Black Cinema at Its Most Subtle and Simple

Ava DuVernay avoids melodrama in Middle of Nowhere, ushering in a new type of popular black film.

Kandoo Films
Kandoo Films

(The Root) — With the highest per-screen average of any movie playing this past weekend, Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere might be the forerunner of a new genre in black film: one that favors slow-boiling drama over deep-fried histrionics.

Opening in only five markets, Middle of Nowhere pulled in “a healthy” $13,000 per-location average, according to Entertainment Weekly. On Friday the film got a heavy stamp of approval from Oprah Winfrey, whose Facebook page read, “I saw the film and was so moved by it. I think you will be too.”

Winfrey also happens to be a big supporter of Hollywood’s most bankable black entertainer, Tyler Perry — a very different filmmaker from DuVernay, who won a best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The creator of the Madea franchise — who, for his part, is ditching the housedress for a detective badge in this month’s thriller Alex Cross — found success by employing a far more melodramatic flair in his films.

But will DuVernay’s critically acclaimed Middle of Nowhere provide a middle-of-the-road route to success that has been blocked for black dramatic filmmakers and actors seemingly stuck between extremes: period dramas and Perry’s melodramatic stage plays-turned-feature films, or gangster tales that haven’t changed since Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend’s 1987 send-up of cinematic stereotypes?

Praising the familiarity of the film’s main character, Ruby, a woman who drops out of medical school to help her jailed husband, the New York Times’ Manola Darghis writes: “Ruby lives in a recognizable world of familiar pleasures, disappointing setbacks and everyday struggles. Ruby also lives in Compton, a city directly southeast of Los Angeles and probably best known to most Americans as the backdrop for gangsta entertainments.

“The Compton in ‘Middle of Nowhere,’ ” continues Darghis, “by contrast, is an ordinary, nondescript place with the usual sad swaying palm trees and working people nodding to one another while they wait for a bus.”

Buses play a huge role in the film, driving Ruby, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, from one dead end to another — first to a job in place of a career and then to a jail in place of a marriage. It isn’t until she meets Brian (played by David Oyelowo) that the motif of moving finally gives Ruby’s story some inertia.