Fashion and Friendship Explored on Film

Ava DuVernay (Getty Images Entertainment)
Ava DuVernay (Getty Images Entertainment)

(The Root) — Anyone who's ever been lifted out of a bad case of sads by a new shade of lipstick, slinky red dress or sexy new 'do will absolutely identify with writer-director Ava DuVernay's new short film, The Door, released this week. The fifth installment in Miu Miu's Women's Tales series, DuVernay's film charts the transformative power of clothes and friendship in a tight story that clocks in at just under eight minutes.

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But oh what a marvelous eight minutes they are. Featuring the jaw-dropping designs of Miuccia Prada against an equally stunning set, actresses Gabrielle Union, Adepero Oduye, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Goapele and Alfre Woodard weave a silent yet resounding tale of love in the time of closet envy. DuVernay, who in 2012 became the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival's best director award for her feature film Middle of Nowhere, recently talked to The Root about black women, friendship and high fashion.

The Root: How did Miu Miu first approach you for its Women's Tales series?

Ava DuVernay: It was shortly after Sundance in 2012 where my film Middle of Nowhere was honored. Miu Miu approached me through my agent and just offered it to me, which was lovely for me. I'm an independent filmmaker, so I don't go in pitching my projects. I just write my stuff and make it myself. So to have someone from the other side of the world recognize the work I've been doing and offer me the space to create something was really unexpected and really lovely.

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TR: Tell us the story behind The Door.

AD: It's basically a story about friendship among women. The ways in which our sisters, the women in our lives, really hold us up at times when we can't hold ourselves up. They help us walk through those doors. They tell us where those doors are.

For black women — and, really for all women — the friendships that we share are far from catty, far from competitive, far from the things that are talked about when you actually get women together. So the film is about a woman who is in a dark place, and each one of her friends comes to her door bringing their own healing, and eventually she's able to walk through the door on her own.

TR: From Adepero Oduye to Alfre Woodard, the actresses in the film are absolutely stunning and talented. How did you go about casting the film?

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AD: It starts with me and my casting director, Aisha Coley, in a room trying to figure out who has the flesh and blood and DNA to bring these characters to life. I knew that I wanted to work with five women. Alfre Woodard was the first person who came to mind. I was thrilled when she gave a very quick, enthusiastic yes.

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The rest of the women are all women I've been wildly interested in for a lot of different reasons. Emayatzy was someone I was close friends with and obviously worked with on Middle of Nowhere. I wanted to give her something completely opposite of the character Ruby. I was also working with Goapele, who contributed music to Middle of Nowhere, at the same time I was working on The Door. She'd expressed interest in acting, and I thought that this film would be a nice first collaboration in that arena.

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With Adepero, I'm just spellbound. I'm a huge fan of Pariah and a huge fan of hers. She's a very dynamic sister. And then Gabrielle is just the quintessential leading lady. I worked with her as a publicist on Deliver Us From Eva. So it was a nice 360 to have her be the leading lady in a film of my own.

TR: OK, so we have to talk about the amazing clothes featured in every single frame of the film. How did you weave Miu Miu's gorgeous designs into your story line?

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AD: The Women's Tales series is all about looking to Miu Miu's current line, so it started with the clothes. I looked at Mrs. Prada's designs and thought, "Who would be the woman who wears these clothes?" The clothes were highly structured. They belonged to a certain kind of sister of a certain age. So I created the story from what I saw in the designs.

TR: Black women are rarely represented in high fashion, but in The Door the clothes don't look out of place. How did you combat the misconception that women of color and couture don't mix?

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AD: I didn't want this to be a hyperreal kind of thing. Oftentimes when you see fashion on film, they're in some sort of hyperreality, and you have to create these environments where those clothes can even exist. My challenge was that I wanted these clothes to live in the everyday world. I wanted the clothes rooted in reality and yet be beautiful. I needed actresses who had chops. I needed people who could pull off these clothes, and I wanted an array of skin tones and age. I'm giving you coats and hair and eyelashes and the whole thing, and it has to all fit together.

The only way to do that was to create the story around the clothes, and challenge myself to figure out how on earth would a woman be wearing a red faux-fur leather outfit like Emayatzy does in the film. Who is that, and where is she going, and what is she about?

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TR: Are you a fashionista at all?

TR: Music also plays a big role in The Door, which has a neo-soul vibe and co-stars Goapele in her first film role. How does music inform your filmmaking?

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AD: Music is a big part of my filmmaking. I'm always really trying to use an array of artists that are working with sounds that we know in ways that we don't know. I'm interested in vocalists that are around the periphery of what's usually defined as black music. In Middle of Nowhere I reached out to a local DJ, Morgan Rhodes, and I brought her back for The Door. She brings me tons of music and lets me pick what I want.

There's also one artist that I'm kind of committed to showcasing in all of my films, Ra-Re Valverde. I just think she's stunning, so I'm going to keep putting her in my movies until someone gives her a big record deal.

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TR: As a filmmaker, you seem to focus on how women make it to the other side of pain and grief. What draws you to those types of stories?

AD: I would describe it perhaps less burdened by the things we allowed ourselves to be burdened by. Right now I'm very interested in the idea of what happens when we become unanchored from the thing we believe anchors us, completes us. Who are you when you stand alone? For the last couple of years that's something I've been exploring in my stories. That's definitely something that I want to explore from a couple of different angles — looking at the ways in which we have to become whole on our own.

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TR: What's next for you?

AD: I'm in the middle of postproduction on a documentary I'm doing on Venus Williams for ESPN Films. It's called Venus VS, and it will be out this summer. The film is specifically about her activism and feminism around equal pay in tennis. Up until recently in tennis, men and women were paid unequally. Serena was like, "I'm winning all these Wimbledons, and I'm not going to have that." It was a huge story in the U.K., but that story and her fight for equality never really reached U.S. media.

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I'm also in development for my next feature film. I'm up for the Affinity Award, where Heineken will grant the winner $20,000, and that will help us get to the finish line so that we can make the film.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

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Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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