If Ava DuVernay is nominated for an original screenplay Oscar for Middle of Nowhere — a slim possibility, if more people see it — she will be only the second black female screenwriter in 85 years of Oscar history to do so. You have to yawn all the way back to 1972 to find the one and only co-writer of Lady Sings the Blues, Suzanne De Passe nominated alongside Terence McCloy and Chris Clark. DuVernay will be the first writer/director nominated as an individual.
The Oscars make a difference because they represent the status quo, the power dynamic in Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow can win Best Director and Best Picture and it doesn’t really change things for women filmmakers. It’s still a white man’s game. But by some miracle, Bigelow made what was the best reviewed film that year. It was thrilling that any woman could have achieved just that much. Maybe women aren’t getting major deals and maybe they aren’t really winning any awards but there is no getting around the idea that it happened. Bigelow happened. If I was a young filmmaker in film school looking at the Oscars I might think, you know, I can do that too. Maybe I can’t make Avatar but I can sure as hell make The Hurt Locker. And you know, that’s not nothing.
DuVernay is, in her own way, starting a different kind of revolution. She’s made a film starring black characters that isn’t a Tyler Perry movie and it isn’t Precious. It isn’t about the stereotypes Hollywood has become so fond of. It is the anti-The Help. The Help made lots of money and earned Oscar nominations for Viola Davis and a win for Octavia Spencer. But it was caught in the in-between. It was too insulting to many in the black community. In the white community, it was a huge hit. But it wasn’t allowed to be an unqualified hit because it wasn’t politically correct. It could never have been judged as just a great ensemble of many wonderful performances. It was always going to be laden with the unavoidable past. Our shameful history, which continues to be a vital discussion. But along comes Middle of Nowhere and it’s interesting because it can’t be categorized as anything except a good movie, with richly drawn characters that aren’t stereotypes. They aren’t defined by their race, for once. It’s interesting to watch how critics are reacting, and it will be interesting to see how the public, and how the awards community, will react.
Meanwhile, DuVernay talksto the Village Voice’s Ernest Hardy about her own trajectory, “There are a million films about white love, so [white filmmakers] can branch off and say: ‘Let me write about love this way. Let me write about love that way.’ But we still have to show that black people actually love each other. We’re in such the toddler phase of the themes and characterizations we’re exploring because not enough of our filmmakers have been allowed to mature, to explore their artistry, to push the themes that interest them.”
Karina Longworth at the Village Voice writes:
The remarkably self-assured, micro-budget Middle, for which DuVernay won the Best Director prize at Sundance (making her the first African-American woman to do so), languidly follows the unraveling of a pact made in its first scene. With Derek about to begin a sentence of eight years, Ruby declares she’ll drop out of medical school so she can devote herself to keeping their relationship alive and creating a stable home for him to come back to, all in faith that he’ll earn parole after five years of “good time.” He tries to talk her out of pressing pause on her future for him, but she’s insistent: They’re in this together. “You are me,” Ruby tells her husband. “Remember?” That his memory is apparently foggier than hers is the first red flag that all is not right in this union.
Like Ruby, DuVernay’s film resists easy categorization. Formally, there’s a powerful tension between aesthetics and content. Although the director demonstrates a gift for sultry, music-motivated montages, the meat of the movie lies in its daringly long dialogue scenes. The filmmaker’s stolid, unblinking eye serves as a sharp contrast to Ruby’s impatience to claim the life she has been fantasizing about. The film’s naturalistic performances and austere, gray-violet palette misdirect from the fact that much of the material is psychological; the “real” is woven through with heightened flourishes to blur the line between actual and imagined truth. A slow-motion-enhanced kiss scene, with Corinealdi in top I-don’t-give-a-fuck strut, is a startling example of DuVernay’s ability to conjure drama that at once takes place in a character’s head and in a recognizable real world. It’s beautifully nuanced and confidently ambiguous—and so is the movie.
Slant Magazine’s Zeba Play writes:
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.
Marshall Fine at Hollywood and Fine (and Huffington Post):
The big dramatic moments in DuVernay’s film are intentionally small and interior, which is one of the film’s gutsiest moves. The filmmaker isn’t afraid to take her time and to let Ruby spend time with her thoughts and memory. Like Terrence Malick, she understands the power of a wordless interpersonal exchange; unlike Malick, she also knows how to attach it to something of more substance, so that the emotional power accrues over the course of the film.
DuVernay also shines a light on Emayatzy Corinealdi, who seemingly is at the center of every scene. She has stillness and strength, with a face across which emotions play, both cautiously and with ferocity. She conveys a lot with a little, fitting perfectly into DuVernay’s scheme of keeping things grounded while maintaining a certain level of ambiguity.
That ambiguity –- a sense of things being up in the air, imperfect, with no easy solution in sight –- is anathema to most films. Too many movies are afraid to leave the audience with questions about why a character feels a certain way or what will happen next. They’re also afraid to simply be quiet, to show us characters thinking and feeling without actually talking about either.
Those of us who head west to Sundance every year and still cling to old-school notions regarding independent cinema—that it can flourish as a forum for alternative viewpoints, that low production values and high-quality storytelling aren’t mutually exclusive, that independent isn’t just a label but also an ethos—often leave Park City experiencing a crisis of faith. But every so often, the festival midwifes a film that reminds us that a sense of discovery still exists on the margins of American moviemaking. Half Nelson, Compliance and Take Shelter are perfect examples; Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary chronicle of a marriage interrupted is another.
Ruby (Corinealdi, a true find) is introduced as the equivalent of a penal-system widow, comforting her convict spouse (Hardwick) with the notion that this will all be over soon. Cut to four years later, and time—as well as the ensuing familial disappointments, financial burdens and false hopes—has taken its toll on both of them. A friendly bus driver (The Paperboy’s Oyelowo) offers a second chance at happiness, but can Ruby let go of something that may be beyond repair? There’s every reason to think that DuVernay’s tale of a woman trying desperately to stand by her incarcerated man might fall prey to the cloying earnestness and clunky clichés that infect too many Amerindie dramas. But this character study’s refusal to pander by sensationalizing its central social issue skirts such pitfalls with amazing grace; this is humanistic drama done right.