To start this year on the right foot, we wanted to celebrate innovators who made the world of film – and beyond – a better place last year.
When tickets were made available to the general public on September 13th for the inaugural season of films at the Amanda Cinema on the ARRAY 360 Creative Campus in Los Angeles, the offer seemed too good to be true. Over the course of six weeks, a truly world class lineup featuring the West Coast premieres of Cannes sensations “Atlantics” and “Varda by Agnes,” a John Singleton retrospective and day-long celebrations of female and Filipino filmmakers involving rarely screened films would be offered for free, first-come, first-served. Remarkably, for those fortunate enough to RSVP in time, it was even better than advertised.
The theater itself is one of the best in the city, with plush, gleaming turquoise seats that reflect light as if they were jewels in a crown and a big, broad screen that is perfectly proportional to the room it’s in, and if audiences somehow didn’t feel welcomed by the ARRAY staff, eager to help people to their seat or warmly offer a glass of iced tea outside before the screening, they surely couldn’t help but be disarmed by the charming pre-show entertainment featuring a slickly cut-together preview of coming attractions and a clever warning against bringing food into the theater or forgetting to off their cell phone, with poor Lil Rel Howrey discovering the consequences from the ladies in charge at ARRAY, among them President Tilane Jones and Director of Programming Mercedes Cooper.
But while the regal venue and the shrewd programming choices instantly distinguished the Amanda from most cinemas anywhere, let alone Los Angeles, there was something else different about the place that couldn’t have been planned for, though it’s inherent to everything ARRAY founder Ava DuVernay has built – the sense that everyone who walks onto the Creative Campus is a VIP, whether it’s the aspiring filmmakers or excited moviegoers with no connections to the industry who just came for a good show or the familiar faces from DuVernay’s productions such as “When They See Us” or “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Nowhere was this more evident than the Amanda’s inaugural season centerpiece screening of “Collateral,” which might’ve appeared to be a great challenge for other organizations, particularly when working with just 50 seats, but was seen instead as an opportunity at ARRAY. With the film’s director Michael Mann coming over to Echo Park, the ARRAY staff had cleverly arranged for two screenings of the film to maximize the limited time they had with him, with an early screening for an industry-centric crowd with the Q & A to follow and the public screening happening after the Q & A, so both audiences would mix in the foyer, the kind of erasure of barriers that so many say they strive for, but DuVernay has quietly achieved.
The conversation that followed hardly felt like it was top-down, in large part because, to go by DuVernay’s enthusiasm and curiosity, you might’ve mistaken the director of “Selma” for one of the burgeoning filmmakers in the crowd, if not for her expert questions, and she was keen to remind everyone in the room that it was on “Collateral,” which she worked on as a unit publicist, watching a scene unfold between Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Javier Bardem and Tom Cruise, that she realized she could write a script to direct when it didn’t seem so out of reach. She described it so vividly that one could imagine DuVernay sitting at the same distance to Mann as they were now – less than 15 feet away, though it could feel like miles – and realizing that after closing that gap for herself, she’s been closing it for everyone else.
“Ava DuVernay is iconic,” Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers tells me not long after at the press day for her debut feature co-directed by Kathleen Hepburn, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open.” “She’s done such incredible things and she’s lifting everybody up with her. We had so many rejections along the way because it’s this quiet film about two indigenous women in Vancouver, Canada and I don’t think it’s easily marketable, but ARRAY saw something special in the heart of our film and have helped us in so many ways to get interest in the film and connect with a broader audience.”
We’re sitting in the Amanda Cinema, which like every other aspect of the ARRAY Creative Campus is bound to serve multiple purposes per the organization’s mission, and while practically nice, quiet interview spaces aren’t always easy to come by in Los Angeles, it says something that the same place where “Collateral” was screened just weeks before will be presenting “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” for a weeklong run as if to level out the scales by giving them the same platform.
Tailfeathers and Hepburn’s bracing drama is deserving of such treatment, a story of a woman escaping domestic abuse skillfully told in long, unbroken takes, and ARRAY putting the the film up on the big screen in downtown Los Angeles, a notoriously underserved community for moviegoing when most arthouse theaters tend towards the west side, is an impressive feat in and of itself, but its release there is merely the tip of the iceberg as far as making “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” available to audiences that traditionally wouldn’t have access to it, the result of nearly a decade’s worth of work that DuVernay and her staff at ARRAY have put into making sure the release of the films is as substantial as the work they’re putting out into the world.
