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Sundance 2012 Review - "Middle Of Nowhere" (aka "Nothing But A Woman")

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by Tambay A. Obenson
January 23, 2012 4:14 PM
10 Comments
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It's an unfortunate testament of the time we live in when a film that takes an adult, mature, sincere, if realistic look at relationships between black men and black women could be viewed as dare I say radical.

And this isn't hyperbole; seriously.

Think of recently produced and released *black films* that center on the interactions between grown-ass men and grown-ass women (primarily studio films; although, to be frank, even on the indie front, some black filmmakers seem to believe that mimicking commercial cinema is the path of least resistance); those films are often rather juvenile, simplistic depictions of how we connect and relate to one another; and the usually lean towards the comedic, as if there's some fear of facing, head-on (as an adult should), with honesty and maturity, the sometimes severity of this thing called life.

It's refreshing to be able to see oneself and those you surround yourself with on the screen. You know and recognize these people, even if their predicaments are completely different from yours; there's just an understanding there that resonates as familiar, yet still astonishing (if only because of how rare it is to see), and in the end satisfies.

Some of you will likely recognize the film reference I made in the heading of this review; the still very much groundbreaking (even today, some 48 years later) 1964 film Nothing But A Man, starring Ivan Dixon as our "man" and the lovely Abbey Lincoln.

Those who've seen that film will recall, again, the adult and sensual ways in which the material is handled. Like Middle Of Nowhere (MON) it's a quiet, introspective, even slow-burn of a movie, seemingly and gradually gathering strength (and getting all-the-better for it) as it progresses; and not only the film as a work of art, but also the central characters within each; one wanting to be acknowledged as "nothing but man;" the other, in MON, as nothing but a woman, strong and with pride - treated with the same kind of humanity and respect that she (played beautifully by Emayatzy Corinealdi) gives willingly; nothing more; but also nothing less.

Rudimentary. It doesn't get much simpler than that; yet we have a funny way of dirtying things up, even when they're perfect, as if there's a fear that that perfection is false and/or ephemeral.

You get lost in Ava Duvernay's sophomore effort, as these people you're watching feel so real, you're consumed with their individual plights; when they feel heartache, you stomach gets all tied up in knots; when they're joyous, you smile, and maybe even a tear or two slides down one or both cheeks. Because you're connected and you care, which speaks to the abilities of the filmmaker, cast and crew.

I won't rehash the film's plot; you can easily look it up. While it certainly has a engaging narrative, I found myself more captivated by mood, and feeling of individual moments throughout the film. I'd even go further and say that the any astute viewer could predict the film's general progression once you start watching it, and the core characters are introduced.

However, I'd also say that as with her fictional feature film debut, I Will Follow, Ms Duvernay seems to understand the importance of singular MOMENTS (intentional emphasis) within each film that really grab onto you and are thus memorable.

In the first film, as I noted in my review of it, the MOMENT was that intimate, revelatory scene between Omari Hardwick's character and Salli Richardson-Whitfield's, which ends in an unexpected series of admissions and indictments, that anyone in Richardson-Whitfiled's position would feel walloped by; that moment of, shall we say, regret and rebirth.

MON has two MOMENTS which I obviously won't give away. What I will say is that both of them are heartrending: one a betrayal; the other a release; each character defining.

The success of a film of this nature lies heavily in the performances, because, really, despite Bradford Young's beautiful photography (which is expected and a given), and the perfectly-brooding soundtrack (featuring the likes of Me'shell Ndegeocello and Little Dragon, each so well-timed without being dominating), that's all there is. We've got to believe that these people are who they tell us they are. A single false note could take the audience out of the moment, or the MOMENT and thankfully that doesn't happen here.

As an aside, I should say that British actor David Oyelowo's ability to perfect a kind of what I'd call down-home African American blackness in his speech, was of some concern to me, after seeing Red Tails, which I saw weeks before seeing MON; and I was glad to not have witnessed a repeat of his attempts at a southern-ness in that mediocre - at best - film that I've already expressed contempt for (though his, shall I say, kaleidoscopic accent was the least of that film's problems).

All of the performances in MON are beautifully and simply drawn. The star of the film, Emayatzy Corinealdi, gives a restrained, though affecting performance as Ruby, a woman who stands steadfastly by her man, even as he does everything he can to push her away.

She's fiery when she needs to be, without falling into melodramatic traps; sufficiently sensual and sexual, with facial features (notably the cheekbones, and the inquisitive eyes) that give her character an adorability, which I think only makes it easier for the audience to empathize with her plight; that, and, as already noted, a strong performance of course.

