The Sundance Film Festival is "the largest independent cinema festival in the United States." A well known haven for some of the highest quality films in the entertainment world, "it was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen (then head of Wildwood, Robert Redford's company), John Earle, and Cirina Hampton Catania (both serving on the Utah Film Commission at the time)" and has been associated with Robert Redford's name and celebrity for years.
The festival didn't recognize individual achievements in direction until 1995 when "special jury recognition" prizes for directing were introduced and a festival-specific honor didn't appear until 1998 for Darren Aronofsky's Pi. Since that time, there have been no Black winners in the category, let alone Black female winners.
Until this past Saturday.
Ava DuVernay won the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for her drama Middle Of Nowhere — making her the first Black woman to take home the honor.
In her acceptance speech, Duvernay said that it was important that Nowhere be seen beyond the film festival and for “filmmakers of color to see one another’s films and have them seen.” Nowhere was picked up by Participant Media for distribution last week.
Her win came as a shock, as Benh Zeitlin's Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a story inspired by the people who refused to leave New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was considered the favorite. (Beasts took home the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.)
"Middle of Nowhere is a story about a woman named Ruby who has lost her husband to incarceration," DuVernay told Jason Scoggins of the Sundance Project 2012. "It touches on the prison wives' tale, but really the story of a woman who's living in a relationship that's imbalanced."
Nowhere is DuVernay's second [dramatic] feature. Her first, I Will Follow, a quiet, film about a woman dealing with the death of the aunt who raised her, earned strong reviews. DuVernay was one of BlackVoices' GameChangers last August, for her work in setting up AFFRM, an initiative meant to distribute independent black films and get them a wider screening.
What's Middle of Nowhere about?
On a personal note, Komplicated editor-in-chief Hannibal Tabu worked the door of the LA underground hip hop spot Project Blowed with Ms. DuVernay in the late 1990s, and has seen the Compton-bred, UCLA-educated emcee-turned-publicist-turned-filmmaker develop her career over decades, even appearing in footage from her debut film, the documentary This Is The Life. Therefore it was crucial to take note of this major, major accomplishment and the woman who made it happen.