DuVernay had learned the ropes of releasing firsthand by self-distributing “This is the Life,” a documentary about Los Angeles hip-hop scene that gave birth to MCs such as Jurassic 5’s Charlie 2na and Cut Chemist, in 2008. She had the savvy to market the film from her work as a publicist, but not the infrastructure to extend its play much beyond festivals and home video, leading her to build a coalition called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement that drew support from all corners of the country, from Urbanworld Film Festival with Imagenation in New York to ReelBlack in Philadelphia, and BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta. After testing the strength of this network out on her narrative feature debut “I Will Follow,” which kicked back a percentage of the door to the festivals to support their growth and earning three times the film’s $50,000 budget, DuVernay took what she learned to help others, opening up offices in Sherman Oaks for what would become ARRAY and guiding the releases for Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda” and Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City,” both well-received at their premieres at Sundance in 2011 and underappreciated by potential distributors.
This alliance of programmers has stayed strong throughout the decade that followed and has grown, cultivating an audience for films that fall outside the mainstream made by and featuring traditionally marginalized communities yet generally receive far less support than other films that are celebrated on the arthouse circuit, and between this and the advent of DCPs that dramatically reduced the cost of getting movies to theaters, it has enabled ARRAY to better realize DuVernay’s vision of getting widespread releases akin to a studio movie, harnessing what attention they could receive for any given title into a big burst and sparing filmmakers the arduous task of building an audience over years for a single film, preventing them from starting the work of making another. These ambitions were evident with DuVernay’s own films when ARRAY, still known as AAFRM, engaged AMC Theaters for a release of “I Will Follow” across the five theaters that extended the film’s reach into multiplexes, followed by DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere” in 2012, which added a few Regal Cinemas to the mix, but they started thinking even bigger in 2013 when they began acquiring rights for films beyond distributing them, starting with Storm Saulter’s “Better Mus’ Come.”
By 2015 when DuVernay was working in secret on “The 13th” for Netflix, she had another important project in the works with the streaming service, securing the global release of Sara Blecher’s “Ayanda” and Takeshi Fukunaga’s “Out of My Hand.” While the partnership was made at a time when Netflix was generous with the outside distributors to fill out their offerings, it speaks to how DuVernay has leveraged her considerable power as talent the company wants to be in business with that ARRAY films continue to launch on the service when Netflix has been prioritizing original programming and letting all but a few outside deals including ARRAY’s expire. Much like how DuVernay created a trojan horse for career sustainability for female filmmakers with the OWN series “Queen Sugar,” which has gotten countless directors their first TV credit that they can build on to create the income that will provide for them between features, she has used Netflix’s massive global pipeline to introduce new filmmakers, commonly the ones without the name recognition to even surface at the major festivals, and put their work in circulation in a way that had been impossible for anyone, let alone filmmakers of color, only a generation earlier.
“When the film was finishing and I was thinking who would be able to take care of this film and who would understand this message, who would understand this woman more than anybody else, I could think of no one else but Ava DuVernay and what ARRAY was up to,” says Chelsea Winstanley, the producer of “JoJo Rabbit,” who wasted no time looking for someone to distribute her passion project “Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen” shortly before its premiere at Sundance last year.
Winstanley wasn’t thinking about Netflix and their reach when she approached DuVernay with Hepi Mita’s heartfelt tribute to his mother, the groundbreaking Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, but rather what she felt after attending a screening of C. Fitz’s “Jewel’s Catch One,” about the legendary African-American LGBT nightclub in Los Angeles, that ARRAY had put on in Los Angeles and when she was still relatively new in town after moving from New Zealand, the screening instantly made her feel at home.
“I just loved the way in which they engaged with the audience, it was very face-to-face, which we call ‘kanohi ki te kanohi’ [in Maori],” said Winstanley. “The fact that ARRAY Now is a nonprofit and they put story and they put people first, [which is] what we were trying to achieve with this film, it was a no-brainer, and I knew in the pit of my stomach, I’ve got to get to Ava. I felt like she was the only person and I actually only went to her. I didn’t want to go to anyone else.”
It was an even better fit than Winstanley suspected since while it’s become a common refrain to say DuVernay is making history, it’s important to add that it isn’t only about what she’s accomplished in the present, but how she’s gone about resurrecting the films of the past that have been underscreened and elevating the reputations of their filmmakers who were deprived of being recognized in their day.
A viewing of “Merata” is bound to send many viewers down a rabbit hole of rediscovering her work and it didn’t go unnoticed that along with “Ayanda” and “Out of My Hand,” one of the first ARRAY releases as part of their pact with Netflix was Haile Gerima’s “Ashes and Embers,” which never got a proper theatrical release after it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1983. Although Gerima’s legacy is secure as one of the founders of the L.A. Rebellion that gave rise to writer/directors Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”) and Julie Dash (“Daughters of Dust”), not to mention his tenure at Howard University where he taught the likes of “Arrival” cinematographer Bradford Young, ARRAY turned the release of “Ashes and Embers” into an event, setting up a special Q & A between Gerima and Young at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles that kicked off a 10-city tour.
While Gerima and Young had a natural connection, the pairing across generations was indicative of the timeless conversation that ARRAY has fostered around film in general, using their series at the Broad to refresh classics such as Bill Gunn’s “Gangja and Hess” and Cheryl Dunye’s “Watermelon Woman” with talks emphasizing their ongoing influence, featuring guests such as David Oyelowo and “Dear White People” director Justin Simien. That attitude has been carried over to the programming at the Amanda where the fall series was constantly leaping between decades — and often countries of origin — to collapse any distance created by time and space to suggest the language of cinema cuts across all divides, bringing together films from Mati Diop (“Atlantics”) and her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty (“Hyenas”) on a double bill and gathering Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “Moral,” Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground,” Suzana Amaral’s “Hour of the Star” and Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” for an all-day marathon of female-driven quotidian dramas from female filmmakers.
“Ava and her team are dedicated to promoting the work of filmmakers of color and women of all kinds – that’s their mission statement and it’s true as a mother F,” says Phillip Youmans, whose ferocious drama “Burning Cane” informally served as the capstone to the Amanda Cinema’s fall season, becoming the theater’s first full-fledged week-long theatrical engagement.
The 19-year-old filmmaker is speaking to me from New York, where he’s been accompanied by DuVernay as he’s making the press rounds. Among cinephiles, the excitement around Youmans had been building since his first feature won prizes for Best Narrative Feature, Best Actor for its star Wendell Pierce and Best Cinematography after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, but the bold elegy to a church-based community that sits in despair when it looks like the Devil has led its pastor (Pierce) astray is the kind of film that needs a champion like DuVernay for broader audiences to take a chance on it and it’s become a regular practice of the ARRAY chief to join her filmmakers to secure the best bookings possible for media appearances, setting the stage for them to be booked on the strength of their name alone.
“Burning Cane” is such an unapologetically and uniquely southern black story, it just feels like such a perfect home for the film,” says Youmans. “ARRAY is amazing and I feel so much love for them.”
The ARRAY Creative Campus doesn’t draw much attention to itself from the street, a three-building complex that hides behind shrubbery with a small humble sign adorned with Gwendolyn Brooks quote (“Art Urges Voyages”) at the corner of the intersection, fitting for an organization doing so much of its work behind the scenes to create change on a larger scale. (For a time, a billboard heralding DuVernay’s Central Park Five miniseries “When They See Us” was across the street, but then again, it wasn’t much of a tip off when those were everywhere in Los Angeles and beyond in the spring.) The 14,000-square foot campus houses all of DuVernay’s endeavors – her production company ARRAY Filmworks, the distributor ARRAY Releasing and the nonprofit ARRAY Alliance that was created to make the Amanda Cinema a sustainable exhibitor – and once inside the gates, one can’t escape the feeling that this is what the future looks like. Within its walls, a movie could actually be conceived, shot (with plenty of production value to advantage of, with the vibrant murals that were commissioned for the locale from Filipino-American artist Hueman, Domincan artist Evaristo Angurria and Native American artist Andrew Morrison), and screened.
From the succulents that adorn the walls in the dining hall to the stylish outdoor solar panels embedded into the building’s structure, form meets function in every corner with the constant suggestion of creating new energy and growth, and if there’s any design flaw, it may be that the walls are running out of space to add new posters for all the films that ARRAY has helped bring to the world. After starting out with a plan to release two films a year, the distribution arm has steadily increased their output under Tilane Jones, distributing four in 2019 and collectively, ARRAY has grown from a staff of two to 18. Creating any number of full-time jobs for others would be impressive enough, but there’s been a multiplier effect as DuVernay has brought the new voices that ARRAY has introduced to audiences through releasing their films into the ongoing productions she oversees for OWN such as “Queen Sugar,” where Amanda Marsalis (“Echo Park”) began a steady career in television, and the upcoming anthology series “Cherish the Day,” which will feature two episodes helmed by Blitz Bazawule (“The Burial of Kojo”).
As a wise woman once said, “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small,” and for the filmmaker who showed a healthy mix of ambition and practicality from her very first narrative feature, scrapping together a $15,000 budget to shoot a single-location drama inspired by taking care of her aunt towards the end of her life in 2010, DuVernay has closed out the decade with a movie palace that bears her real-life aunt’s name and opened so many other doors along the way, encouraging others to dream bigger with her.