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.
Teaser trailer below: