What made the Academy’s snub of writer-director Ava DuVernay’s direction of Selma even more of an oversight (and what makes her ascent to the Hollywood A-List in its wake even less surprising) is that she was not a talent who seemingly came out of nowhere. Cinephiles have had their eyes on her for a while, and many thought (or at least hoped) her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere would be her commercial breakthrough. It wasn’t exactly that, though it did attract a loyal cult following. Thankfully, in the wake of Selma’s success, it finally got a second life on streaming services and DVD.
A 2012 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner, Middle of Nowhere is a smart, slyly subversive, and multilayered film, and it’s take on the politics of race, gender, sexuality, class, and family is so nimble that even some fans (and it has amassed a loyal cult following) may miss all that it tackles and achieves.
The movie follows medical student Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who has quit school to work as a nurse’s aide so she has more time to visit her incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick, who might be the most appealing leading man in Hollywood right now). Derek, who has been sentenced to eight years, balks when presented with the plan, but Ruby is determined to honor her vows. DuVernay’s camera follows her as she tries to live a quiet life waiting for his release in “five years with good behavior.” As time passes, the viewer comes to realize the film is, in its way, a coming of age film for a grown woman.
A slow, necessarily complicated courtship is sparked between Ruby and the affable bus driver Brian (played by Selma’s David Oyelowo), who falls for her as she tries to gently fend him. At the same time, she navigates volatile emotional terrain with her mother, Ruth, and younger sister, Rosie, and in many ways this is the richest, most groundbreaking aspect of the film.
First, we almost never see so many dark-skinned black women onscreen at the same time; the film’s matter-of-fact presentation of such is breathtaking. Hollywood’s insistent casting of biracial girls and women, or those who adhere to Eurocentric definitions of beauty, has made the brown or dark-skinned femme a too-rare screen presence. To see Nowhere’s mother and daughters sitting at the dinner table, or to watch the sisters laugh and talk at the beach, is to see the rare celebration of unambiguously black beauty, gorgeously filmed by DuVernay’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Bradford Young.
But it’s the exploration of familial psychological fault-lines that makes the film crackle. Ruth is monstrous as a mother, verbally abusive and emotionally cold, but the brilliant actress Lorraine Toussaint (who starred as Vee in last season’s Orange Is the New Black) keeps her on human scale by not simply portraying her as a monster. Volumes of history are conveyed by Toussaint with just a glance, with the slightest shift in vocal inflection.
Nowhere’s other strength is its handling of class. Ruby doesn’t have a car, so she’s dependent on public transit, which is where she meets bus driver Brian. The film shows him and his blue collar profession the utmost respect while also using the bus as a way to telegraph struggles of everyday people. It’s the film’s slow unpeeling of Ruby’s soft complicity in the life of crime that gave her a life she enjoyed, however, that underscores both the film’s intelligence and compassion, complicating notions of ethics and responsibility.
Middle of Nowhere moves at a measured but never boring pace, allowing the viewer to sit in silence, to contemplate faces, to chew on the dialogue. It sidesteps the frenetic energy and one-note characterizations Hollywood so often employs when it deigns to grapple with something of Blackness. And it’s quietly revolutionary in that way.