by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
With all the talk within social media circles since Ava DuVernay won best director at the Sundance Film Festival, I cannot remember anticipating a film as much I anticipated Middle of Nowhere. While a testament to the film’s use of social media, my excitement reflected its storyline and its offering of a humanizing story. The New York Times aptly described the film as follows: a “poignant portrait of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a nurse doing hard time in emotional limbo while her husband serves a prison sentence.” The Los Angeles Times summarizes the film’s story as somewhat classic with a story of marital crossroads, personal transformation, and self discovery: “the focus is on the couple’s relationship and, gradually, on a different kind of journey that Ruby is making, the classic one of self-actualization, of finding yourself when you feel emotionally in the middle of nowhere, a journey that allows for no shortcuts or easy answers.” While the film does play upon dominant themes, its embrace of tropes and themes specific to the history of African American film, and its intervention in the hegemony of dehumanizing narratives, especially those surrounding prisons, illustrates a film that is battling and challenging in a myriad of ways.
Middle of Nowhere gives voice to an all-too-familiar circumstance facing million of American families, particularly those of color. It chronicles the impact of mass incarceration on families, living on the outside, with relatives on the inside. According to a report entitled “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” in 2007 America was home to 1.7 million children (under 18) whose parent was being held in state or federal prison – that is 2.3 percent of American children will likely be celebrating father’s day away from dad. Despite hegemonic clamoring about family values, the prison industrial complex continues to ravage American families. Since 1991, the number of children with a father in prison has increased from 881,500 to 1.5 million in 2007. Over this same time period, children of incarcerated mothers increased from 63,900 to 147,400. Roughly half of these children are younger than 9, with 32 percent between the ages of 10 and 14. This reality is not just about children but about families forced to live at a crossroads between lack – of contact, lack of physical contact – and desire – to be free, to touch, to be with family. It is a reality that separates families and pushes members farther and farther apart. On average, children live 100 miles away from their incarcerated parents. This is the same of partners, and other family members, who are dislocated, punished and literally left out in the cold.
Chronicling the story of Ruby and Derek (Omari Hardwick) Middle of Nowhere shines a spotlight on trickle down incarceration, whereupon arrests and imprisonment travel downstream to the detriment of both families and communities. From Ruby’s conflict with her mother over her decision to wait for her husband to be released from prison to her choice to forgo medical school for a career in nursing because of their financial needs; from Derek’s inability to pay child support to his daughter’s mom, to the amount of time families must spend on buses just to remain connected to their loved ones; Middle of Nowhere brilliantly reveals the costs and consequences of mass incarceration. Derek is literally stuck in the middle of nowhere, detached geographically, physically, emotionally – he cannot see his daughter; his wife cannot kiss him. With no his release precarious at best and his future bleak given the lifetime sentences resulting from felony convictions, Derek is resigned to the middle of nowhere, existing without any paths toward freedom or even existence. It is not just Derek and his fellow incarcerated men and women housed in places like Victorville are confined to the middle of nowhere, hidden behind barbered wire fences, walls, and isolation, but their families as well.
Ruby is also stuck in the middle of nowhere, at the borderlands of the prison industrial complex. Waiting for her partner to emerge from the shackles of mass incarceration, yet wanting to move forward with her life, Ruby is stuck; wanting to be touched and loved, but denied the pleasure principle of happiness she shared with her husband, Ruby must confront her precarious position. She must reconcile her location, which is of no fault of her own. She struggles to reconcile her loyalty and love for Derek with her yearning to be free; to exist outside a place called nowhere.
Falling for another man, she realizes that she cannot remain in the racks between two worlds, torn by guilt and desire, freedom and emotional emptiness. The film’s subtlety, its ability to capture the nowheredness embodied in the gap she lives within represents the film’s power. She is stuck in a space between freedom and the unfreedom; the past and the future; the rural and the city; the mobile and immobile; the inability to be touched versus the ability to feel; and love and happiness. She is in the middle of nowhere.
Rudy struggles to reconcile her desires, navigating the messiness resulting from mass incarceration. The film makes clear how incarceration and the desires of movement prove incompatible not just for Derek but Ruby and her entire family. After kissing him goodbye, in violation of the rules, she offers the following soliloquy: “You were with me. Now it’s scary. We are somewhere in between in between the forgotten and the foreseen. In the middle of some place. That scares me.” Powerful, indeed.
A common trope within the history of African American cinema has been movement. Given the history of slavery, Jim Crow, migration, de facto segregation, stop-and-frisk, and racial profiling, movement has been central to the representational field. Middle of Nowhere most certainly adds to this cinematic landscape. The constraints on movement, the violence directed at bodies of color defines the era of mass incarceration. Yet, the film pushes viewers beyond the immobility and isolation resulting from the prison industrial complex. Reflecting a certain level of irony, Ruby takes a bus to the “middle of nowhere” with dozens of other women and children. The bus, in this instance, is not the inversion of the Underground Railroad taking her from her unfree life in Los Angeles, to the capital of confinement. Yet, the bus, which transports her from work to home, is where she finds the necessary tools to move forward, leading her not to another man, but to a space of independence and power.
Clearly Middle of Nowhere ties movement to feeling, emotion, and pleasure. The ability to be moved spiritually, lovingly, physically, and sensually is all constrained by incarceration. This is evident not just in the denied kisses and connection that results from imprisonment, but the film’s ability to capture the passion and sexual energy between Ruby and Brian (David Oyelowo). With shots of their embrace and their connected bodies, Middle of Nowhere repels Hollywood’s tendency to define love and attraction through graphic sex scenes. It moves beyond the erased realities of black love within the history of Hollywood. Challenging Hollywood’s male gaze, which privileges heterosexual desire to consume feminine nakedness on screen, Middle of Nowhere defines the passion and meaning of their relationship through subtle and humanizing cues. It leaves viewers feeling not just the sexual passion but also the psychological and emotional connection.
Another source of power with Middle of Nowhere rests with DuVernay’s use of silence. The sight of Ruby sitting in darkness contemplating life’s horrors encapsulates its emotionality, its effort, and its ability to compel viewers to feel pain, anxiety, and fear. Resulting from brilliant acting performances, gripping cinematography and DuVernay’s genius directorial eye, Middle of Nowhere is 90+ minutes of sheer emotion; it is emblematic of what makes film so powerful. With its appeal to emotionality, it’s deployment of humanizing narratives, and its point of entry into our era of mass incarceration, Middle of Nowhere leaves viewers with not just a lot to think about but even more to feel.