The drama of a prisoner and the long-suffering woman/mother/child who waits for him was a cornerstone of the Depression–and Depression-era movies–when life was lived on the margins and the system created miscreants (see: Criminal, They Made Me A).
Indeed, my great-uncle, Robert Tasker, a convict at San Quentin in the early ‘30s, wrote chain-gang and jailhouse movies upon his release. Which sounds like a happy ending, but nobody was waiting for him when he got out; our family turned its back. Even in Hollywood he could never get prison behind him. He never got the credit and money he needed to be comfortable, and either committed suicide or was murdered at age forty-one.
With post-WWII prosperity, prison life became the stuff of subplots, character shading, even comedy. But now that we’re square in the middle of hard times again, here comes Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, screening at the Doris Duke Theatre [see Film Blurbs for showtimes]. With this elegant and emotionally resonant film, DuVernay became the first African-American to win Best Director at the Sundance Festival, an award well-deserved. She could well have taken Best Original Screenplay, too, from the way her story quietly but forcefully reverses expectations.
Pensively shot, quiet as a reverie in tone, Middle of Nowhere nevertheless doesn’t, ahem, take any prisoners. Derek (Omari Hardwick), the inmate/husband, definitely did something (we won’t know until the end). His wife, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), an exquisite beauty, believes in him and the Buppie life they once enjoyed. Over his objections, she gives up med school and works as a nurse, regularly visiting him in the penitentiary in desolate Victorville. Stretching herself to the limits of her strength, Ruby makes good on her promise for four long years, until the truth about where the money came from emerges in dribs and drabs that tell us as much about Ruby as they do Derek.
This is how it could happen to any of us, no matter what our skin color: the comfortable middle-class self-delusion, the overlooked infidelity, the easy decisions (Derek) and martyrdom (Ruby) we embrace to avoid having to choose our own future. But this is also an exacting portrait of contemporary African-American life. It’s not an inner city actioner like The Wire or Boyz n the Hood. Its maturity and steadiness bear comparison to L.A.’s great African-American cinematic poet, Charles Burnett.
Toward the end, when Ruby finds herself tentatively exploring life with a sensitive man who drives the bus on her route, she warns him she likes indie movies. “I can swing with subtitles,” he replies. Far from clashing with the previous scenes of barbed wire enclosures, pat searches and probation hearings, the affirmation of art in the lives of anyone, no matter what their social or economic status, lights up our understanding of what we see. It’s a daring moment that throws open the windows of the soul.
But the honesty of Nowhere ultimately asks a deeper question: what are our obligations to those we loved before the storm broke and tore our lives apart?