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DuVernay Changes Landscape of American Film


If Ava DuVernay is nominated for an original screenplay Oscar for Middle of Nowhere — a slim possibility, if more people see it — she will be only the second black female screenwriter in 85 years of Oscar history to do so.  You have to yawn all the way back to 1972 to find the one and only co-writer of Lady Sings the Blues, Suzanne De Passe nominated alongside Terence McCloy and Chris Clark. DuVernay will be the first writer/director nominated as an individual.

The Oscars make  a difference because they represent the status quo, the power dynamic in Hollywood.  Kathryn Bigelow can win Best Director and Best Picture and it doesn’t really change things for women filmmakers. It’s still a white man’s game.   But by some miracle, Bigelow made what was the best reviewed film that year. It was thrilling that any woman could have achieved just that much. Maybe women aren’t getting major deals and maybe they aren’t really winning any awards but there is no getting around the idea that it happened. Bigelow happened. If I was a young filmmaker in film school looking at the Oscars I might think, you know, I can do that too.  Maybe I can’t make Avatar but I can sure as hell make The Hurt Locker. And you know, that’s not nothing.

DuVernay is, in her own way, starting a different kind of revolution.  She’s made a film starring black characters that isn’t a Tyler Perry movie and it isn’t Precious. It isn’t about the stereotypes Hollywood has become so fond of. It is the anti-The Help.  The Help made lots of money and earned Oscar nominations for Viola Davis and a win for Octavia Spencer. But it was caught in the in-between. It was too insulting to many in the black community. In the white community, it was a huge hit. But it wasn’t allowed to be an unqualified hit because it wasn’t politically correct.  It could never have been judged as just a great ensemble of many wonderful performances. It was always going to be laden with the unavoidable past. Our shameful history, which continues to be a vital discussion.  But along comes Middle of Nowhere and it’s interesting because it can’t be categorized as anything except a good movie, with richly drawn characters that aren’t stereotypes. They aren’t defined by their race, for once.  It’s interesting to watch how critics are reacting, and it will be interesting to see how the public, and how the awards community, will react.

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