Ava DuVernay Presents Prison’s New Math in ‘Middle of Nowhere’

The award-winning director talks about her latest film and her proudest moments.

By Jamilah King Oct 05, 2012

Ava DuVernay has had a lot to proud of throughout her film career. She first made a name for herself directing music documentaries and her first narrative film feature, "I Will Follow", garnered widespread acclaim. Most recently, she she won the Best Director Prize at Sundance for her second full-length narrative, "Middle of Nowhere", a heartfelt account of one woman’s struggle to maintain hope throughout her husband’s incarceration. 

But for DuVernay, one of her proudest recent moments came nearly 3,000 miles away from Hollywood. Late last month, "Middle of Nowhere" was taken to a hearing at the Federal Communications Commission and presented as testimony on behalf of families who want to lower the cost of phone calls from prison. After the screening, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the film had helped renew her mission to address the issue. "That kind of thing makes me proud," DuVernay told Colorlines.com.

The film opens in select cities on Friday, October 12 (check here for screenings near you). DuVernay spoke with Colorlines about the film’s inspiration, and its impact. 

We know that there are millions of people who are incarcerated in this country, but we rarely hear about their loved ones. Why was this an important story for you to tell?

I’ve never been incarcerated, but I’ve certainly felt the ways of incarceration. And I think that is most people’s intersection with it. If you think about one incarcerated individual and you think about the three, four, five or more people whose lives their incarceration touches, when you do the math that way you find that there are far more people who are loved ones of the incarcerated than there are even incarcerated. 

There’s so much talk and so much debate and so much attention put on so many other aspects of the prison industrial complex. But too often, the millions of people that are on the edges and who love people who are incarcerated are completely ignored. Completely. They’re not only being ignored, but they’re being victimized. Things like predatory phone rates by companies that are preying on transportation access and communication access. It really becomes something that we have to start looking at as a society, particularly as as a community of color.

This film isn’t your typical look at prison lives, for all the reasons that you just described. But also because I noticed that it never goes into the prison itself. And it’s almost like the viewer is almost dropped into the middle of this unresolved situation. Why was it important for you to leave that situation unresolved?

I don’t know that it’s unresiolved, it’s just a certain perspective. I’m telling the woman’s story, so there’s no need for me to go back behind the bars. She’s beyond bars and she deals with incarceration and so that’s the perspective that we wanted to illustrate. It became very much a choice to only go as far into the prison as the loved ones can go, and they can only go as far as that visiting room. And to really bring people into what that life is like. You have your loved ones and they’re in this unknown place, and then you walk out into the world and have to negotiate that, and live with that, and fear for that person, protect that person, and live your own life.

Toward the end of the film, there’s this monologue where Ruby [the main character] talks about how "there are no easy answers." That, to me, is a universal sentiment that people feel whether they are incarcerated, whether their loved ones are incarcerated or whether they’re jusy trying to get through daily life. Can you talk a little bit about what that meant?

[There’s] this idea of being in an in between place. This idea of being of being in a relationship and losing your bearings. That happens in any situation where we become separated from our loved ones or we become separated from ourselves. Too often relationships aren’t the healthiest places. I think the film explores different ideas about regaining a sense of identity, a sense of balance. But then also staying loyal to our loved ones, and that is a very tight rope to walk. We’re all trying to walk it.

The film has gotten a really great, critical reception. I know that you’ve personally won awards at Sundance for it. What does that mean for you as an African American female filmmaker — to get that sort of acclaim for a film that’s so intimiate?

Personally, it’s lovely. It’s a nice vote of confidence. But it is definitely bittersweet. The Sundance award — you can take it and run with it. Or I can stop and just really realize that I certainly am not the first black woman that deserved it. Gina Prince-Bythwood’s "Love and Basketball" went through Sundance. A number of beautiful films by black folks have gone through. And, for whatever reason, this is the time. I accept it humbly. 

It sheds some light on our film. It gives us a little bit more shine, gives us a little more attention. This film is something that we want people to see. Anything that helps people perk up their ears up a little bit, or makes them wanna see it, I accept gladly. We are independently distributed, independently produced, we are independent. You will not see billboards, you will not see the big bells and whistles around this campaign. It’s really hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart, talking to people in the community.

Can you talk a little bit more about that independence? You mentioned earlier the predatory phone rates and the ways that the loved ones of incarcerated folks are preyed upon. There’s been a good amount of attention to those issues in progressive communities, and you guys have been able to reciprocate that. Can you talk about the ways in which the independent spirit of this film happened? And then that indepdence allows you to do?

For all the wonderful things that have happened with the film — getting into Sundance, winning at Sundance, a big gala that Film Independent gave us at the L.A. film festival that was really unprecedented, our acceptance and presentation at the Toronto film festival, our international debut — all of these things are amazing. But the thing I’m most proud of is the film being used as testimony at the FCC hearings to reopen and re-examine this piece of legislation called the Wright petition. This was brought forth by a blind grandmother who could not call her grandson because of predatory phone rates. These are exorbitant rates that are being unleashed on vulnerable communities and loved ones of the incarcerated, without any regulation. 

One of the things I’d really like to get people to start to think about beyond the real foundational issues around the prison industrial complex is the way that it impacts people day-to-day. When your brother calls, when your son calls and you can’t pick up the phone, you can’t take the call, because you can’t afford it. That shouldn’t be.

The campaign that we’ve been able to engage in with the Center for Media Justice around this issue is only because we’re an independent film. This is not the type of thing that would be top of line at a studio, to be this involved in an issue of this kind. It’s not gonna sell tickets to the movie. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s an amaizng blessing that a piece of art can actually promote social change.

Want to know more about the prison phone justice campaign? The Center for Media Justice will be at this year’s Facing Race conference in Baltimore next month. Register!