“It was beautiful,” interjects Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays the film’s protagonist, Ruby. “It was overwhelmingly beautiful, their reaction.”
It’s not surprising that “Middle of Nowhere,” which opened in Washington on Friday, elicits a strong reaction. The quiet, scrupulously observed drama, anchored by a galvanizing breakout performance by Corinealdi, gives viewers an intimate portrait of contemporary life that is neither self-consciously naturalistic and or glossily romanticized. Rather, it gains its considerable cumulative power by telling its bittersweet truths simply, with sensitivity and an understated but elegant visual vocabulary.
On its face, “Middle of Nowhere” shouldn’t necessarily be a rarity. But as a contemporary drama by an African American woman, about working-class black people who aren’t gangsters, victims or entertainers, “Middle of Nowhere” is blazing trails aesthetically and narratively. DuVernay is part of a growing cadre of filmmakers of color — including Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”), Dee Rees (“Pariah”), Tanya Hamilton (“Night Catches Us”) and Andrew Dosunmu (“Restless City”) who are creating a new vernacular for black cinema, one that owes as much to the white independent tradition of John Cassavetes, John Sayles and Richard Linklater as to such African American pioneers as Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, John Singleton and Spike Lee.
“If I gave you a list of all the films that have been released by studios in the last five years, you’d have less than 10 percent that are contemporary dramatic representations of black people,” DuVernay says. “You’re going to have historical drama, you’re going to have Jackie Robinson, you’re going to have ‘The Great Debaters’ and ‘Red Tails,’ everything in hindsight. And you’re going to have contemporary comedy, which is useful and should be there. But no contemporary dramas, and that’s the stake that these filmmakers are planting.”
In creating films that occupy a singular space, both in terms of content (recognizably real life in 21st-century America) and form (perhaps best described as artful realism), DuVernay and her peers are also cultivating a particular audience — welcoming black filmgoers to consider small, non-star-driven movies and challenging white, art-house crowds to reconsider their own assumptions.