If I asked you to close your eyes and envision where “The Middle of Nowhere” might be, I’d guess you’d think somewhere in an open field or an empty road. Somewhere in Iowa or Nebraska perhaps. Certainly not the bustling street corners of a metropolis like Los Angeles or the cramped visitation rooms at a maximum security penitentiary. But in those margins are precisely where Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere exists. Or, really, inside the psychology of the people who inhabit those spaces. Middle of Nowhere also exists inside us, you and me, as a collective human living in this time and this place. It’s somewhere between the lofty hope for a better future and the tightening quick sand of right now. In some respects, Middle of Nowhere feels like a movie that can only have emerged at this moment in history. Yet, maybe the honest plight of the humans it conveys is a story that we’ve all been living for centuries.
DuVernay’s film follows Ruby, an intelligent African-American woman living in Los Angeles. Ruby’s husband has been sentenced to prison for illegally selling guns. Ruby now spends her days splitting time between being a registered nurse and waiting eagerly for her husband to be released. After her husband gets into another discretion, Ruby begins to learn truths that splinter her vision of their future together. When another man enters the picture, Ruby must reconcile her feelings about her husband and make difficult choices about how to fix herself.
On paper, the story might seem ripe for obvious sentimentality or wasted schmaltz. But the execution of Middle of Nowhere couldn’t be further from obvious. Played out in prolonged silences and realistic slowness, the scenes have a way of feeling like impending doom lurks, while also being entirely stilted in the present. The characters are racing towards something, but what that “something” is remains less a matter of a practical goals and more a spiritual abyss. Ruby is searching and moving forward but, as we slowly figure out, she’s actually falling deeper and deeper away from her true self. Obsession has a way of coming masked as determination, tenacity, and, worst of all, love. Ruby has defined herself by a man not that she’s emotionally invested in but obsessed with the idea of. And it’s destroying her without her intelligent mind able to even sense it happening.
Central to Middle of Nowhere are the concepts of blind faith, the need to believe, and the desperate hope for stability. Maybe all of those ideas are the definition of “love.” Maybe, when boiled to its brass tacks this film is about the nature of love and, most importantly, why love alone may sometimes never be enough. Therein lies why this film ascends past others that provide easy answers or basic, discernible truths. As Ruby says in the end, “We don’t know our future because we haven’t gotten there yet… [and] there are no easy answers.” As a nation, we are in the midst of an election that exemplifies the illusion of false hope. One candidate pleads that we can get better but it “won’t be easy” and the other announces he has “all the answers” if we just go with him. That’s the middle nowhere. Exactly where we are now.
We’ve heard before that there really aren’t many great roles out there for black performers. One has to fear that the greatness of David Oyelowo and Emayatzy Corineald will be diminished when they are forced to take condescending roles in some major studio superhero movie. But Viola Davis and a handful of others have proven that between the Hollywood assembly line there a great performances to be made. While Oyelowo (also great in The Paperboy) continues to prove his chops, Corineald is the true revelation in Middle of Nowhere. There’s a scene midway where she learns that her husband has once again betrayed her by having “physical contact” with another woman. All the other players’ faces immediately twist into despair, yet Corineald remains hopeful until the very end, even holding a petrified smile that seems painted on. That is, until she finally breaks down. The slow transformation, in that one small moment, gives us a window into every emotion Ruby endures throughout the picture.
From the elliptical editing schemes that offer choppy unease by way of in-the-moment flashback sequences and jarring jump cuts to the hyper-close images weighing down on the characters, the film has an intimacy that’s always uncomfortably immediate. A consistent image of seeing Ruby from behind bridges many of the trying scenes. Unlike similar shots in films like The Wrestler and Black Swan, these images are less about the centering of a character on the brink of meltdown and more another example of the world watching Ruby at all times. The lens choice in these shots lends itself to a voyeuristic approach, as those Ruby can’t escape the gaze of a world that’s only willing to throw lemons at her.
I have no idea how this film will be seen in the future, because, as the film teaches, the future’s a tricky thing. But I do know that this is a very different picture. Not just because it’s a unique portrait of African Americans, hardly shown to audiences between the harrowing street dramas and dolled up Tyler Perry extravagances. This is a different picture because of what it tells us about love, about the way we interact with each other, and about our moment today. Without easy answers, Middle of Nowhere is different also because it begs us to question what we believe and don’t believe about our stories, especially those being promised by our leaders.
It’s an absolute tragedy that when I saw this film it was playing on seven screens in the entire country as films like Here Comes the Boom streamed across 5000. The main actress apparently attended the showing right before mine and she escaped into the parking lot with nary a comment or question from any of the oblivious audience members. I found this out from the small street team outside of the theater trying with all their might to convince people to give the movie a chance. How’s that for do-it-yourself marketing? The street team would be happy to know that my audience had the wind knocked right out of them. [A]