Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Double-Feature Underscores the Need for Art House Diversity

For all we talk about the lack of diversity in mainstream cinema — and, make no mistake, it’s a conversation worth having — the multiplex often looks like a veritable melting pot next to the art house. Occasionally a Belle or Dear White People will slip through, but too often, small-scale, human stories by and about people of color are ignored by indie-minded distributors and/or audiences (of all colors). It’s a big problem. Luckily, Ava DuVernay has a solution.

When the publicist-turned-filmmaker started AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) back in 2010, it served what she now calls “a selfish function”: to get her debut narrative feature I Will Follow into theaters. But once she set up that conduit between festivals, theaters, and audiences, she used it to distribute more work by African-American filmmakers (including Restless City, Kinyarwanda, and her second film, Middle of Nowhere). Late last summer, the company rebranded itself ARRAY, widening its focus to include women filmmakers and directors from around the world. Today, ARRAY’s first two releases begin their rollout—and yes, you should see them because it’s important to support such an effort. But you should primarily see them because they’re very, very good films.

Still from "Out of My Hand"

Japanese-American filmmaker Takeshi Fukunaga’s Out of My Hand is bookended by two similar sequences, methodically detailing a man doing his work. That man is Cisco (Bishop Blay); in the opening, he’s tapping a tree in a Liberian rubber plantation, and in the closing, he’s changing the tire of his New York cab. In the 80-ish minutes that separates those scenes, Fukunaga details how he went from one place to the other, a portrait of a life that plays as much like documentary as drama.

Yet the film is not without conflict. Cisco and his fellow workers attempt to go on strike for higher pay and better conditions, which causes considerable trouble in their homes; later, in New York, Cisco encounters a mysterious figure from his secret past, who threatens to upset the delicate balance of what he’s created. “There are ghosts in this world,” he tells another cabbie. “They follow you.”

Yet there’s no more at stake in that conflict as there is in the quiet tension between Cisco and a wealthy passenger who himself hails from Liberia, and over-tips the driver a bit too generously. The push-pull that follows is agonizing, as Cisco insists the passenger “take what is yours”; there’s so much pride and identity tied up in that tiny transaction, a moment in which the smallest of dramas becomes all-consuming.

Such moments are similarly plentiful in South African filmmaker Sara Blecher’s Ayanda, a vibrant, energetic, colorful story of a young woman who restores furniture in her late father’s garage, only to find herself taking over the business to keep it in the family. It’s an uncommonly rich picture, constantly spinning off in unexpected directions: hopscotching gingerly between coming of age story, romance (Ayanda and one of the mechanics have a hinted-at past, an uncertain future, and plenty of heat right now), character study (Fulu Moguvhani is heart-wrenching in the title role), and the complications of familial dynamics.

Still from "Ayanda"

Such element cross colors and cultures, but Ayanda is also evocative of its particular time and place, and the psychological effects of living there. Casual corruption is constantly rearing up, from crooked cops and parties closer, and there’s something narratively up-for-grabs about how the setbacks keeping coming; accustomed to American movies, I found myself reflexively assuming the situation will turn itself around. But such assumptions aren’t quite as common elsewhere, are they?

These films are full of insights like that, from the offhand details of everyday lives to the casual way characters slipstream between dialects and languages. Both pictures are far too enjoyable to classify as cultural broccoli, as some sort of obligation, but you do learn little things from each of them—about these people, and what their world is like. And that calls to mind Roger Ebert’s famous statement about the true value of cinema: “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”

Great movies do that, but too often, the tentative souls who pull the levers and push the green-lights forget it, opting instead to assume that moviegoers are only interested in reflections of the lives they’ve led, or fantastical flights of pure fantasy. It’s a staggeringly small-minded notion of what this art can do; after all, as DuVernay asked Melissa Harris-Perry recently, “Who wants to be in a room by themselves?” DuVernay and ARRAY are filling a void, and as usual, the only way to prove the powers-that-be wrong is with your movie-going dollar.

“These are the kind of stories that are completely marginalized,” she says, “out of the box in terms of what Hollywood wants, and we say, Hollywood doesn’t determine what we want. We determine what we want.” Amen to that.

Out of My Hand and Ayanda screen in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta this weekend, expanding to more cities and festivals in the weeks to come. More info on screenings and locations here and here.