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Middle of Nowhere public premiere @ LA Film Festival
"It’s intimate, it’s elegant, it’s woman-focused and it’s colorful. It’s of rare hue and emotional nuance." MIDDLE OF NOWHERE had its first screening since Sundance at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Wednesday evening. Angela Bassett, guest host for the evening, calls it a gem.
The film went fairly under the radar at Sundance, even though director Ava DuVernay won the Sundance award for best directing in drama, but Los Angeles Film Festival director Stephanie Allain knew she wanted to put it in the spotlight here, where it's one of three gala screenings.
“I’m really nervous,” said Duvernay as she introduced the film. “Maybe it’s because this is my hometown. Maybe it’s because there are over 1,000 of us here...But it’s probably the Angela Bassett factor.” Bassett showed up just to support the film.
DuVernay is the first African American to win the Sundance award for Best Directing.
"Stephanie Allain is a doer," said DuVernay. "She said, 'This is a small story, but it’s an important story, and we're going to put it where it should be, in the spotlight."'
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is a love story, "a difficult love story" of a happily married woman, Ruby, who's husband becomes incarcerated. As his life must go on hold for his 8 year sentence, she visits him often-- and decides her life will go on hold too. "Ruby," played by first time feature actor Emayatzy Corinealdi, is wrapped up deep- in love with "Derek," played by Omari Hardwick (who looks like a young Denzel Washington). Ruby has an inner strength and her eyes only see through the lens of the glossy world of romance--nothing else matters. She is removed, and untouchable beyond that love. When Derek is resistant to the idea of her stopping med school, he urges her to live her own life. "You ARE me," she tells him.
“It’s about love and separation, and how separation forces us to find ourselves..." says DuVernay.
Ruby's removal is well displayed through her relationship with her mother, remarkably played by Lorraine Toussaint. The two can't have a real conversation, Ruby's mother can't get a clear word out of her. At one point after Derek's been in a fight in jail, Ruby skips work to stay home and wait for his phone call. "He's going through a tough time," she tells her mother. "Oh he's going through a tough time?" her mother retorts. She is upset to see her daughter sacrifice her life, but her concern doesn't come out the right way, and instead of helping the situation she seems to make it worse.
"Relationships between mothers and daughters are complicated," said Toussaint during a Q&A after the show. "I'm a daughter and I'm a mother. I know both sides. There's lots of misguided love, often the love pushes instead of pulls."
The film is so deep, so personal, so well acted. DuVernay makes it look easy, and I think that's in part due to how she works with her intuition. This is exemplified by the cast. They hardly rehearsed together much at all, but that didn't hurt anything. "We just accepted that we were a family and we just started working and loving each other," said Toussaint.
Because of that intuition and the obviousness that DuVernay knows herself, as a writer/ director she easily delves into personal issues like love, and power. Besides Ruby and her mom, there are many what DuVernay calls, "power shifts" within the movie. "People don't realize the power they have themselves, and with each other" says DuVernay. "That's what disfunction is, not knowing where to put your power, or what it is..."
Ruby and Derek are in a disfunctional power play. "Misery loves company," said Hardwick during Q&A. In his role he had to manipulate Ruby. "What man hasn't tried to take power from a vulnerable woman?" he asked.
Ruby must be in practically ever scene. Because of her solo path of inner strength, the story has a loneliness to it. But it's so well done, we don't feel sad for Ruby's loneliness, we feel lonely too.
The power of that loneliness comes from DuVernay, who was able to write this story because she has a similar loneliness inside. Her family is in another state, she explained. “I have a deep loneliness and longing" all the time.
It is perhaps that loneliness too that at least in part makes DuVernay such a good director. Hardwick said he feels that she has just the right balance of family and loneliness. Because actors, on a solo quest, are lonely too, and they can relate. Perhaps you have to have a certain amount of loneliness inside to make great art. Because it's from that raw place, that deep sad place, that most basic place, that people truly relate the most. Hardwick let on to how DuVernay directed him. "Make this a lonely boy," she said. And that brought his character to life.
Hardwick also believes what makes Duvernay such a great director is her confidence. "Often directors are insecure," he says. "From an actor's perspective, we have to deal with insecure directors who write characters that are really secure. Ava is just as confident as the roles she writes."
Be it loneliness, or intuition, whatever it is, DuVernay did something right. I haven't been this moved by a piece of art since I don't remember when. It's the kind of movie where the filmmaking is so personal and the acting so good that you start to breathe with the protagonist. Every move she makes you make, you feel her anguish. And there is anguish. At one point in the movie Ruby goes to see Derek after not seeing him in two months. What is the first thing you say to your love after not seeing them in months? We hold our breath as we wait to find out. You're so wrapped up in the movie that time is warped-- a full minute goes by in a breath. Then you catch yourself and think, how long has it been? Somewhere in the middle of the film I thought to myself, "I don't want this to end."
It's really well shot, the soundtrack is incredible. "Black films have great soundtracks," says DuVernay to a laugh from the audience.
"I fell in love with this character on the page. It's not what Ava wrote, it's what she didn't write," says Toussaint. The intution, instinct, trust, and lack of rehearsals let the actors explore their roles themselves.
Q&A moderator Elvis Mitchell asked the cast whether they are worried that since this is an all black cast that it will have limited exposure. Corinealdi says she's not concerned. "I'm concerned," said Duvernay. "But let me worry about that," she said to Corinealdi.
DuVernay talked about how statistically it is just the case that white people don't see all black movies. DuVernay asked the audience to identify recent black movies that are popular. "Men in Black," one audience member called out.
I think Corinealdi is not concerned because she knows DuVernay, who has a background in distribution, will take this film places. DuVernay says it's all about exposure. She used the term "visual vocabulary." We have to "train the audience to see black people in this environment." She spoke of having to cultivate this, with purpose, and intention, as a movement.
"There's a reason we haven't seen these kind of films in distribution yet," says Toussaint. "There's a problem." But the studios aren't going to do the legwork to figure out why not. "We've got to do it ourselves, and I think we will." That's what's so exciting about DuVernay, she's DOing it.
"I never thought we'd see a black president," said Toussaint.
"But how sad is it that we have a black president but Angela Bassett doesn't have an Oscar on her shelf?" asked Hardwick.
Sitting in the theater I felt like I was part of something. Watch out world for Ms. Duvernay.
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE took 7 years to make. It will be wide - released in theaters this October. Watch the trailer here.
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