The tenderness of black women growing in self-love and self-possession is rare in modern cinema. If we are young, we are exploited (see: Precious) if we are grown and in love, black female characters are consumed with body-racking pain (see: For Colored Girls, Monster's Ball, Beloved). Caricatures of us usually dim our personal transformation from one moment to the next. On screen, the fullness of black womanhood has been flattened to a one-dimensional trope – she is rarely funny without bitterness, or lonely and sad without letting her emotions bleed into histrionics or melodrama.
In Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay's second feature-film release, we are introduced to the quiet and complicated heroics of Ruby. Played by actress Emayatzy Corinealdi, we see the slight, button-nosed nurse traveling miles on one bus weekly to visit her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick) in prison. She is always moving throughout the film, most of the time to her job or to visit her sister and nephew, or her mother.
The tone set by Brad Young's controlled cinematography makes the weariness that Ruby emits vivid and close to unbearable. In part, because the women featured are not big-name stars, they appear simultaneously to be around the way girls and yet, a touch more elegant, a little less accessible.
This is the lens of DuVernay, a publicist-turned-writer/promoter/filmmaker who has spent years promoting her films (which include 2010's My Mic Sounds Nice, a documentary about women in hip hop, as well as her debut narrative feature, 2011's I Will Follow), as well as agitating for more visibility for black independent film with the organization she founded, African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, or AAFFRM. Films are DuVernay's second chapter, a fantastic gift of reinvention to those of us who are thirsty for black art film in particular.
Middle of Nowhere's Ruby carries the physical and emotional weight of doing time with her husband while also attempting to live her life. Her sister can't seem to get her to loosen up. Her mother tries, but not really. Even Derek warns that she shouldn't drop out of medical school because he's in prison. He tells her not to be a martyr, but she tries to be one, anyway.
So Ruby counts the days until her husband comes back to her to fill the empty space the viewer can't help but watch. The young nurse is just making it; we can tell from a longing that emanates from her bones. She is like Dee Rees' Alike in Pariah – instead of longing for belonging, though, Ruby is fighting for a freedom her husband resents.
The bus driver who takes her to work, Brian (David Oyelowo), recognizes her on the street. He remembers her schedule. He summons the courage to ask her out. Their chemistry, awkwardness, and naked attraction to one another is reminiscent of the sweet charm of 2008's Medicine for Melancholy.
The common stories of black women in love in film make it hard not to wait for a dark underbelly to this film, the harsh contrast of a heart breaking open with the overkill of raunchiness in place of intimate vulnerability. DuVernay allows us to imagine the details, letting the sensuality of a kiss display the depths of a connection. It is the kind of passion that another wife, a Pacific Islander, expresses when she briefly describes breaking the prison rules because she misses her man. She just couldn't help herself, she confesses with a smile. Ruby knows what her friend means, and we see her glowing smile. We wonder if she will ever choose that kind of love for herself again.
There are no easy laughs or simple rom-com moments in Middle of Nowhere, but that's part of what makes it shine. The random characters that would disrupt vulnerability pop up to remind us that claiming self-possession in the midst of intimate affairs can often be treacherous. Derek's baby's mother appears to remind Ruby about child support money owed, for instance; and an old friend of Derek's confronts Ruby about her transformation from dutiful wife to a woman returning to herself—and, maybe, to Brian.
By the end of Middle of Nowhere, we are rooting for Ruby's choice. The film's running time is just an hour and 39 minutes, but DuVernay's steady, disciplined eye stretches out the time so that it feels longer, like a delicious, decadent meal. There is a prince in this fairy tale that comes to save Ruby, but what makes the film soar is the likely possibility that she will show up to save herself, and it's worth the wait to watch how she does it, if she will.
Likewise, it has been worth the wait to see what it means to be a black tender woman now, in the most common of circumstances, uncommonly displaying strength by unapologetically laying her weaknesses out in the open.