Middle of Nowhere is a film that we don’t see enough of in mainstream cinema. And I’m not only talking about a narrative that centers on a woman of color, that was written and directed by a woman of color (In 2011, the percentage of top-grossing films directed by women was 5%, and female characters comprised only 11% of protagonists in the top 100 domestic grossing films according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film – and that’s without consideration of race.) But Ava DuVernay’s painfully real and quietly hopeful film is in fact quite traditional in the best sense of the word – it inhabits and explores the inner life of a character undergoing change, in a way many contemporary films rush over, exploit for some “higher” purpose, or neglect altogether.
DuVernay, who became the first African American to win the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere, doesn’t embellish or crowd the film’s simplicity, allowing its characters’ complexity to take the spotlight. In this way, the film makes the most impact with its stellar performances, especially those by Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays the earnest and stoic protagonist Ruby, and Lorraine Toussaint, who plays a supporting role as Ruby’s truth-telling mother Ruth. Both actors deserve many nominations for their nuanced and compelling portrayals (Corinealdi’s already secured a nomination as Breakthrough Actor for the Gotham Independent Film Awards).
The film follows Ruby’s growth and setbacks as she navigates a marriage disrupted by her husband’s incarceration. As Derek (played with restraint and thoughtfulness by Omari Hardwick) serves an eight-year sentence (which could be reduced to five with “good time”), she arranges her life around the prison’s schedule of visitation time and phone calls, having given up medical school to work night shifts at a hospital so she can be available for Derek during the day. The reason for Derek’s imprisonment isn’t revealed until much later in the film, and its treatment makes it clear that it’s less important that an audience might assume. The film’s plotting is not so interested in twists or sensationalism as it is in the slow awakenings and difficult passages of life, periods of light and darkness. Ruby draws the curtains closed on the afternoon sun, hibernating, waiting for her life to return to her.
And without much surprise, it does. Middle of Nowhere, like Ruby’s journey back to herself, takes no shortcuts, and yet remains consistently captivating and visually interesting. Bradford Young’s cinematography is lush and direct, reminding me of his work on Pariah, a film about a black lesbian teenager coming-of-age in Brooklyn with which Middle of Nowhere has a lot in common. Like Dee Rees’s film, DuVernay’s work aims at making art in her own image, and her distribution company AFFRM seeks to support Black independent films through the collective force of Black film festivals and organizations. At a Reelblack Film Series event at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, DuVernay spoke about the difference between portrayals of Black women in cinema and reflections of them:
“Films are being made about Black women and girls by people who are not Black women and girls….we’re taking in these images, they’re coming into our bloodstream and DNA. It’s important to know that some of these images are interpretations of us, and others are reflections of us…we’re working from a space of reflection…My reactions to Emayatzy’s performance, the way we’re going to edit that performance, the music I’m going to put around it, how we’re going to tilt the camera – it is all from the gaze of a Black woman looking at a Black woman. A reflection. And that’s going to be different from a white man looking at her. It’s not that one is better than the other – but they are different, and should be regarded as such.”
The most exciting and challenging films I’ve seen this year have come out of independent cinema, which is probably no surprise to anyone who loves film. There are substantially more women and people of color working in independent film, and the passion required for success and the freedom from a risk-averse Hollywood obviously create much different movies behind an independent lens. Filmmakers like DuVernay remind me that the other side to protesting problematic films – those stereotype-ridden high-grossing time-wasters that make me miserable – is to advocate for the kinds of films we really want and need. Middle of Nowhere is that kind of film.
Bottom Line: Ava DuVernay’s second feature is a breakout star in many respects, and one of the best films of the year.