Two of the big winners at this year’s Sundance Film Festival addressed the devastating effects of prolonged incarceration on African-American family life. Is this a mere coincidence? I don’t think so.
Middle of Nowhere is the story of a woman left behind. When we first meet Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) is at the beginning of an 8-year prison sentence. Visualizing Derek’s daily life behind bars is easy; it’s a story already covered by numerous films and TV shows. But Ruby’s life during this period of separation, told here by writer/director Ava DuVernay, is riveting and entirely new.
In scene after scene, Ruby is confronted by multiple women – her mother, her sister, Derek’s Ex, Derek’s Lawyer, Derek’s Lawyer’s Assistant – with DuVernay deliberately counterpointing Ruby’s choices with choices each of them have made along the way. All of these women feel solid and fully inhabited, and their voices continue to echo long after their onscreen time ends. And each of these actresses, routinely deprived of meaty roles in multiplex films, bites into her part with gusto.
Every time Ava DuVernay points her camera at Ruby and the women in her world, this film soars, providing a significant and timely look at a deeply troubling aspect of American life as lived in 2012 (but hopefully not too much longer). (JLH: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner
We’re in a fiscal crisis. Four years into the Great Recession, many Americans are looking with new eyes at how we spend public money, and at long last “Tough on Crime” rhetoric is starting to lose its potency. As more and more states confront their enormous budget deficits, “the prison industrial complex” is finally, finally becoming an increasingly legitimate topic of discussion.
So is it a mere coincidence that two of the big winners at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The House I Live In (Grand Jury Prize winner in the Documentary category) and Middle of Nowhere(Grand Jury Prize nominee in the Dramatic Feature category), both address the devastating effects of prolonged incarceration on African American family life? I don’t think so.
Doing what they each do best, House director Eugene Jarecki presents the facts while Nowheredirector Ava DuVernay captures the emotions, and Americans everywhere are all the better for their efforts.
Although there are several poignant scenes set inside a maximum security prison, the core of Middle of Nowhere is the story of a woman left behind. When we first meet “Ruby” (Emayatzy Corinealdi), her husband “Derek” (Omari Hardwick) is at the beginning of an 8-year sentence. We don’t know what he’s done (that information comes much later), but now he’s stuck and he wants Ruby to forget about him and go on with her life.
Ruby refuses. She loves him and she’s determined to remain faithful to her marriage vows: “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live.” Ferociously disciplined and fiercely determined, Ruby is convinced that if she stands by Derek, her physical presence can provide a sufficient anchor to weather the rough seas ahead. With “good behavior,” Derek can shave years off his sentence. If he loves her, and she knows that he does, then surely he can be “good” for her if she stands fast for him?
Jump ahead after the credits, and four years have passed. Ruby, who wanted to go to medical school, is now a nurse. She works nights and extra shifts and lives as frugally as possible, saving all of her money for attorney fees and child support payments to the woman Derek loved before he loved her. But she talks to him every day on the phone and she visits him every weekend, and she is sure he will soon be released.
Visualizing Derek’s daily life during this period of separation is easy. Many films and TV shows have already taken us inside the walls (if only to dramatize the hero’s eventual escape), so DuVernay wastes no time there. The daily life that’s hard to visualize is Ruby’s. How can she spend day after day living in hope when everyone around her thinks that Derek’s chances for early release based on “good behavior” are doomed? How can such a smart woman be so blind? This is the question that fascinates DuVernay, and this is the story she tells so well.
Ruby is confronted by multiple women—her mother “Ruth” (Lorraine Toussaint), her sister “Rosie” (Edwina Findley), Derek’s Ex “Gina” (Maya Gilbert), Derek’s Lawyer “Fraine” (Sharon Lawrence)—allowing DuVernay to deliberately counterpoint Ruby’s choices with each of theirs. Every one-on-one scene is a knock-out and their cumulative force is tremendous. These actresses, routinely deprived of meaty roles in multiplex films, bite into their characters with gusto, endowing them with heft and breadth. Even Nisa Ward turns her brief depiction of “Fraine’s Assistant” into a profound moment of haunting truth. These women all feel solid and fully inhabited, and their voices continue to echo long after their onscreen time ends.
I must admit I found the male characters less compelling. Although Omari Hardwick gives a powerful performance as “Derek,” I didn’t quite get his pre-prison life, even after seeing the film a second time. When his badass friend “Rashad” (Troy Curvey III) shows up at Ruby’s door with a roll of cash one day, the 8-year sentence suddenly seems too lenient. And David Oyelowo is thoroughly charming as “Brian” (the bus driver who enters Ruby’s life in Act Three), but he’s also just a bit too good to be true. Brian has had his eye on Ruby for quite some time, so why doesn’t he know anything about her marital status? Ruby certainly makes no secret of where she spends her weekends. And I love Ruby’s sly test (taking Brian to see Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 art house classic Ali: Fear Eats the Soul of all things!); the only problem is I can’t imagine Derek ever passing this test.
But every time Ava DuVernay points her camera at Ruby and the women in her world, this film transcends its minor plot holes. So kudos to the entire Middle of Nowhere team (especially Kathryn Bostic for her soundtrack and Bradford Young for his cinematography) for their significant and timely look at a deeply troubling aspect of American life that is hopefully nearing its end.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (11/28/12) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Emayatzy Corinealdi as "Ruby."
Middle Photo: Emayatzy Corinealdi as "Ruby."
Bottom Photo: David Oyelowo and Emayatzy Corinealdi as "Brian" and "Ruby."
Photo Credit: African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM)