It’s always exciting to hear when a nonwhite actor is offered a role more substantial than the thankless supporting parts actors of color are usually saddled with. Even more exciting is when filmmakers take a chance on an unknown face to carry an entire film. The sad truth is that good roles for minority actors are scarce in American cinema. Some of the most successful nonwhite actors have built their careers from scratch, making the most to shine in relatively inconsequential roles. Look at some of the most recognizable faces out there — Viola Davis, Anthony Mackie, Octavia Spencer — African American actors who’ve turned seemingly minuscule parts into MVP performances, who’ve captured our attention with their ability to spin gold out of thin air.
So when a little-known gem called “Middle of Nowhere,” featuring an all-black cast, emerged out of the Sundance Film Festival back in January with glowing reviews — and a directing prize to boot — it instantly popped on must-see lists. Writer-director Ava Duvernay’s project reads like a gourmet prospect on paper: a marital-drama that probes deep into a passionate marriage shaken by the husband’s sudden imprisonment. Even more exciting, Duvernay makes a daring move by casting her film with relatively unknown actors, giving some serious talent the chance to shine.
“Middle of Nowhere” opens with an aerial view of a bus pulling over in front of a prison in the middle of nowhere (excuse the pun). Inside the bus is a muted group of women, mostly wives and girlfriends, sitting in solemn silence as they wait to be transported to their incarcerated spouses, fathers, brothers, sons and boyfriends. The camera then closes up on one of them, Ruby, a medical assistant with big, expressive almond eyes and a small thatch of hair. Minutes later, Ruby sits with her husband, Derek, in prison. They cannot embrace. They cannot kiss. Not even hold hands from across the table. Ruby’s face is all that matters, though. The soft cadences of her voice, the emotional reciprocity of her loving stares, the ardor hidden in her chest pulling her toward him — all this communicates a poignant love that tells us everything we need to know about this marriage: Ruby is willing to forgo anything, even a medical career, to keep this relationship alive.
Duvernay’s casting of little-known Emayatzy Corinealdi in the lead role was an interesting and daring choice. A low-key musician with little acting experience, Corinealdi doesn’t have the clout of a bigger-name actress nor the experience from which to draw. Still, she proves to be a beautiful, naturalistic presence.
She’s best in the visitation scenes with Derek, nailing Ruby’s dreamlike infatuation with her husband. Ruby’s flashbacks preimprisonment show her picturesque, almost unrealistic conception of Derek. It’s a wise choice, then, for Duvernay to resist revealing Derek’s crime — at least until devastating news shatters Ruby’s image of him.
It’s after this “big reveal” that the movie threatens to crumble under its own dramatic weight, and with it, Corinealdi’s performance begins to wane. The actress’s passivity paid off well in the first half, but it’s not enough to keep viewers checked for the entire movie. Ruby’s devotion to her husband always stays credible, but her transformation into a more independent, reassuring woman isn’t as plausible. Corinealdi falls short of selling Ruby’s newfound love interest as a genuine choice (the script’s mundanity doesn’t help her). But she at least stays focused and grounded on who Ruby begins to blossom into as these events unfold.
This is not to say that the movie completely misses in the second half. As subplots, Ruby’s relationship with her mother and sister prove more interesting than Ruby’s love life.
There are some powerful scenes with Ruby’s mom (a brilliant Lorraine Toussaint) that charge a much-needed jolt into the film, scenes filled with silence and dry conversations that speak mountains of subtext about their relationship.
Though it never reaches exceptional status, “Middle of Nowhere” commands immense respect as a fine piece of filmmaking. Duvernay’s soft touch and slow pace, although they don’t always work, manage to conceive a complete and beautiful (even flawed) picture of marital devotion. Let’s just hope that she keeps getting better with time and keeps writing interesting and fascinating characters for colored actors out there.
“Middle of Nowhere” is playing at Shattuck Cinemas, go here for showtimes.
Contact Braulio at [email protected]