Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 20, 2012 5:14 am 
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Slow decision

“I wanted to write about the sisters I saw," Ava DuVernay said in a NY Times interview with Carrie Rickey. "Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who’s locked up.” DuVernay's somber second film, Middle of Nowhere, is about a young wife who gives up med school to focus on supporting her incarcerated husband. It's a quietly intense meditation on some of the deepest pushes and pulls that trouble African-American life. The seriousness and sensitivity of the writer-director's story and the strong performances of the cast can make up for a reticence about information in the screenplay that sometimes makes the action feel at one remove.

When first seen Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is visiting her tall, broad-shouldered husband Derek (Omari Hardwick), who's beginning an eight-year sentence in Victorville prison, fifty-some miles from L.A., on unspecified felony charges. Ruby tries to convince Derek good behavior will get him early release some time after only four years. But he seems dubious, dropping hints that things are tough inside. Jumping forward four years, the rest of the film focuses on Ruby's slow coming to terms with hard realities behind Derek's doubts.

The deep message is that in this situation neither the prisoner nor his wife on the outside really knows what the other is doing. In one of Ruby's poetic monologues -- a lot of the movie takes place essentially inside her head -- she concludes that the only place where she and her husband can now meet is a metaphorical "middle of nowhere" -- their space, not just the prison's location. Ruby's loyalty is gradually undermined and her dreamy optimism morphs into realistic compromise as she finds out what's happening with Derek in prison is not okay. In her first meeting with him he's wearing a nice long-sleeved shirt; in her last, he's in a T-shirt that shows his muscular arms covered with prison tattoos. Mysteries remain for Ruby and for us. A flashback near the end tells us who arrested Derek, but not on what charges or what he was up to.

Ruby gets constant criticism from her cynical, disenchanted mother Ruth (a scene-stealing Lorraine Toussaint) for giving up medical school, her intellectual engagement, virtually all her ambition. Her single-parent sister (Edwina Findley) worries about her overly upbeat fantasy of Derek's future, fostered by sweet memories of their early days together. Ruby's current life has become a struggle to make ends meet and save up for lawyer fees. She works as a registered nurse now and this involves long bus rides. So it happens that she develops a relationship with bus driver Brian (a superb David Oyelowo), who is restrained but persistent in courting her. After a revelation during Derek's parole hearing of a prison betrayal, Ruby turns to Brian.

Middle of Nowhere isn't notable for eye-catching setting and character like Beasts of the Southern Wild or intense action like a Denzel Washington movie --indeed one reviewer calls it "slow as molasses." DuVernay's film feels profoundly African-American and feminine in its gentle, persistent focus. It's subtle in its unfolding but if anything unusual in being basically simple and old-school in approach. It excels in meditative character development and intense one-on-one scenes, particularly those between Ruby and her two men, where every look and word speaks volumes, some of them drenched in ambiguity. To heighten these encounters the director uses widescreen with shallow focus and many intense close-ups by dp Bradford Young that have a distinctive, beautiful look and richly revel in the actors' faces and bodies. The close-ups can be cloying but their hothouse intensity is fortunately relieved by long, empty shots of seedy L.A. urban desert, the buses, and the prison exterior.

This is a world of the black middle class, where people speak well, and the protagonist prefers indie and foreign films, but there are constant undercurrents of being pulled down to poverty and Raisin-in-theSun banished dreams. And flashes of humor. An off-quoted line of Brian's when Ruby expresses her taste for foreign movies is, “Movies a brother’s got to read?” But he follows that up by saying he's okay with subtitles. Little details like this in the dialogue build the feel of the milieu.

For all this DuVernay deserves great respect. She was rewarded with a Sundance directing prize, and Middle of Nowhere has some splendid moments. I wish her writing didn't unaccountably withhold some of the basic information of her story, a strong sense of the emotional counterbalanced by a weak grasp of the actual, but that doesn't keep the action on screen from feeling important every step of the way.

DuVernay got her start as a publicist for prominent directors (Spike Lee was a client; she planned marketing campaigns for Bill Condon and Clint Eastwood). She is the first black woman to receive the best director of a drama award at Sundance. Middle of Nowhere debuted January 20, 2012 at the Utah festival, and began limited US release Oct. 12.

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