“You’re on your way to something, don’t stop.”
I previously recommended to you the documentary “Time” (2020) which documents the 20 year ordeal of a wife trying to get her husband paroled from Angola. Garret Bradley has been reaping awards, and it was recently shortlisted for the Oscar. The strength of Bradley’s approach is that she doesn’t focus directly on the injustices of the American justice system, but on the toll on the family, in particular on the wife, as she fights and waits for her husband’s release. It’s a salute to the power of Black women who have been left behind to anchor their family and their community on their own. The powerful documentary reminded me of another phenomenal film that shares some of its themes but from a fictional angle, Ava DuVernay’s second feature “Middle of Nowhere” (2012). I’d been wanting to recommend it to you for months, but it wasn’t available to stream until recently. It’s worth putting at the top of your list. DuVernay has become a major force in cinema with her ambitious and urgent work in “Selma” (2014), the essential-viewing documentary “The 13th” (2016), and her sprawling and riveting miniseries “When They See Us” (2019). Her sophomore outing shows a mature talent already in control of her storytelling and signaled the great things to come. When it premiered at Sundance, she was awarded the best director of an American drama, becoming the first Black woman to receive the honor. It tells the story of a young woman who is grappling with her husband’s imprisonment. DuVernay interviewed more than 100 women in order to understand the myriad of sacrifices that they make.
“Middle of Nowhere” begins with a powerful scene between Ruby (a mesmeric Emayatazy Corinealdi in her film debut) and her incarcerated husband, Derek, on visiting day. She is a nurse who was planning to go into medical school but now has decided to put that on hold so she can get extra shifts and help pay for his legal bills. He’s urging her to get on with his life and not be a martyr. She talks about how they together can work this all out. He’s been given an eight year sentence, and she knows there’s the possibility of parole. She insists “I will do this with you. You do the good time, and I will wait.” This conversation sets up the dynamic for what’s to unfold.
The story jumps to four years later and Ruby’s life has been consumed with visiting Derek and figuring out how to get an early release. Her life is in a form of internal motionlessness – although physically she’s constantly using public transportation to get to work and the prison. Her mother Ruth resents the way her two daughters (Ruby’s sister is a single mom) have allowed men and the system to put them in the situations they’re in. “Every year is next year for you!” she berates them both. Lorraine Toussaint is unforgettable in this small role.
In the meantime, Ruby, making her many connections throughout Los Angeles, keeps running into a kind bus driver (played by an impressive David Oyelowo who will star so memorably as Martin Luther King Jr. in the director’s next film). He asks her out. “You’ve seen my ring, right?” she points out, but he won’t give up. In one moment that made me fall in love even more with DuVernay, the two budding lovers go on a date to see a foreign film, and appropriately it is Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.”
With a striking sonic score by Kathryn Bostic, and a recessive color scheme of blues and grays, DuVernay and her cinematographer Bradford Young create a gritty and poetic world of melancholia that gets you inside Ruby’s interior life. You slowly start to understand that the main struggle is within herself and how much all of her sacrificing is eroding her identity.
Although taking place in LA and in Compton, DuVernay does not allow the city to define the character. What is worth noting is the traveling that Ruby has to do back and forth to the jail in Victorville – which is in the middle of nowhere. The lengthy bus rides to work. The symbolism of that it is a public transport conductor who manages to reach her that makes her evaluate her rudderless wandering.
It’s an important film from a filmmaker who has evolved and continues to grow in stature as one of the principal ones of our times.
Ruby: “Let’s go somewhere.”
Brian: “How about here.”
Available to stream on Netflix, Sundance Now and Tubi. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and YouTube.
