Growing up in Compton, Ava DuVernay fell in love with movies thanks to the passion and nurturing of her aunt, Denise Sexton.
"She was a registered nurse and a community theater actress," recalled DuVernay, 38, who has had her own film and TV public relations agency in Los Angeles since 1999. "She was a huge film buff. She wasn't married and didn't have a family, but her nieces were a big part of her life. We were always at the movies. So I caught the bug."
And her aunt, who died of breast cancer in 2003, inspired DuVernay to write and direct her first feature film, "I Will Follow," which opens Friday at AMC's Criterion in Santa Monica. Salli Richardson-Whitfield ("Eureka") stars as a successful make-up artist who is visited by 12 people on the day she is moving out of bucolic canyon house she shared with her terminally ill aunt (Beverly Todd).
Like the characters in the film, DuVernay and her aunt moved to a house on the beach when Sexton was diagnosed with cancer. DuVernay spent two years taking care of her aunt and making her final months as happy as possible.
DuVernay made the film in just 15 days with her own money — she said she kept costs under $50,000 by staying in one location. DuVernay said she footed the bill herself because it would have taken too long to get funding. "I was really on fire to make this," she said recently over a lunch at a pizzeria in downtown Los Angeles.
DuVernay sees her film as part of an effort to fill a void in the cinematic marketplace. Although black film festivals like L.A.'s Pan African Festival screen independent films that reflect contemporary African American life, major studios are not producing such fare, she said.
"I think when you look at the fact that this year, so far, the studios have released one film starring a black woman, and it's 'Big Momma,' that statement to me is really profound," she said, referring to the third installment in the Martin Lawrence drag comedy franchise.
"It's really about the studios feeling what will sell to a mass audience, not developing films that appeal to niches and smaller groups. We all sit around and complain about the studio system, complain about men in dresses. The bottom line is, the energy I spent complaining about them is energy I can put into making a film about a happy black woman who is taking her destiny in her own hands."
Richardson-Whitfield said her character in "I Will Follow" was the type of role she has been seeking.
As a black woman, she said, it's difficult to find parts "that challenge you and feed you artistically. This is the kind of piece I have been searching for to show people what I can really do. It had everything I wanted. As a director, Ava had a vision and stuck with it."
DuVernay said she never had any ambition to become a filmmaker because she thought it would be next to impossible for a young African American woman to get her chance behind the camera. "I never thought I could make a film," she said. "That wasn't even an option."
After she graduated from UCLA receiving degrees in English literature and African American studies, she became a movie publicist and over the years worked on 120 film and TV campaigns for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann, Bill Condon and Gurinder Chadha. After talking with directors and observing them on set and at press junkets, she realized that the filmmakers were regular people and that there was no magic involved in making movies.
"So I started making shorts and documentaries," said DuVernay. Her 2008 hip-hop documentary "This Is the Life" won audience awards at festivals in Toronto, Los Angeles and Seattle.
"I self-distributed it, and I loved it," she said. "I loved the idea of making something independently and controlling how it is put out. We had some offers on that documentary, but nothing that exceeded what we could do on our own. I have been a studio publicist, so I know how to market. We released in one theater in Los Angeles and one in New York. I replicated the DVDs myself. I sold to international territories. I figured it out on my own. So I thought this is really the way to go."
And she has an even more ambitious plan for "I Will Follow," which opens at AMC theaters in five cities Friday. To get the film out, DuVernay formed the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a distribution entity that aims to release two independent African American films per year. AFFRM will draw on support from black film organizations, including Urbanworld Film Festival with Imagenation in New York, the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, ReelBlack in Philadelphia, BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta and the Langston Hughes African-American Film Festival in Seattle.
"We had a really specific strategy for 'I Will Follow,'" said DuVernay. "I wanted to do a hybrid strategy. We were able to do a couple of bigger African American film festivals, and we also did AFI and Chicago film festivals."
She talked to several chains about screening AFFRM movies and chose AMC because of its AMC Independent program, which brings indie films to the theater chain.
"This is not a national tour," said DuVernay. "This is a simultaneous, day and date release in multi-markets supported by our passion and elbow grease.... A percentage of the box office from the door goes right back to the film festivals for their yearlong programs. Our mandate is to create theatrical windows for films of quality that otherwise would not reach our community."