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The tremendous allure of Ava Duvernay‘s surpassingly powerful Selma isn’t solely wrapped up in the volcanic view of the Selma to Montgomery marches and the intimate life of Martin Luther King Jr., though that’s certainly what allowed the film to get made the way Duvernay conceived it. While depicting a visceral, tense, and violent series of historical American events, what’s most fascinating about Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated drama is the attention put toward King’s sense of media and imagery, a knack for not only making history but crafting how history will be made and remembered. The dialogue underlines his interest in how images shape conflicts and events, and how protest, at its very best, has as much to do with political philosophies as performance art.
Duvernay’s interest in these elements conveys a far more nuanced perspective on King and his movement than arguably any other depiction of the civil rights legend. And though Middle of Nowhere, Duvernay’s sophomore feature from 2012, isn’t based on historic political events, there’s a similar interest in weaving together thoughtful, timely political concepts with a personal, atmospheric visual style. In this case, her focus is on Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a young woman who, when we meet her, is visiting her recently incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), who is serving an eight year sentence, five with good behavior. The film opens with them arguing over her decision to put her studies – she’s a medical student – on hold until he gets out, so she can make visits and receive phone calls whenever he contacts her. In essence, Corinealdi’s character has put her professional ambitions on hold for her personal passion, and she’s also taken on a second job of sorts in helping Derek with his appeal.
Following this introduction, Duvernay skips ahead four years later, coming back in just about a year before Derek should be released with good behavior. As played by Hardwick, Derek is humble but firm, and he argues fervently when she announces she’s going to put med school on the back burner. Duvernay’s script depicts him as a man worth waiting around for, but doesn’t sanctify him by any means, as witnessed when Ruby is confronted by Gina (Maya Gilbert), the mother of Derek’s daughter, about two-months-late child support in a fast food joint. Money is a distinct interest of Duvernay’s and seen as the root of what makes her characters bury their desires in favor of ensuring fiscal safety and comfort, but missing alimony is not the only thing that tips toward Derek’s reckless side. The film’s plot pivots, in fact, on an act of violence enacted by Derek, specifically a bloody fight that erupted in prison and sent him to solitary confinement, which goes unseen but sends his already tattered relationship with Ruby into utter tumult.
First of all, the fight causes Ruby to have a severely embarrassing argument with his attorney, one which circles back around again to the matter of money. More than that though, the incident causes the parole board to look at Derek’s record more closely, bringing up a sexual encounter that occurred between Derek and a female guard. The entire parole hearing is a thrilling and devastating sequence, teeming with detailed technical arguments and emotionally lacerating yet subtly presented emotional reactions; notice that hesitant, worried glare exchanged between Derek’s lawyer and the head of the parole board when they start. For all the inarguable horrors that regularly occur in prison, Duvernay illustrates how it’s also an expressive element, a symbol of his ability to lie and cloak the personal actions and appetites he holds separate from Ruby. It’s not until the end of Middle of Nowhere that Duvernay loops this back to the way Derek hid his criminal enterprising from Ruby for years before he was arrested.
Ruby’s waning devotion to her husband is largely due to his deceitful nature, but there’s another element that helps to underline her straying, and his name is Brian, a kind bus driver played with seemingly effortless charm and warmth by David Oyelowo. His pointed, careful interest in Ruby is initially brushed away but she goes to him to cut loose after the parole hearing, leading to a convincing and sincerely sweet romance. In a way, you could categorize Middle of Nowhere as a love triangle, but the focus remains on Ruby’s attitudes towards what she wants from life and how she wants others to see her. Her indecision over whether or not to pursue her clearly intense feelings for Brian is tied in with being seen as a cuckolding spouse or disloyal, a fear that is realized when one of Derek’s former associates shows up at her work and berates her for seeing Brian. Duvernay penned all of these interactions and exchanges after talking with numerous wives of incarcerated men, which accounts for the film’s overall air of authenticity despite the writer-director’s melancholic lighting and color tones. Beyond that, however, Ruby’s struggle feels representative of Duvernay’s working philosophy, wherein seeking to be independent and honest with one’s self is more important than fears of being perceived as a betrayer or just generally disaffected.
The only character that seems to think that Ruby should have given up Derek years ago is her mother, Ruth, played by the great Lorraine Toussaint, who spiced up Orange is the New Black‘s second season something fierce. Toward the end of the film, as Ruby is stressing more than ever about Brian and Derek, she serves as the voice of difficult wisdom, understanding and admiring her daughter’s love for her husband but also missing the brilliant, well-read woman who she raised, the one who couldn’t hold back what she felt and believed in. Brian stirs that side of her up, whereas Derek has become a series of bills, paperwork, and tight schedules that she must constantly attend to, and her memories of their life together isn’t enough anymore. Toward the beginning of the film, a fellow wife of an imprisoned man tells Ruby a story about how she got put on suspension from visitations for kissing her husband in the visiting room. That’s exactly how Ruby says goodbye to Derek, a reminder of the woman she once was with him and now feels the freedom to be once again, and Middle of Nowhere similarly recalls the rush of realizing who you are, whether for the first time or for the 100th.
Middle of Nowhere is currently available for streaming on Netflix.