I'm sure we'll be seeing her in even more feature films.

MON is a well-paced, well-written beautiful film (thanks to Bradford Young's work), with an attractive cast delivering strong performances, and a complimentary soundtrack that profiles the life of a prison inmate's wife. To put it simply, it's a deliberate, matured tribute to adulthood - that life phase when we become (or are expected to become) independent, self-reliant (in thought, action and otherwise) decision-making human beings, fully responsible for the choices we make and their repercussions, and coming to terms with who and/or what we are, warts and all.

As for its distribution prospects... I'll just leave you with this...

Serious adult dramas centered on stories of people of African descent aren't exactly in high distribution company demand right now; and I'm talking specifically about mainstream studios and their *indie* subsidiaries.

Nothing but A Man faced similar difficulties when it was ready to enter the market place, despite prominent festival play and critical acclaim; but it's also a film we often look back on (40-something years later) quite fondly, and reference as exemplary of the kind of relationship/character drama (with black faces) that's noticeably lacking in cinema.

We need more films like Middle Of Nowhere, but I just don't think that belief is as widely-held as it probably needs to be; hence the creation of AFFRM.

We'll see.

Teaser trailer below:

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10 Comments

  • Lynn | November 8, 2012 11:50 PMReply

    I am mixed with Hispanic and black but its unfortunate how this movie was not promoted or on the radar.... I felt as though it was an exceptional movie... I wish all the cast members lots of luck... And the soundtrack was amazing triing to find it now...! Coodoos

  • Rashida | February 7, 2012 2:50 AMReply

    I'm trying to locate this film in theaters in Chicago. The only city listed is Park City ,Utah where the population consists of 81% Whites and 0.6%Blacks..... Really. I love a good movie. It's an added bonus when the actors look like me. How can I support African-American films if I can't find them?

  • X Jersey | February 8, 2012 11:45 AM

    "How can I support African-American films if I can't find them?" - You have asked one of the most pivotal questions in black cinema history. I would love to see Middle of Nowhere in a mainstream theater or multiplex but highly doubt it would be there. I will try best to see it in the theaters.

  • auntTT | January 26, 2012 9:31 PMReply

    OMG...are you me? I thought I was the only one who thought that scene between Omari and Salli in 'I Will Follow" was masterful..but then how many people have seen that lovely film?
    As for David Oyelowo - so glad to hear he's not attempting an accent because, aside from all the other problems I had with "Red Tails" (and they were numerous so I'll have to read your review) his accent slippage bugged the hell out of me the whole time. Maybe I'm more attuned to African voices because my stepfather is Ghanaian but I was literally thinking Am I the only one who thinks that this throws off the ENTIRE film? So thank you Tambay, whoever you are. I could see a movie with you anytime LOL

  • urbanauteur | January 25, 2012 2:41 PMReply

    More & more i'm digging this urban auteur, her screenplays are reminiscence of Alice Walker & poet-playwright: Alexis De Veaux, her filmic aethetic places me in a Igmar Bergman,Carl Dreyer or Kenji Mizoguchi visual canvas, all i can say is ..to quo,martin lawrence, you go girl;-)

  • vdub0408 | January 24, 2012 5:33 PMReply

    thank you for this review. i got the reference to the masterful, "nothing but a man" and was encouraged that you compared this new offering of ava duvernay's to it. i am looking forward to seeing a film that shows beautiful brown people in full and complex interactions. and as you point out the sad truth that films of this type are not in "high distribution company demand"; i affirm (!) that i will do what i can to spread the word and get butts in seats! on and up.

  • LeonRaymond | January 23, 2012 7:37 PMReply

    From the review and from Ava's other film, I would say she created a masterful film that is akin to The full scope of a great jazz album that is not watered down or done for sales venue even though it can be dipped in that premise if need be. She created a film akin to listening to Bird or Coltraine, you don't rush it, you take it in and it leaves a visible impact. She just gave us another note from an array of notes that will be splendid viewing, she gave us back the word CINEMA!

  • lil nut | January 23, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    go ava! brilliant concept. looking forward to putting eyes on this one.

  • ... | January 23, 2012 4:20 PMReply

    So...would you say that this film is "good," or not?

  • Nemesis | January 23, 2012 6:10 PM

    My take of this review was: solid performances, good sound-track, and great cinematography.

    A "good" film with two very poignant moments, if somewhat predictable overall.

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