The film showcases Ms. Richardson-Whitfield's acting, which alongside the work of Nia Long in "Mooz-lum" and Mia Wasikowska in "Jane Eyre" are the best lead performances from women on the big screen so far in 2011.  Ms. Todd's supporting work is also noteworthy as one of the year's front-running turns.  Ms. Richardson-Whitfield for the record, is in almost every scene.

Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Omar Hardwick in "I Will Follow", which opened today in five U.S. cities.   AFFRM

As if to counter any rumor or notion that Ms. Richardson-Whitfield off-screen is an impenetrable, stand-offish figure, Ms. DuVernay disavows such imagined views absolutely, with her usual upbeat, cheery personality.

"This woman is the coolest chick.  I mean, she's stunning.  She didn't just stand around and look pretty.  She chipped in and asked, 'what do you need?'  She didn't have a trailer.  She offered to help, and did."

"I Will Follow" may have a modest budget, but audiences who see it will agree that its heart is the biggest and brightest there is at the movies these days.

Omari Hardwick, Michole White, Dijon Talton, Tracie Thoms, Damone Roberts and Blair Underwood are among the actors in the film.

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When she's not making films Ms. DuVernay runs The DuVernay Agency, a Los Angeles public relations agency firm handling entertainment, media and marketing.

The filmmaker got "I Will Follow" off the ground in November 2009 and was also promoting the film "Invictus", which opened during the following month.  After P.R. work on the Morgan Freeman-Clint Eastwood film was complete, it was on to concentrating fully on "I Will Follow", which was shot on digital video in 15 days in Topanga Canyon in Southern California.

To authenticate Maye to a deeper degree, the director made a stylistic choice to bring Maye more earthbound and connected to her surroundings.

"I was always interested in having a black woman in natural settings, closer to nature, you know?  We don't see black women in the green.  We're always in the mean streets!", said Ms. DuVernay, breaking into laughter.

The director's allusion to concrete jungles is not lost.  Ms. DuVernay mentions Julie Dash's 1991 film "Daughters Of The Dust", set in the American South, chronicling the journey of the Gullah peoples of the region.  That successful independent film is one of only a very recent few that shows black women -- or black people in general -- in pastoral, more naturalistic surroundings.  (Denzel Washington's 2007 film "The Great Debaters" is one.  Martin Ritt's "Sounder", from the early 1970s starring Cicely Tyson, is another.) 

Jennifer Spence's paintings and production design also add a natural dimension to the domicile where Maye is about to move from.  Kathryn Bostic's music score for "I Will Follow" is distinct but at the same time barely noticeable. 

The director and her questioner talk a little about U2's 2009 CD "No Line On The Horizon".  Both agree that it is one of the band's most impressive efforts, although Ms. DuVernay isn't in the mood to discriminate between specific albums. 

Ms. DuVernay didn't mention James Brown during the music portion of the conversation, but with her new film distribution company she has clearly followed the example of one of his most famous songs - "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself.)"

The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, founded by Ms. DuVernay, makes "I Will Follow" its maiden theatrical film release.  AFFRM, as it is more commonly known, partners with film festival circuit entities and self-distributes black-themed and black-directed films in specific U.S. cities, with expectations of adding cities along the way.

For Ms. DuVernay independence is the name of the game, and the only game she would consider.  "Instead of having to hand it off to someone else in perpetuity, I knew that I always wanted to self-distribute.  I love being able to control the destiny of my film."

There's a moment in the film where a recognizable person appears, which suggests a new frontier.  It's an unmistakable moment that rings with pride.  The image seen is hardly an accident.  The proud moment corresponds with the independence and dedication to a renewed vision.  To that end, Ms. DuVernay has managed to go the route of self-distribution, which served Melvin Van Peebles well in 1971 with his film "Sweet Sweetback's Baddasss Song".  Mr. Van Peebles' do-it-yourself approach reaped huge dividends, becoming one of the highest, if not the highest-grossing independent film at the time.

In January Ms. DuVernay had a several-days conference during Sundance to discuss the future of black cinema.  Inviting many black filmmakers, commentators, journalists, actors and various friends, film producers and marketers, the conclusion drawn was that with AFFRM and with other independent black filmmakers and stars, black film was venturing into a positive, uplifting direction.  (Several minutes from the multi-evening conference in Park City, Utah are available on YouTube.)

"Our goal is to eventually have ten quality black films released each year," said Ms. DuVernay of AFFRM.  (For now, there will be two films released each year under the AFFRM banner.)

"I want people to know that when they see what they see on the screen -- the quality of black film that they see -- is an AFFRM film."

"I Will Follow" opened today in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle.  The film is expected to open in other cities this month and next.

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