This past Friday night I attended Imagenation’s panel Art & Activism featuring the Sundance-award winning Middle of Nowhere. First, a word about Imagenation. Imagenation was founded by Moikgantsi Kgama and when I moved to New York in the mid-90s Imagenation was holding monthly film events as part of the crazy explosion of arts that was happening in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan at the time. That was twenty years ago. Today, Moikgantsi is still on her mission. She and her team have acquired a space in Harlem that they are raising funds to renovate into a small independent cinema and cafe. Talk about a tireless commitment to a vision! Moikgantsi’s persistence and steady effort has brought audiences to so many amazing films they might not have seen otherwise.The Art & Activism panel was about the role of the arts in activism. The plan was to show a clip of the film and have a panel discussion around the film, prison activism (as the film centers around a woman whose husband is in prison), and filmmaking. I have to admit I was disappointed when I found out that I was not going to be seeing the film in its entirety, but then I got so much from the discussion, I was grateful for being there.
There was a woman on the panel whose husband was imprisoned for much of her children’s lives and who organizes support systems for women with incarcerated family members. A man from the Center for Media Justice whose organization is working on phone justice–an initiative to stop phone companies for setting predatory pricing on prison phone calls. Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, who spent time in prison as a political prisoner and is now an educator and film professor. Michaela Angela Davis who works on issues around the images of people of color in the media. Ava DuVernay, the director of the film and the founder of AaFRM–an organization that creates nationwide networks to support and sustain the release of independent black film in mainstream markets.
Here are the four touchpoints that linger from the conversation:
1. Members of The Middle of Nowhere team actively looked for an organization they could partner with on prison activism initiatives as a connection to the film. They helped the Center for Media Justice get signatures for their phone justice petitions and spread the word about the issue. Art has the power to energize and activate activism.
2. The representative from the Center for Media Justice talked about how cultural change/revolution often proceeds political change/revolution. He discussed trying to get the FCC involved in their phone justice campaign without much luck. They set up a special FCC screening of The Middle of Nowhere, which probably would not have happened without Obama’s appointment of Mignon Clyburn to the FCC, a testament to why it’s important to be governed by people who see you as human. The viewers connected emotionally to the film and now have a more human view of an issue that was previously solely political. Art has the power to translate the goals of activism in a distilled, emotionally potent, effective way.
3. Jamal Joseph talked about starting a theater company in prison. When the company—all black—saw a group of Latino men approach them, they thought they had come to fight. Instead they were coming because they were intrigued, and wanted to join. They quickly became a diverse theater company. Groups that were highly polarized and highly segregated in the strict social codes of prison strata performed together, studied film and theater together, and grew side-by-side behind prison walls. Art has the power to call into question social norms and cause social change.
4. Ava DuVernay, the film’s director, talked about writing the script for The Middle of Nowhere back in 2003. The budget was 2.5 million dollars and she could not get backing. So she put the project away and developed her filmmaking skills doing documentaries and the feature I Will Follow. As Ava said on the panel, everything has it’s time. When she went back to The Middle of Nowhere, technology had revolutionized access to filmmaking. She made the film for a dramatically reduced budget and the completed film won her the Best Director Award at Sundance this year. Art is an evolution, not an advancement that you can plot on a straight line. As you create your work, it’s impossible to tell what is trash and what is treasure, what has succeeded and what has failed. Everything has power and who you are when you come to it, what the world is when you produce it, what audience space you have carved out for your work when you publicize it makes a difference in the life of your art. I am, currently, going back to my first novel, which I started writing in 1995. I am more skilled than I was when I started writing it. I have more history with writing, with my characters, and with my vision. The development of The Middle of Nowhere (and the ongoing efforts of Imagenation) speaks to the theme of persistence. Progress may not be instant, or maybe it is, but it just isn’t recognizable. We must not assume our output is not valuable or significant if it doesn’t do exactly what we want it to do.
Finally, Ava–who is funny, dynamic, intelligent, focused, and driven–tapped into my newest realization that I am responsible for finding my audience by educating the panel audience about what it takes to support independent film, as well as what it takes to create the networks and infrastructure necessary for independent African diasporic film to be seen. Her film organization, AaFRM, has brokered the release of her film as it has other films in order to grow an audience and a means for black independent film to be screened in mainstream theaters. AaFRM partners with film organizations across the nation to advocate for the films and alert interested audiences to their presence.
I would think the film that won best director at Sundance would automatically be in all the independent movie houses, but that’s not the case here. The Middle of Nowhere is opening this Friday at five theaters, all of them were negotiated by AaFRM.
New York: AMC Empire 25
Philly: UA Riverview
DC: Regal Gallery Place
Atlanta: Landmark Midtown
L.A.: Rave Motion Pictures
(Ava mentioned a second theater in L.A., but it’s not showing up on the Moviefone listing.)
If you live in one of these cities and you’re available go see the film on Friday or Saturday. These are the two days that will determine if the film sticks around for another week. The nighttime screenings will likely be well attended, so if you can go to an afterwork screening or an afternoon screening please do. (This is hard film business science straight from Ava’s mouth.)
Ava is a full incarnation of understanding that artists are responsible for managing and developing all aspects of our artistic life. We have to do more than just create the work, we also have to carve out the time AND build the platform from which our work will be seen. This dynamo—Ava DuVernay—is doing all of that, and building platforms for the entire independent black film community. I hope you have an opportunity to support this film on opening weekend.
For the artmakers!
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam