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

Brian, who drives one of the buses on Ruby’s regular route, hits the pause button on her cruise control. He forces her, with little force, really, to stop and take a look at the life she hasn’t been living. But Ruby is hesitant: “You see my ring, right?” He does: “A ring doesn’t always mean … ” And the space in that unfinished statement — what’s left to hang — is the room Ruby needs to breathe.

But there are more obstacles as Ruby tries to get from point A to point B. Her mother is the biggest speed bump. Played with casual ferocity by Lorraine Toussaint (most recently seen guesting on ABC’s Scandal), Ruby’s mother is a bulldozer just doing its job: trying to clear out the dilapidated to make room for new construction.

When Ruby needs money for her jailed husband’s attorney, her mother doesn’t hesitate to write the check or lay on the guilt. But when she sees her daughter’s head bowed with the weight of it all, she demands, “Hold your head up,” then exits stage right without another kind word. Eventually the two will come to emotional blows, with Ruby finally going off like a tea kettle.

As I sat in the theater, I kept thinking of how many Rubys there are — how many women who go about their lives quietly, taking on huge burdens and asking for little more than equal passion from the people they’re fighting for. And how those women are depicted in films from American Violet to Precious as somehow born into the holes they have to climb out of.

But in this muted film about love and liability, DuVernay tells Ruby’s recognizable story without any of the tired tropes about black women, single mothers or dreams deferred. DuVernay gives the audience no straight lines — only poetic glimpses of what life could be if only.

It’s almost revolutionary that Ruby’s choices are just that: choices. Bad decisions followed by desperate decisions followed, hopefully, by a few good ones. That’s what lends the film its unobtrusive ingenuity, this idea that regular ol’ people cause themselves regular ol’ drama — no matter their race. There are no histrionics — just the story of what happens when your life goes off the rails, and how to get it back.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

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