Middle of Nowhere
Middle of Nowhere is beautifully drawn and poetically written. It teaches about family, race, character and the often unknowable arc of a life, without becoming pedantic or pretending to have answers.
The film opens in the middle of nowhere, setting the tone, as a bus arrives at a high security prison set outside the perimeter of everyday life where society's pariahs are contained. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi, whose beauty rivals Lena Horne and Halle Berry) has come, as have other devoted women, to visit her man who is serving time. Ruby radiates hope for her recently married husband Derek (Omari Hardwick, who fills the screen with the body of a NFL fullback, the face of a poet -- which he happens to be outside the theatre -- and a voice reminiscent of Denzel Washington); it is early on in his nine-year sentence, and she bursts with love, resilience -- and self-deception. She is a registered nurse who had begun medical school. Forget about becoming a doctor if you need to earn money to pay for your husband's legal fees and child support from a previous marriage as well as dedicate yourself to the cause of his early release; plus, it is hard to get the on-call schedule to conform to regular visits to the prison, two hours away each way, and to be free for daily phone calls from her inmate husband.
The United States has the highest rates of incarceration in the world: Recent data indicate that about 1 in about 30 men and women over 18 (7.3 million people) were imprisoned or on probation or parole. Nine percent of black adults are in prison compared to about 4 percent of Latinos and 2.2 percent of whites. Black men have the longest sentences, which add to their high rates behind bars. Their plight is furthered as 35 percent of blacks are living in poverty, unlike whites at 13 percent. Children are not spared, creating generations of poverty as 38 percent of blacks under 18 are living in poverty, while the national average is 22 percent, leaving this still prosperous country with little to be proud of.
Ruby is from a family of women. Her father is absent. Her mother, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint), is living arduously on her own, painfully distanced by her two daughters. Ruby's sister, Rosie (Edwina Findley), is a tough-minded, single mother of a young boy, whose father is also nowhere to be found and whose only uncle is locked up. These three women are seemingly going nowhere with meager financial and emotional provisions and a boy who will absorb their pain, putting him at risk for an uncertain future. Welcome to too much of black America.
But Ruby has something special. She is smart -- smart enough to get into medical school -- and has not been bled of the hope that is critical to finding an exit from the virtual prison of poverty, dissipated families, violence, incarceration and ill health that blighted urban neighborhoods spawn, and that produce the lost lives and social burden that so deeply ail this country.
Prison changes people, and usually not for the good. Prison changes those within its walls, and their families. Derek, a non-violent felon, learns to survive inside by becoming a prison gang member and maintaining criminal contacts outside for the money this will provide his family. Prisoners' wives are called "women in waiting" who try to raise children with no money and no man. Their rates of physical and mental illnesses are high.
Ruby has her profession and occasions upon a man, Brian (David Oyelowo, whose credits include award-winning performances in the Royal Shakespeare Company), who makes her feel beautiful and not alone. The arc of her life begins to change as spousal betrayal and everyday opportunity collide and begin to lift her from her slavish rut. But her devotion runs deep to those whose life is compromised, as it is in her family and community. She becomes even more in the middle of nowhere.
Director, writer and producer Ava DuVernay (winner for Best Director at Sundance this year), is the grand painter and author of this cinematic tableau. It is the kind of fiction that Philip Roth said, to paraphrase, is not so, but so very true. After doing documentary work, DuVernay retrieved and developed this script which had sat idle for years. The narrative we observe on the screen thus combines the eye of a field worker with her gift for literary composition.
I wonder: Were the cast too beautiful? But who wouldn't want to look at Emayatzy Corinealdi all day, or her hulk of a husband, or the man who later declares that he wants to be part of her future? Or her sister, Rosie, who still has the luster of youth. Even their mother seemed to me more like a high school principal than a poor black woman. Maybe their attractiveness makes them more accessible to an audience like me?
Middle of Nowhere is yet another remarkable film supported by a Social Action Campaign from Participant Media (Company With a Conscience). Participant's films include The Kite Runner, Charlie Wilson's War, An Inconvenient Truth, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Visitor, The Soloist, Waiting for "Superman," Fair Game, Page One: Inside The New York Times, The Help, Contagion, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the forthcoming Lincoln. Their campaign for this film aims to address prison phone rates (that can exceed $200 a month) that prey on the families and friends of those who are incarcerated. They have found another just cause, an example of how inequity breeds injustice.
Where do we find Ruby as time goes by and more years stare her in the face before Derek stands a chance of release? In the middle of nowhere. She is not able to leave him emotionally and also not able to sacrifice her life for him. But a serenity, different from what her sister and mother display, embraces her face. We leave her, or she us, at a bus stop. She says, with warmth and resolve, "Good morning."
Dr. Sederer's book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, will be published by WW Norton in the spring of 2013.
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
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