Meet Ruby L. Oliver, feature filmmaker.
One Sunday afternoon last July, Oliver was pacing back and forth outside the auditorium of the Film Center. Inside, her first feature was making its debut as the centerpiece of the Blacklight Film Festival, an annual local forum for black film artists. The critics had been enthusiastic about Leola in their previews; Dave Kehr called it "one of those unaccountable works that occasionally surface in the cinema, owing nothing to any clearly defined tradition but functioning powerfully on the basis of sheer personality and strength of will." The audience liked it too. When the lights came up, they broke into thunderous applause as Oliver strolled onto the stage. From the podium, she looked around the packed house, paused, then heaved a sigh. "I've made it," she said.
What this 50-year old former day-care center operator from the south side had accomplished defied the odds. Despite being black, female, and an industry outsider, and a novice based in Chicago--sizable handicaps for anyone seriously interested in launching a film career--she managed to finish a professional-looking feature that garnered kudos from critics.
Now a resident of a Los Angeles suburb, she's back in town promoting the three-week return engagement at the Film Center of her film, the title of which has been changed to Love Your Mama. Sitting in a booth in a Gold Coast cafe, Oliver is only too happy to share her "glamorous and humbling adventure" in filmmaking.
She demonstrated her purpose-fulness early on in her first career, day care. "As a little girl," she says, "I'd wanted to be a principal of a school. I loved children; it was second nature." Instead, she settled for something close to it. A poor girl from the south side, Oliver spent a few years in the Navy and then found work in the post office. She saved her money and at age 23, with a loan from the Small Business Association, she became the proud owner of the Little Folks Cottage Kindergarten and Nursery School. Her business soon prospered; she eventually owned and operated three more centers, on the south and west sides, and she moved north into a tony Lake Forest mansion.
But she was restless. After a decade and a half of taking care of others, she decided it was time to move on, to try something new. "I believe in doing more than one thing within a lifetime," she explains, "and I'd always wanted to get an education." In 1980, already in her 40s, she enrolled part-time at Columbia College, majoring in writing. Once enrolled, she immersed herself in the basics of filmmaking as well. "She was very diligent and sharp," recalls Tony Loeb, head of the film program. In 1986, Oliver sold her day-care business for a tidy profit and plunged into schoolwork full-time. It took her less than three months to finish her first script.
"The story is about a family," she says. "The mother is strong and religious, the backbone of the family. The heroine is Leola, her daughter." Leola dreams of going to college and owning a day-care center, but she gets pregnant. "It's not really autobiographical. It's a composite of the teenage unwed mothers I helped out. I'm still looking for my Prince Charming. My father was a minister, not a drunk like the one in the movie. The mother is my mama, though."
By the time Oliver graduated in June of '88--with honors, in an accelerated program--she was deep into preproduction. Shooting commenced one month later, and it's still talked about within the city's tiny circle of black filmmakers. Oliver, never quite part of that scene, is regarded with a mix of admiration and veiled envy. "Oh, yeah, Ruby's picture. Her white cinematographer took her for a ride," says a technician who briefly worked on the production. "I recommended a black DP [director of photography] to her," says a veteran cameraman with a tinge of dismay, "but she didn't want to use him. She was too image-conscious. She had a bourgeois conception of what her crew should look like." While dismissing the implications of these comments--"I got along with the DP fine, although he didn't have the technical skills I expected, and I insisted on an integrated crew"--Oliver does admit that she had trouble commanding the respect of the technicians. "I learned you can't take an all-union crew on a non-union shoot. They don't listen to you. I had to fire most of them and get replacements."
Love Your Mama ended up costing close to $1 million, all Oliver's own money. "I liquidated some of my investments to put into the movie," she says, with an endearing chuckle. (Oliver is an astute investor who's made a bundle in bonds since the early 70s. She drives around in a Rolls-Royce.) "My banker asked, 'Ruby, you sure you will have enough money left to live on?' I said, 'Don't you worry about me.' I am a risk taker. The secret of my success is doing what I want to do. And knowing when to stop."
Why no other investors? "I know better than to ask my friends to put money in a movie. Black people are not accustomed to investing in the arts." Such conservatism has been a source of frustration and irritation to local filmmakers who do not command resources comparable to Oliver's. "There is no tradition of film investing like in the Jewish community," concurs filmmaker Michele Crenshaw, who is readying a project of her own. "The money is so limited that we end up competing against each other instead of working together."
Oliver, on the other hand, firmly believes that most beginner filmmakers, black or white, could use a heavy dose of business expertise and discipline. "They are artsy people," she explains. "Artsy people are not business oriented. In my case, with my reputation in day care, bankers say, 'We can let her take out a loan.' They can trust me. I also believe in focusing on one challenge at a time." Two years ago, the challenge was to bring her story to the big screen. Now, it's to introduce her work to a wide audience. Oliver makes no pretense that Love Your Mama is a work of art or an Oscar contender: "I want people really to enjoy the product--a product that makes you feel warm and good."
The consensus of those who have seen the film seems to be that it does precisely that. "It's one from the heart, full of sincerity and inspiration," opines Floyd Webb, who runs the Blacklight Festival. "Definitely not for film intellectuals."
"I was greatly impressed by the conviction," seconds Film Center director Barbara Scharres. But, she says, "It is a very naive film, both in its ideology and the way the characters are represented. Yet you either love it or laugh at it."
The film was shot entirely on location, in "the heart of the ghetto" where Oliver grew up, she says. "Ruby and I went scouting in this high school," recalls Crenshaw, who was a camera assistant, "and she knew exactly where things were and where they ought to be. Then it dawned on me that this was her high school."
Last July, shortly after Love Your Mama played to sold-out houses at the Film Center, Oliver moved to LA, hoping to catch the attention of Hollywood bigwigs. Instead, she was approached by an obscure independent distributor who promised prompt booking into theaters across the country. She signed, against her own better judgment. After a year of inactivity and continued lack of interest from Hollywood, she says she got fed up and decided to take matters into her own hands. The engagement at the Film Center represents a new beginning. "I don't focus on the negative," she says. "They tell me only three black women have ever made a film. Only three. I've been black and female all my life, so what! I am not naive. I know blacks get very little of the pie. There's no sense complaining. Let's make that pie bigger. I intend to get my slice."
Will Oliver make another film? She's confident she will: "I have a comedy script that will have 'em laughing in the aisles." Jim Taylor, director of the Community Film Workshop and a longtime observer of the local film scene, believes she can do it again, and so does Crenshaw. Several filmmaker acquaintances of hers, on the other hand, say she had one story to tell and she's told it already. "The odds are against her," says one of them. But come to think of it, that's what everybody said the first time around.