It's impossible to watch Middle of Nowhere and not think about that intangible entity known as the "black film" and what that even means. In her second independent feature, writer-director Ava DuVernay offers up a meditative story about a woman struggling to let go of a relationship she believes has come to define her. In a cinema landscape where the representation of the black female experience is most visibly explored through the modes of outlandish comedy, unironic melodrama, or not at all, DuVernay's take is a decidedly refreshing one.
Newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, a Los Angeles woman who gives up a future in medical school in order to support her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), after he gets an eight-year prison sentence for a vague, drug-related crime. Four years after the conviction, we're privy to the voyeuristically shot, quiet mundanities of Ruby's life: her four-hour bus rides up to the prison on visiting days; her grueling night shifts at the hospital where she works as a nurse; her mostly empty days, during which she devises ways of shortening Derek's sentence and helps raise her sister's young son. Ruby's life effectively revolves around other people, until she meets a charming bus driver named Brian (David Oyelowo) who makes her question what she really wants.
It's a simply written story, at times almost overly simplistic, though Corinealdi and Oyelowo bring nuance to the almost artificial, sometimes schmaltzy dialogue. In terms of storytelling, DuVernay seems more concerned with conveying the power of the narrative through its visuals, but at times she becomes wrapped up in the visuals, slowing down the pace of the story to focus on unilluminating scenes that obsessively study the day to day of Ruby's life.
But these minor hiccups don't detract from the emotional weightiness of the film's final movements. This is a small movie that asks big questions about loyalty, loneliness, and how our choices affect ourselves and those around us. Most significantly, DuVernay applies pressure to the idea of the "strong black woman," a figure who's become as much an archetype in film as in society at large. What makes Ruby's story so refreshing is the unabashedly honest way in which she's presented. There's no agenda, no overall "message" that the movie is trying to convey about what it is to be the wife of a convict. Indeed, by allowing Ruby to free herself of that distinction, that identity, DuVernay frees the movie itself of our desire to define it.