If you missed BET’s broadcast premiere of Ava DuVernay’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival winning film (Best Director Award), "Middle of Nowhere," when it aired on August 2, you’ll be glad to know that it’s now streaming on Netflix, starting today! I saw the film when it made its world premiere at Sundance 2 years ago, and reviewed it for S&A at that time. That 2012 review follows below…
It’s an unfortunate testament of the time we live in when a film that takes an adult, mature, sincere, if realistic look at relationships between black men and black women could be viewed as, dare I say, radical.
And this isn’t hyperbole; seriously.
Think of recently produced and released *black films* that center on the interactions between grown-ass men and grown-ass women (primarily studio films). Those films are often rather juvenile, simplistic depictions of how we connect and relate to one another, and they usually lean towards the comedic, as if there’s some fear of facing, head-on, with honesty and maturity, the sometimes severity of this thing called life.
It’s refreshing to be able to see oneself, and those you surround yourself with, on the screen. You know and recognize these people, even if their predicaments are completely different from yours; there’s just an understanding there that resonates as familiar, yet still astonishing (if only because of how rare it is to see), and in the end satisfies.
Some of you will likely recognize the film reference I made in the heading of this review; the still very much groundbreaking (even today, some 50 years later) 1964 film "Nothing But A Man," starring Ivan Dixon as our "man" and the lovely Abbey Lincoln.
Those who’ve seen that film will recall, again, the adult and sensual ways in which the material is handled. Like "Middle Of Nowhere" (MON) it’s a quiet, introspective, even slow-burn of a movie, seemingly and gradually gathering strength (and getting all-the-better for it) as it progresses; and not only the film as a work of art, but also the central characters within each – one wanting to be acknowledged as "nothing but man;" the other, in MON, as nothing but a woman, strong and with pride, treated with the same kind of humanity and respect that she (played beautifully by Emayatzy Corinealdi) gives willingly. Nothing more; but also nothing less.
Rudimentary. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Yet we have a funny way of dirtying things up, even when they’re perfect, as if there’s a fear that the perfection is false and/or ephemeral.
You get lost in Ava DuVernay’s sophomore effort, as these people you’re watching feel so real, you’re consumed with their individual plights. When they feel heartache, your stomach gets all tied up in knots; when they’re joyous, you smile, and maybe even a tear or two slides down one or both cheeks. Because you’re connected and you care, which speaks to the abilities of the filmmaker, cast and crew.
I won’t rehash the film’s plot; you can easily look it up. While it certainly has an engaging narrative, I found myself more captivated by mood, and feeling of individual moments throughout the film. I’d even go further and say that any astute viewer could predict the film’s general progression once you start watching it, as the core characters are introduced.
However, I’d also say that, as with her fictional feature film debut, "I Will Follow," Ms DuVernay seems to understand the importance of singular MOMENTS (intentional emphasis) within each film that really grab onto you, and are thus memorable.
In the first film, as I noted in my review of it, the MOMENT was that intimate, revelatory scene between Omari Hardwick’s character and Salli Richardson-Whitfield’s, which ends in an unexpected series of admissions and indictments, that anyone in Richardson-Whitfiled’s position would feel walloped by; that moment of, shall we say, regret and rebirth.
MON has two MOMENTS, which I obviously won’t give away. What I will say is that both of them are heartrending: one a betrayal; the other a release; each character-defining.
The success of a film of this nature lies heavily in the performances, because, really, despite Bradford Young’s beautiful photography (which is expected and a given), and the perfectly-brooding soundtrack (featuring the likes of Me’shell Ndegeocello and Little Dragon, each so well-timed without being dominating), that’s all there is. We’ve got to believe that these people are who they tell us they are. A single false note could take the audience out of the moment, or the MOMENT, and thankfully that doesn’t happen here.
The performances are beautifully and simply drawn. The star of the film, Emayatzy Corinealdi, gives a restrained, though affecting performance as Ruby, a woman who stands steadfastly by her man, even as he does everything he can to push her away. She’s fiery when she needs to be, without falling into melodramatic traps; sufficiently sensual and sexual, with facial features (notably the cheekbones, and the inquisitive eyes) that give her character an adorability, which I think only makes it easier for the audience to empathize with her plight – that, and, as already noted, a strong performance of course.
MON is a well-paced, lovely film, with an attractive cast delivering strong performances, and a complimentary soundtrack that profiles the life of a prison inmate’s wife. To put it simply, it’s a deliberate, matured tribute to adulthood – that life phase when we become (or are expected to become) independent, self-reliant (in thought, action and otherwise) decision-making human beings, fully responsible for the choices we make and their repercussions, and coming to terms with who and/or what we are, warts and all.
"Nothing but A Man," which faced distribution difficulties when it was ready to enter the market place, despite prominent festival play and critical acclaim; it has become a film that we often look back on (50 years later) quite fondly, and reference as exemplary of the kind of relationship/character drama (with black faces) that’s noticeably lacking in cinema.
We need more films like it, and now, like "Middle Of Nowhere."
If you missed its BET premiere, it’s now streaming on Netflix, as of today. Omari Hardwick David Oyelowo, Lorraine Touissaint, and Edwina Findley round out the film’s key cast.