a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Ava DuVernay, director, writer, & producer
Where: Netflix streaming & DVD
Why Watch: In case you missed it, Ava DuVernay just became the first woman of color to direct a live-action feature with a $100 million budget for her upcoming A Wrinkle in Time. She joins only two other women in this feat (Kathryn Bigelow, naturally, and Patty Jenkins, who directed the upcoming Wonder Woman). You might know DuVernay as the director snubbed for her brilliant work on the Oscar-nominated Selma, but she’s also co-created, with Oprah, a new TV series called Queen Sugar (which looks just fantastic), which has already been renewed for a second season (the first premieres September 6). What you might not know is that she founded Array, a film distribution company dedicated to the amplification of independent films (like Echo Park) by people of color and women filmmakers with the overall goal of varied voices and images in cinema. Basically, she’s kicking ass and taking names – and doing it all with the utmost grace.
DuVernay’s directed nine projects, many of which she’s also written and/or produced, including both fiction and documentary subjects. Middle of Nowhere, which premiered at Sundance, is the second of three full-length fiction features she’s helmed, and it dovetails, in a more personal and indirect manner, with the same social justice subject as her upcoming documentary, The 13th (the first ever nonfiction film to open the New York Film Festival next month). Middle of Nowhere begins in medias res as Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi, in a startlingly sensitive, steady portrayal) visits her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) in prison, where he’s serving an eight-year sentence. Derek tells her not to put her life on hold for him – she was on her way to med school – and she, the ever loyal wife, reassures him he’ll be home soon on good behavior. As they talk, the camera cuts to her, four years later, waiting on line with all the other prison wives – who, importantly, are disproportionately women of color – and follows her as she’s subjected to a pat-down at security. We watch as her life becomes about her visits to him – how she uproots herself to live closer to the prison, takes double shifts at the hospital (she’s a nurse) in order to make his lawyer’s payments on time, and, pursued by a charming and honest bus driver (Selma‘s David Oyelowo, as fine as ever), ignores her own emotional and physical needs. Surrounded by other women left by men – her weary mother (Lorraine Toussaint, hardened but heartfelt) and optimistic sister (Edwina Findley Dickerson) – we once again hear Derek’s voice – “I’ll take care of you” – over lonely images of her walking to the bus and preparing for bed.
This tale of a woman standing by her incarcerated man could so easily drop into sensationalized cliche, but DuVernay’s too smart for that. Middle of Nowhere, scored with a low-key broodiness by Kathryn Bostic, floats by on Ruby’s numbness – her unfaltering duty to her husband – until a betrayal shakes her quietly awake to the reality of a life of promise slipping away. This is not a film of Big Statements, but one of calm, sensitive observation. With the hard edges softened by Bradford Young’s (also of Selma) beautiful photography and the characters’ struggles brought to life by strong, subtle performances, Middle of Nowhere showcases the same graceful humanity and assured hand DuVernay brought to Selma – and what she’s sure to continue to bring to future, evermore high profile projects.