Written by Ava DuVernay
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Starring Emayatzy Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick, Edwina Findley, Sharon Lawrence, Lorraine Toussaint and David Oyelowo
Writer and Director Ava DuVernay on Bringing “Middle of Nowhere” to the Screen
“I wrote this film while I was a publicist, while I was working on the Michael Mann film ‘Collateral.’He shoots in practical locations all around Los Angeles, and I remember one night we were shooting in East L.A. and I (realized) there, on a cold night, I had a story. Something came together for me on that set of watching (him) work with the digital camera, knowing that I had my own story on these streets. So I started writing ‘Middle of Nowhere’ on nights and weekends in 2003. It took about a year to write, and then I put it in a drawer because everybody’s got a script—even the publicists. And so I started making my way toward filmmaking, starting with docs. Then I did my first narrative, ‘I Will Follow,’ and the success of that helped us get a small amount of money quickly.” (deadline.com)
Writer and Director Ava DuVernay on the Research for “Middle of Nowhere”
“It was really important to understand the mentality of the prison-industrial complex. I don’t have any personal experience with it other than coming up in the inner city and knowing a lot of other people that have been touched by it. I’ve certainly known the devastating effects that it has in the community overall, with such a large swath of people missing. In addition to speaking with women who are actually going through it—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives—we were also very in touch with social organizations and advocacy programs that are looking to expand the rights of the loved ones being incarcerated. Things like predatory phone rates: It’s $3 per minute to talk to your loved ones in some states. It really starts to tear at a family that’s trying to hold itself together in the midst of a tragedy like incarceration. So a lot of those kinds of things I wanted to make sure that I was very aware of, and there were a number of advocates and activists and organizations that I tapped into and that were really helpful in bringing me into the loop.” (deadline.com)
Writer and Director Ava DuVernay on Cinematographer Bradford Young
“Brad is my brother first, and our collaboration was organic to our friendship. Our film’s look is us – two folks trying to push the black cinematic image forward. Both in narrative and visually. I don’t shy away from that and neither does he. Our skin tones are different, the light we attract through the lens is different, the way a sister walks up the street after a long day is different. And that’s okay. Let’s see the differences. Let’s see the nuances. Let’s see the shadows. Everything we did came from that idea. I’m resistant to the idea of designing looks around characters. I want them to live where they are and for us to capture them as meaningfully as the moment requires. So we worked together to allow that freedom in the cinematography, but to still tap into the immobility of “Ruby.” Brad is a monster when it comes to handheld imagery. One of the best. But for this film, I was also interested in controlled movement. So it was a true collaboration to bring those ideas together. We were invigorated by the idea of creating fluidity within more still, smooth images. Still doesn’t have to mean static. He pushed himself to pull it off and he achieved it. He’s half man, half amazing. Bradford can do anything.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
David Oyelowo Reflects on “Middle of Nowhere”
“I have very vivid memories, not least because of the sheer amount of success Ava, [cinematographer] Bradford Young and myself have been afforded since that time. We made that film for $200,000, very minimal resources. I was playing a bus driver, and we had this bus that really should’ve been condemned. It barely went and we were driving this thing around South-Central L.A. My fondest memory is the moment I have with Emayatzy [Corinealdi] at the back of the bus, and [cinematographer] Bradford Young and his legendary beard were behind the camera. We were so jammed in there that I could feel his beard tickling my arm during this take while Ava is hovering above his shoulder giving me direction and Emayatzy and I were sweating [laughs]. It was guerrilla filmmaking at its best.
It’s been incredible gratifying. One of the things I’m most proud of is that not very long after [“Middle of Nowhere”], by sheer will and sheer force of talent — and by a shift in our industry having to do with, I think, our next film together, “Selma,” which helped start the #OscarsSoWhite thing — we have been able to see a change as it pertains to filmmakers of colors and female filmmakers. It’s something Ava and I would talk about endlessly while we were doing “Middle of Nowhere,” [which had] critical acclaim, but not much of the other stuff that should come with that level of success. And now Bradford is shooting ‘Star Wars,’ and I’ve done two other films with him since ‘Middle of Nowhere’ — ‘A Most Violent Year’ and ‘Selma.’ And Ava is like a blood sister to me now. I’ll be on any set that has her attached to it anywhere in the word for the rest of my life if I can because I deeply love her and I’m a huge admirer of hers.” (latimes.com)
Writer and Director Ava DuVernay on Casting the Role of Ruby
“I was just looking for the best actor. And I felt that even though we had the opportunity to cast some people of note, someone that you’d know, for me I was just really looking for someone that had a vulnerability with a strength – a very specific strength and vulnerability that I thought Emayatzy brought in spades. So I think it’s just really a lesson that the best actor isn’t always the actor that we know, you know what I mean? We were really just allowing ourselves to be open to finding the right actor. But it’s tough. I was lucky that my financing wasn’t contingent on casting, so I had more freedom. I could pick whoever I wanted. A lot of times you’re restricted to certain names to get the money, but luckily for us that wasn’t the case, and I was able to just go with my gut and I’m glad I did.”
