Middle of Nowhere: This Film Deserves To Be Seen Everywhere
At the beginning of Middle of Nowhere, a young black woman sacrifices her professional future for love. Her husband has been incarcerated for eight years, but he could get five with good behavior. She makes a choice, and over the course of the film, she has to decide whether to stick with that choice or move on, to regret the path she’s on or to learn from the mistakes that inherently come in life with each decision we make. Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay’s outstanding second feature, is devastating, funny, sensual, and deeply romantic. It treats love, loss, and struggle in a credible manner, notable for its lack of melodrama usually associated with tales of survival in South Central Los Angeles: his is tonally as far from Boyz N The Hood as one can imagine. Boasting some of the best performances of the year and a pitch perfect script, Ava DuVernay has made one of the best films of the year for two hundred thousand dollars—one thousandth of the budget of Battleship, yet a thousand times the quality.
Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) tells her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) in the opening scene that she is postponing finishing medical school. Derek is about to serve a lengthy period of jail time, and Ruby wants to make sure she can visit him weekly, take his phone calls daily, and make enough money to keep him up to date with his alimony payments. The rigors of medical school simply don’t allow enough time to do all of this. Derek urges Ruby to continue to follow her dreams, but she has made a commitment—she loves him and will not leave him simply because he isn’t physically there. We see Ruby go throughout her day, Derek constantly on her mind, remembering him kissing her, embracing her, cooking meals with her. Her mother Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint) disapproves of Ruby’s loyalty, fearing that Derek is dragging her potential down. Ruby ignores her mother, usually turning to her sister Rosie (Edwina Findley), who as a single mother also feels the scorn of their mother. As Derek’s first parole hearing approaches, Ruby notes his behavior is erratic and he may not be as committed to getting out and resuming a healthy lifestyle as she thought. Will she stay with him? Will she choose to give in to the advances of Brian (David Oyelowo), her kindly bus driver? Or will she take a different path?
It’s sadly rare than an American film features two fully fleshed out female characters, let alone three. It’s rarer still that we see multiple complex black female characters. Ruby, Rosie, and the mother each contain such relatable heartbreak. The mother, like all mothers, nags her children about being left in the dark—whenever her daughters are around, she gripes that they don’t talk to her, they don’t want to spend time with her, they don’t want Rosie’s son to be babysat by his grandma. These scenes have natural comedy for anyone with a mother who’s experienced this kind of guilt tripping (sorry if you’re reading this, Mom), but in one absolute shocker of a scene, when the mother’s nagging turns to rage, it goes from laughter to a gutpunch at the drop of a hat. Rosie has to deal with the fact that, as an older single black woman with a child, she is less desirable to the type of men she wants to date. When Ruby complains about issues with her husband or Brian’s advances, Rosie attempts to be as supportive as she can, all the while repressing her natural resentment. Ruby’s options before her become more clear as the narrative unfolds, and yet regardless of how easy Derek makes it for her to leave, he is her first love. DuVernay captures beautifully just how blinding and wonderful first love can be, along with just how impossible it is to remove one’s self cleanly from it.
The setting is also so wonderfully refreshing. If I had to describe Middle of Nowhere to my friends, and I mentioned a young black woman struggling in South Central Los Angeles while her husband is locked up, the same tired clichés would come to mind: men with guns, people with drugs, violence, prostitution, crooked cops, houses with bars on the windows. While guns exists in the periphery, they are simply not a part of Ruby’s world, much like they are not a part of most people’s world. Ruby has a nice house, as does her mother. She takes public transportation, and even walks from place to place at times. People are generally kind to each other. Profanity exists but isn’t prevalent. DuVernay has done a terrific job of creating a South Central Los Angeles in which tender romance can exist and day-to-day safety is assumed. The films about black families that generally make it to multiplexes either exist in the dangerous “hood” or in the affluent suburbs—there is a marked lack of the in-between. It’s a breath of fresh air to see a depiction of a black family in South Central Los Angeles that doesn’t root their struggles in survival, but in relationships, job opportunities, and bill payments, just like the rest of the world.
DuVernay also benefits from having an outstanding ensemble. Hardwick does a fine job dodging the cliché pratfalls inherent with an incarcerated character. Findlay provides comic relief, but her character’s sadness never disappears. David Oyelowo has been one of the best new faces in cinema in the last year or two: here, much like in Red Tails, he finds the perfect balance between intensity and vulnerability, allowing him to be the easygoing friend in one scene and the wonderfully sensual object of desire in the next. If there was any justice in this world, Lorraine Toussaint and Emayatzy Corinealdi would be in the thick of the Oscar race for their respective categories for their performances. Toussaint gives a powerhouse performance, nailing the humor and the sadness of a mother with struggling adult children. She gives her delivery just the right tone: the lines are thrown away enough to insist on the surface that she doesn’t want to be a full-blown bother, but with the forcefulness that lets the subtext make a strong impact. Finally, Corinealdi possesses true star quality: a gorgeous face, honest eyes, and intelligent demeanor. Her problems becomes the audience’s problems, and the gift of true empathy is rare in young actresses. Her character goes on an emotional rollercoaster, yet she hits every turn with subtlety and truthfulness. As the film ends, and Ruby ponders the choices she’s made and the choices yet to be made, I left the theater wondering about my own life choices, regrets, opportunities lost, and lessons learned. The mark of a truly strong film: its ability to stick with you days after the end credits have rolled. DuVernay is the type of filmmaker that deserves to be working with a hundred times her current budget. If she made a film this strong under such limitations, imagine what a massive expansion of resources could do for her ability to create further greatness. Until then, I’m more than happy with Middle of Nowhere, a film that has lodged itself firmly in the middle of my heart.