When the black actors in "Middle of Nowhere" read the film's script, they were shocked to find they could actually relate to the characters.
Director Ava DuVernay's depiction of a Compton woman struggling while her husband is incarcerated resonated with her cast of actors.
Before joining the cast, actor David Oyelowo had been shooting "Lincoln," in which he plays Union Army soldier Ira Clark. He said "Middle of Nowhere" delves deeper into black people's lives in a way that emphasizes normality.
He hinted that, while he was grateful to see black characters depicted in the Civil War-set Steven Spielberg film, the characters seemed to be an afterthought compared to the movie's light-skinned titans, particularly when compared to "Middle of Nowhere."
"You don't see the people suffering under the weight of not having the 13th Amendment — there's only so much you can do in two hours — and that's the movie," he said. "In 'Lincoln,' the roles you see: A butler, you see [Mary Lincoln actress] Sally Field's handmaiden, so to speak, and you see me, myself, a soldier fighting for his country."
"Middle of Nowhere" stars Emayatzy Corinealdi (above), a relative unknown in Hollywood, as Ruby. When her husband is jailed for gun smuggling, Ruby is forced to drop out of medical school to pay his legal fees. After he is denied parole, she finds herself on an existential journey trying to piece together a life for herself while maintaining her relationship with her incarcerated husband.
"We're still a bit trapped in what the industry considers to be who we are and what our lives look like," actress Lorraine Toussaint, who plays Ruby's mother, told the audience at the Landmark Theatre Tuesday night at TheWrap's Annual Screening Series. "Most stereotypical characters that I've played or see in film, I don't know anyone in my life like those people.
"I don't know gang-bangers, I don't know people that run from the police," she added. "I don't know people that are in trouble all the time."
DuVernay said she boiled months of research — interviewing the wives of felons, often at support groups or during visits to a penitentiary — into a screenplay and that she then raised $200,000 to turn it into a film.
"As I started to really examine what life is like in Compton where I grew up and really think about the texture of the lives of women who live there, incarceration kept coming up," DuVernay told TheWrap's editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman, who moderated a Q&A after the film's screening.
"It's radical to see black people being normal," DuVernay said as she discussed what she sees as Hollywood's penchant for exaggerated black stereotypes.
Knowing that studio executives would likely challenge her choice of actors or try to market the movie as a "black" film, as opposed to just a film about black people, DuVernay fell back on more than a decade of experience in publicity and set up her own distribution company.
During a meeting with Universal Pictures — Oyelowo accidentally let the studio's name slip, for which DuVernay quickly apologized: "Sorry Universal! Does anyone have a camera on? Don't tweet that" — she surprised an executive by not pitching the film for distribution, she founded African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
"I started a distribution company because there wasn't a distribution company interested in films about the interior lives of black women," she said, drawing applause.
"Middle of Nowhere," the winner of the Sundance Director's Prize, opened on Oct. 12. It has so far shown on 60 screens.
When, during the Q&A, one audience member asked whether DuVernay considered a more multi-ethnic cast — it's largely black, save for what the director called the "token" Sharon Lawrence, the actress best known for "NYPD Blue," who plays an attorney — or chose a black cast for marketing purposes, Oyelowo quickly jumped in.
"Can you imagine a studio saying, 'hey, we should put a bunch of black people in it as a marketing tool?'" he said, laughing. "That'll be the day. You should run a studio, my friend."
Oyelowo exuded a particular excitement about the film. He was introduced to the script on a flight to Vancouver. The passenger seated beside him asked him for advice on investing in a movie. In the course of their conversation, Oyelowo invited the man, who ultimately helped finance "Middle of Nowhere," to send him a copy of DuVernay's screenplay.
Reading the script on the way back to Los Angeles, he said he couldn't resist visibly gesticulating with joy at how good, how real, the characters were. "Most black characters I read felt cartoonish to me," he said. But this was something different."
He phoned DuVernay, who said he had already been on her shortlist, and got the job.
And in a year when films like "Middle of Nowhere," "Lincoln" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" — about a freed slave exacting revenge on the slavers that captured his wife — he's proud of the direction Hollywood is going.
"I'm happy to see you all here," Toussaint said, surveying an audience dotted with people of many ethnicities. "It wasn't alwadys this way."