“Middle of Nowhere,” written and directed by 2012 Sundance Film Festival best director winner Ava DuVernay, paints a very touching and thought-provoking portrait of what can happen in the lives of women who put everything on the line for their incarcerated lovers. From the onset of the film, the audience is clear on the fact that only the man is imprisoned but his wife — through her many sacrifices — has volunteered to do time with him.
While the critically-acclaimed independent film has been praised for being void of the melodrama often found in black cinema, its subtlety shouldn’t overshadow the fact that it bravely gives voice to an often untold story. DuVernay’s cinematic drama depicts women who unknowingly morph into ”martyrs” for love by putting their lives on hold to sustain relationships with men behind bars.
As Ruby (newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi) and her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) sit across from one another in the visiting room of a prison, they discuss what his eight-year sentence will mean for their marriage. Ruby lays out all the sacrifices she is willing to make to ensure her accessibility and undivided commitment, which include but are not limited to dropping out of medical school. While Derek begs her not to be a “martyr” by paying for his mistakes with her life, Ruby sets her heart on his sentence getting lessened to five years due to good behavior.
We don’t know why her husband is in prison early on nor how long they had known one another prior to his incarceration, but we do know that Ruby believes he is worth the sacrifice. Surrounding herself only with the female family members in her life, she gets through each day by gripping hold of memories of Derek and imagining his presence.
Yet, loneliness becomes an inescapable reality for her, as his side of the bed remains empty every night. Deprived of physical intimacy for years as she awaits her husband’s release, Ruby also goes without unconditional love and affirmation from her no-nonsense mother Ruth (Lorraine Touissant). When kind words and adoration do come her way via a sweet-talking, persistent bus driver named Brian (David Oyelowo), she is quick to raise her wedding band as a badge of nonnegotiable loyalty.
Time and time again, we see Ruby fighting on behalf of a husband who won’t fight for himself. Her own professional aspirations take a back seat, as she works tirelessly for his release, without any guarantee of a return on her investment. Derek promises to protect her once he’s out, but what will that do for her in the meantime? Ruby walks a tight rope of self-denial, self-blame and hope in better days ahead, as red flags about Derek’s true character continue to be waived in her face.
It’s only when the truth confronts her in undeniable and earth-shattering ways that she finally begins to see things for what they are — messy and uncertain. Her journey toward self-actualization is launched by betrayal. Amid the chaos, Ruby struggles to maintain a sense of self-dignity and hope. It’s in that struggle that we see her finally focus in on her own needs and desires. We see her begin to experience life and love in real time vs. allowing herself to be a prisoner held captive by Derek’s fate.
Ruby’s journey may not immediately resonate, but her story reflects a truth about us all. We all have the capacity to allow love to have an all-consuming effect on us. As she did, we too can so easily forget where our lover ends and where we begin. Her inability to “see two feet in front of [her]" mirrors anyone who has ever been clouded by romantic idealism. It’s likely that we too have at some point failed to act on what we knew to be right, ignoring the instincts that may have spared us from pain and heartbreak.
It’s important to remember that it’s often in these dark seasons that life propels us to a place previously unimaginable. For Ruby, that place was one of uncertainty, but also options. She didn’t always choose wisely but she gained her life back the minute she realized that she wasn’t an innocent bystander, experiencing the blows of life without any power to change matters. Ruby regained control over life the day she realized she had some decisions to make; she had agency.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter, @RahielT .
More from The Root DC