“…I think for me, the key was that when I cast her, I really liked her as a person. And all of our collaborations were rooted in that recognition of a kindred spirit – just a woman that was an artist, but also has a lot of integrity and dignity in her choices that she had done up to this point. This isn’t her debut because she couldn’t get any work. It was her debut because she chose not to take lesser work, and she was waiting for a specific kind of part. So, yeah, I just really thought she was an amazing person. For me, the collaboration was just sort of rooted in you know, a respect for who she was. And she gave me that mutual respect. If that’s the core of it, then you approach talking about scenes from a place of collaboration rather than, “I’d like you to do this.” You know, it’s more, “How do you feel about this?” and “I think this.” And, so it was really lovely. It was really cool.” (indiewire.com)
About Composer Kathryn Bostic
Composer and singer/songwriter Kathryn Bostic is known for her original work on film, TV, theater and symphonic music. Emmy nominated for her score in the award winning film “Toni Morrison- The Pieces I am,” she is a recipient of many fellowships and awards including the prestigious Sundance Time Warner Fellowship, Sundance Fellowship for Feature Film Scoring, Sundance/Skywalker Documentary Film Scoring, African American Film Critics Award for Best Music in Film, BMI Conducting Fellowship and Society of Composers and Lyricists “Outstanding Music for Independent Feature Film.” Kathryn was the Vice President of the Alliance for Women Film Composers from 2016-2018. A member of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 2016 she became the first female African American score composer in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. (kathrynbostic.com)
About Cinematographer Bradford Young
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, award-winning cinematographer Bradford Marcel Young moved to Chicago at age 15 to live with his father. There, he received early artistic inspiration from the works of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Aaron Douglas. Young studied film at Howard University, where he was influenced by Haile Gerima. He was director of photography on the feature films “White Lies, Black Sheep” (2007), “Pariah” (2011), “Restless City” (2011), “Middle of Nowhere” (2012), “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), and “Mother of George” (2013). He has won Cinematography Awards at the Sundance Film Festival twice: in 2011, for his work on “Pariah,” and in 2013 for his work on both “Mother of George” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Young’s collaborations with artist Leslie Hewitt have been exhibited at The Kitchen, The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Menil Collection, Des Moines Art Center, the MCA Chicago, and Lofoten International Arts Festival, Norway… (creativetime.org) Young’s other works include “A Most Violent Year” (2014), “Selma” (2014), “I Called Him Morgan” (2016), “Arrival” (2016), “Where is Kyra?” (2017), “Corazón” (2018), “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) and most recently “When They See Us” in 2019.
About Writer and Director Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay was born on August 24, 1972 in Long Beach, California. As a child, DuVernay’s Aunt Denise encouraged her passion for art and creativity. Her aunt worked the night shift as a nurse so she could pursue her love for art, literature and theater during the day. She introduced DuVernay the 1961 film “West Side Story,” and DuVernay fell in love with it. DuVernay learned by example that art could be a vehicle for activism. Similarly, DuVernay’s mother was socially conscious and taught her to “say something through the arts.” Although DuVernay grew up in Compton with her family, she spent every summer in Lowndes County, Alabama where her father’s family lived for generations. DuVernay’s father recalled watching the historic civil rights march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the neighboring town of Selma, Alabama. The summers DuVernay spent there would later inspire her to direct a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1990, DuVernay graduated from Saint Joseph High School in Lakewood, California. After graduating, she attended the University of California, Los Angeles where she earned degrees in English and African American studies. While she was still a student, DuVernay became interested in producing for broadcast journalism. She began as an intern for CBS News during the O.J. Simpson trial. DuVernay remembers being assigned to watch the home of one of the members of the jury and look through their trash. Her tasks left her disappointed with journalism, so she decided to move towards the publicity industry. DuVernay was hired right out of college as a junior publicist at a small studio. From this position, she started her own public relations company called The DuVernay Agency in 1999.
In addition to PR, her agency also launched several lifestyle and promotional networks including; the Urban Beauty Collective, Urban Thought Collective, Urban Eye, and HelloBeautiful. The DuVernay Agency also worked on campaigns for movies and television shows. While on film sets, DuVernay was able to observe prominent filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Clint Eastwood, Raoul Peck and Gurinder Chadha. She became interested in directing and started writing her first script in 2003. By 2006, DuVernay made her first short film called “Saturday Night Life” based on her mother’s experiences. The next year, she made her first documentary called “Compton in C Minor.” A more cost-effective style of film, DuVernay’s next project was a documentary that she wrote, produced, and directed called “This Is the Life” about hip hop culture. In 2010, DuVernay released her first narrative feature film called “I Will Follow.” This film was released theatrically and became the official selection of the American Film Institute Fest, Pan-African Film Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival. Her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won the award for Best Direction.
DuVernay’s career quickly took off following this film as she steadily became a household name. In addition to directing many TV shows, commercials, and music videos, DuVernay’s films “Selma” and “13th” received critical acclaim and multiple awards for their portrayal of racial prejudice in the United States. She collaborated with Oprah Winfrey to create and direct the TV series “Queen Sugar” on the Oprah Winfrey Network, as well as the Disney live-action film, “A Wrinkle in Time.” In 2010, she started her own film distribution company called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) but rebranded the company in 2015 under the name ARRAY to focus on racial and gender inclusion in filmmaking. In 2019, DuVernay created, directed, and co-wrote the Netflix drama “When They See Us.” This five-part miniseries based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case quickly became Netflix’s number one most watched series daily in the U.S., with over 23 million viewers during its first month of release, and 16 Emmy nominations at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards. (womenshistory.org)