Ava DuVernay has emerged as the darling of the Black independent film movement. Her finely crafted second feature, Middle of Nowhere, earned the filmmaker the distinction of the first African American female to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival 2012. The film made its New York debut at the Urbanworld Film Festival in September, and during the Q&A, the moderator praised DuVernay for organizing film festivals and lobbying for the release of Black independent films via the African-American Film Releasing Movement or AaFFRM. That Middle of Nowhere opened this weekend to the biggest per screen average adds to her laurel wreath.
In Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay stages a moving drama that investigates the consequences of isolation. DuVernay tells a story specifically about women of color and their management of incarceration that entails long bus rides to prison compounds in the middle of nowhere. No doubt, the film critiques the well-known fact that the prison system undermines the family structure. “I know women who actually do have men who are incarcerated,” says DuVernay, “[imprisonment] is epidemic in black and brown communities.” This epidemic has a strong correlation to the auction block, a horrific practice throughout the plantation regime that separated enslaved families of African descent for profit.
With proficient style, DuVernay centers the story on Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Derek (Omari Hardwick), a young married African American couple whose choices have thrust them out of their marital bliss into the prison system. Derek is sentenced to eight-years for running guns; Ruby’s strong faith in the possibility for Derek’s early release for good behavior holds the marriage together. She convinces Derek to invest in her blueprint for handling their predicament. He will follow every rule; she will quit medical school and work at night. Her schedule will allow her to take his daily phone calls. They will write frequently; and, she will visit him every week. Derek protests, “keep going with life! I don’t want you to stop for me, baby!” Ruby reminds him, “you are me.” All goes well until Ruby learns disheartening news during his parole hearing.
The visual acuity of cinematographer Bradford Young brings to life the brilliance of DuVernay’s story. A lone bus carrying family members pierces a road leading to the prison compound that is shaded in a muted tan and hazy ice blue setting. Young’s bird’s eye shot of the bus and the barbed wire establishes the desolate environment. Outside, silence permeates as visitors lean against a chain-link fence waiting for entry. Inside, buzzers grate on the nerves, and the clang-clank of iron cell doors echo throughout the prison structure, complimentsof sound editors Rickley Dumm (Twilight; Sparkle) and Craig Polding (2012: Ice Age). As the film progresses, Young’s use of the ‘close-up’ is considerable yet admirably efficient. Hues of midnight and dusky blues along with deep browns and golden amber compliment Young’s capture of the expressions of joy, anxiety, tenderness, and seduction. A sprinkle of flashbacks provide glimpses into Ruby’s and Derek’s history; and, selective focus combined with the close-up draw attention to the difficult choices Ruby has to make when Brian (David Oyelowo) enters her life. In addition to using the ‘close-up’ to emphasize intense emotions, Young exploits the film form to expand the terrain of intimacy. His expansion includes visuals of Ruby and her mother (Lorraine Toussaint); and Ruby and her sister, Rosie (Edwina Findley) in conversation. “The human body is like a landscape,” says Young, “and I wanted to stretch this idea of intimacy; I start with the ‘close-up’ and then move away.” An example of Young’s cinematic stretch comprehends Ruby’s and Derek’s vulnerable state that you want to touch the screen and hug the couple.
Corinealdi and Hardwick embody the confinement that has intruded upon their characters’ lives. Hardwick, especially, carries the weight of confinement with interior depth and strength. In the course of Ruby’s visits, he carefully monitors each physical and verbal gesture that we feel the emotional tightropeon which he walks. Corinealdi plays a vivacious Ruby against Hardwick’s restraint with splendid charm, and her performance sustains the zest for the possibilities.
The filmmaker’s small but noteworthy acknowledgement of one of the culprits behind the tear in the seam of this marriage accompanies DuVernay’s story. One evening, the sisters contemplate Derek’s decision to run guns—an operation which enhanced the couple’s economic status. In one line of dialogue, Ruby accedes to her sister Rosie, “I made him think I’d really be happy with all of that stuff.” What is this “stuff”? One moment in pop culture history could offer some insight. The advent of music videos and television programs such as Sex in the City, The Game, Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle, cultivated consumer desire for material goods, chiefly, all things designer, if not, haute couture. Designers such as Coach, Manolo Blahnik, Christian “Loubou” Louboutin, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton gained widespread currency in households. Ruby and Derek drop down into this culture, and conceivably “got caught up” in the acquisition of things.
Middle of Nowhere truly is a cinematic accomplishment, and with the talent attached, the film has matured into a very lovely creation. The opening weekend attests to that! Casting Agent, Aisha Cooley, deserves applause for a finely cast film.
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