(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.
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.