The Sundance Institute, with its annual Sundance Film Festival, has been a major showcase for independent films. According to their website and other official sources, “Since 1981, Sundance Institute has evolved to become an internationally-recognized nonprofit organization that actively advances the work of risk-taking storytellers worldwide. Originally founded by Robert Redford in the mountains of Sundance, Utah, the Sundance Institute has always provided a space for independent artists to explore their stories free from commercial and political pressures.” “Since 1985, hundreds of films that have been launched at the Festival have gained critical recognition, received commercial distribution, and reached worldwide audiences eager for fresh perspectives and new voices. Year after year, the Festival pursues new ways to introduce more people to the most original and authentic storytelling”.

One such amazing African American voice honored by the Sundance Festival as their Best Director of 2012 is Ava DuVernay. Her 2012 film gem, Middle of Nowhere, is a remarkable character study that explores the troubled times Ruby Murray (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a married woman whose husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) is serving an eight year prison sentence, while she tries to stay in medical school, and after many frustrations, develops a new relationship with Brian (David Oyelowo), a caring LA public transit bus driver.

Duvernay’s Middle of Nowhere is a casually paced story that avoids most modern clichés and truly takes the time for honest character development and the creation of empathy for its characters. DuVernay, who also wrote her own screenplay, focuses on the serious true-life dilemmas Ruby faces: seeking proper legal advice for her husband’s early parole, placing her developing career on hold, seeking advice and support from a sister Rosie (Edwina Findley) and her sometimes, very critical mother Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint), and then after several setbacks, dealing with a wonderful new man in her life.

As the relationship between Ruby and Brian develops, and each reveals important issues of their past relationships, Ruby introspectively questions herself and knows she has hard choices to face.  She could wait four more years for Derek, the man she’s spent so much of her life with, or turn a new leaf.  The film concludes with no easy solution, as Ruby notes she’ll have no easy answers.

Corinealdi delivers a finely tempered performance as Ruby. She’s thoughtful, soft spoken, yet determined. Duvernay frequently blends images of probing close ups of Ruby’s reflective facial expressions with that of Ruby’s flashback memories of beautiful times with Derek, while complementing these with the subtle use of Kathryn Bostic’s musical score – all of which creates tremendous sympathy for Ruby.  The English born David Oyelowo, who gave an impressive performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in DuVernay’s Selma, is very effective as the understanding Brian. Toussaint’s Ruth gives a strong impression of a woman of wisdom; she’s a “no nonsense” experienced person with a deep sense of realistic pride.

DuVernay has previously made the powerful I Will Follow (2010) and since gone on to make Oscar nominated Selma (2014). With the somewhat overlooked Middle of Nowhere, she continues to be one of the more intriguing and important female directors working today.

About The Author

Syd Slobodnik

Syd Slobodnik has been writing for Illini Media publications since 1975: for The Daily Illini from 1975 to 1978 and from 1984 to 1988, and for buzz since 2003. Syd teaches numerous film courses at the University of Illinois in the English Department. He also cohosts a monthly television program which reviews old films that remind you of recent films you may have seen, called "If You Liked, You'll Love" on the Parkland Channel.

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