It’s no secret that white men dominate the film industry — women make up only 5 percent of directors, and women of color are even more scarce. So it’s no wonder that the number and representations of women are warped, disappointing, and damaging. Since this tendency intersects with the often problematic onscreen portrayals of people of color, black women characters rarely anchor films. As a result, black women’s experiences are ignored and erased from our cultural memory — aside from the persistent tokens and stereotypes that so many lazy writers rely on.
Middle of Nowhere, which premiered in limited release last weekend, breaks with these Hollywood traditions. Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, the film earned buzz at Sundance, where it earned DuVernay the best director award — the first time a black woman has ever won that distinction. The film tells the story of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a smart, resilient nurse who puts her dreams of medical school on hold when her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is incarcerated for selling guns. Ruby prioritizes her marriage — making sure she has the time to be at home to receive his phone calls and to take the long bus ride to visit him each week — despite Derek’s and her mother’s protestations. When, after four years of this, Derek’s parole eligibility is called into question, Ruby starts to emerge from the emotional stasis she has been in.
In the process of Ruby’s transformation, we see her complicated and heartbreaking relationship with Derek evolve without demonizing either character. The audience ends up deeply invested in a couple whom we only see together in flashback, in a prison visitor’s room where physical affection is verboten, and in the loneliest scenes you can imagine — where Ruby imagines her husband is with her as she wakes up in the morning or walks to the bus for her night shift.
We also see the difficulty of navigating the justice system when money is tight. And we get a glimpse of the family dynamics that oscillate between emotional support and tough love for Ruby, who has the potential to escape the economic hardship that her mother and sister experience.
Amazing acting, beautiful cinematography from Howard University film school graduate Bradford Young, and subdued colors make the events of Middle of Nowhere seem like they’re happening around the corner to your good friends. The mellow soundtrack and succinct dialogue alternate with punctuated silences that bring Ruby’s internal struggle between loyalty and frustration to a slow boil.
Audiences and critics have made Middle of Nowhere one of the most talked-about indie films of the year. And the new distribution model that is bringing the film to audiences nationwide could be fostering a 21st century LA Rebellion for black independent cinema. This is what happens when new voices have the opportunity to tell their own stories. In a film culture that doesn’t do much to foster black feminist filmmaking, audiences have to demand and support the rare films that address women’s issues or that feature underrepresented voices. Otherwise, we’re leaving our cultural imagery and narrative priorities to the fellas.