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In January, Ava DuVernay became the first African-American woman to win Sundance's best directing award for her second feature-length film, Middle of Nowhere. The film is about a young black woman named Ruby, who puts her life and dreams of going to medical school on hold while her husband is in prison.

In her research for the film, DuVernay conducted interviews with women whose partners were incarcerated, and was surprised to find that many of these women didn't feel like victims. "This isn't just something that was happening to them that they had to go along with," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "This was something that they could stay or they could go — and they decided to stay."

Before she started making movies a few years ago, DuVernay made a name for herself through her marketing and publicity firm DVA Media + Marketing, which has handled films by brand-name directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg.

She says that her movie publicity work gave her close proximity to filmmakers and allowed her to watch the mechanics of making movies. "For me as person who loves movies and thinks that they're magic, to watch the magic happen, it was a demystifying of the idea that only certain people can do it, and that this was a world being created outside of my reach," she says.

DuVernay's mother also changed careers later in life — from a human resources executive at a hospital to a preschool director — and inspired DuVernay to think that she could do the same.

But it hasn't been easy for DuVernay in an industry where she says common wisdom is that black audiences only want to see comedies, historical dramas and blockbusters, while on the other hand: "We're told that independent film lovers ... folks that are used to watching art house films, won't come out and see a film with black people in it — I've been told that in rooms, big rooms, studio rooms, and I know that's not true."

DuVernay is releasing Middle of Nowhere through AaFFRM, short for African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a distribution collective that she co-founded. She says that she's had more success with distributing the film in big chain multiplex theaters than in smaller art houses, where audiences are more likely to be white.

When talking about cinema segregation, DuVernay says there is one important question to answer: "What kind of black film will a non-black person go and see?" And unfortunately, at this point, she says, "It takes a lot, takes a Sundance award, takes a big New York Times profile."

Though her public relations career gave her a late start in filmmaking, DuVernay says she's grateful for what she's learned, and that it's actually helping her enjoy the moment now. "I've seen people that I represented or that I worked with get lost in what people are writing and what people are saying and the red carpets," she says. "I mean, I can't get excited about a red carpet because I walk onto a red carpet and know what vendor it came from — I'm like, 'Oh, they got it from this place; this is a 30-pile red carpet.' "


Interview Highlights:

On what it's like to visit a loved one behind bars

"You get there early because the women want to get the full day. So they all arrive, and many of them will travel in the wee hours before dark, before visiting hours begin so they can be in line. And then the series of screenings. And then if one person has the wrong length of skirt, then that takes time — you're behind her so you've got to wait for that. Bags are being checked. Children are involved. And then there may be issues with your incarcerated loved one even coming out. [There have] been several instances when we visited where the person that I was going to meet couldn't come out that day. And yet, you'd gone through this whole trek to get there. These prisons are not centrally located either, so they're usually a ways out, outside the city — certainly in California, they're out in the high desert areas, so that's quite a drive. And if you don't have a car, then it's quite a bus ride. So it's an ordeal. ...

"And then you get in that chair, and you're facing someone who you have to become reacquainted with. And you have to share what's going on with you — it might be financial issues he can't help with. And then also trying to balance that with what's going on with him back there — it's a very, very complicated experience. "

On creating Ruth, the main character's mother in Middle of Nowhere

"I wanted to talk about the black mother because African-American mothers are portrayed in cinema and in television in very limited ways — either the supercomforting, perfect mother or the just harsh, unreasonable, just no room to breath. And with this character, I really wanted to get into the nuances of what her relationship with her daughters actually is and where her feelings about them come from. And it really comes from a place of high expectation, disappointment and just this inarticulate pushing to do better, to be better. And I see a lot of that in our communities — just this hope, this real striving to create a better life for our children."

On what she learned as a publicist

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/">Fresh Air.