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#52filmsbywomen 4 – Middle Of Nowhere

Posted on: March 3, 2016

middle

No. 4 – Middle Of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay, 2012)

In light of last week’s Oscars, it seemed apropos to look back at the work of Ava DuVernay, who is probably the most notable female director working at the moment, and also the origin of 2015’s #Oscarssowhite movement. With a year passing now, it seems inexcusable that a future classic like Selma eked out merely two nominations in a field that saw nominations for forgettable films as Unbroken, The Judge and American Sniper (a box office hit that I literally forgot existed). DuVernay herself has become a modern-day icon, in a way that has eluded her director peers such as Tom Hooper and Michel Hazanavicius, but the fact that Mattel has made a Barbie version of her has not diminished her into a mere image of a dreadlocked beauty in a director’s chair. The facts are clear: DuVernay is the most exciting director working in Hollywood right now. A mere three features into her career, her skill and significance is such that she will doubtless be present at many Oscar ceremonies in the future, and, most likely, at the podium herself.

DuVernay’s second film Middle Of Nowhere brought her one step closer to the mainstream. A Sundance success, it won multiple awards and nominations including a strong showing at the Independent Spirit Awards, centred around DuVernay’s writing and directing, and her excellent cast, led by the luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby. Ruby is a determined young medical student putting her life on hold while she waits for her husband Derek to get out of prison (“five good years,” she makes him promise). As the years tick by and her family question what, precisely, she is waiting for, Ruby begins to question her husband’s commitment, and her own, in the face of the interest of bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo, later Selma’s Martin Luther King). To Ruby’s surprise, Brian doesn’t ask questions. He waits for people to confide, he tells her, and points out his ex used to complain about it. Ruby tentatively opens up to him, lets him into her life, then pulls away, still tied to Derek and the life she thought they were going to lead.

Middle Of Nowhere is an atmospheric and captivating character piece, focusing on 3 black women whose lives have stalled for various reasons, intentional or otherwise. If intersectionality teaches us anything, it’s that few groups are as ignored or misrepresented as the black woman. Ruby, her mother Ruth and sister Rosie, are not the finger-snapping, fiery and sassy women of Hollywood cinema, but real characters in a way that is so sorely lacking in the mainstream. It is a film that does not hold its audience’s hands, with much of the narrative left to implication, with DuVernay demonstrating a refreshing confidence in the intelligence of her viewers. These are women who are surviving, but struggling against external forces, and their own expectations for themselves. They are in each other’s lives, but each separate. The film’s thesis may be the loneliness of the black woman. Derek, an equally atypical depiction of the young black criminal, is more downtrodden and hopeless than deceitful, his sense of his own failure leading to more mistakes and betrayals, as though deliberately pushing away Ruby, a woman who stubbornly sees “we” where he sees their distance and isolation.

It is primarily a film of silence. We aren’t told the specifics of Derek’s crime (late in the film, Ruby concedes a single word “guns”), nor the prison fight that extends his sentence, or the nature of the sexual assault on the prison guard. We don’t know the cause of Rosie’s tension with her mother, though there is some suggestion that she was a tough parent. In a more textual way, we are told Ruby takes night shifts so she can stay home and not miss Derek’s calls, yet we hear many of his calls as answerphone messages. Voices are heard, but at a distance. Ruby and Rosie have a rare, open conversation about love, but find they can’t relate to each other, as Rosie admits she feels jealous of Ruby as, even though her husband is in prison, she still has a man thinking about her. Ruby doesn’t contradict this, though she doesn’t open up either. The key scene sees Ruth, played by the incredible Lorraine Toussaint, berate her daughters for their self-imposed isolation – why Ruby has given up her med school dreams, why Rosie refuses her help to care for her grandchild – and yet nothing is really resolved, Rosie leaving before the conversation can unveil any truths. “Why don’t you say anything?” she demands of her remaining daughter.

Ruby’s prison is one of silence. She is framed indoors, under harsh hospital lighting, or hiding at home from the daytime behind the gauze curtains which cover the windows. The film is filled with brief flashbacks out of time, further adding to the ambiguous nature of the narrative – are they Ruby’s memories or her dreams? In the end, Ruby’s voice is powerful when she wields it. An out of character outburst at Derek’s lawyer’s office achieves a desired compromise when it seems like his lawyer might drop his case. Similarly, she calmly, gently tells Derek that she will not spend the remainder of his imprisonment with him. The film ends with a letter to Derek in voiceover, emphasising the traps they all find themselves in, and Ruby’s determination not to be caught the same way. The scene is overlaid with shots of Ruby and Brian arm in arm (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?) and of Ruby and Derek, washing dishes side by side (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?), but ends with Ruby at the bus stop, alone, responding to a stranger’s greeting. The film’s resolution is ambiguous, but the film is impactful, and its atmosphere lingers for a long time after.

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