One of the most talked-about narrative films at Sundance this year was Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere. It ended up being one of those films you seem to hear about from fellow festivalgoers on every bus trip through Park City, and DuVernay ended up winning the Best Director award for the festival. It’s a tender drama featuring a predominantly African American cast, and it opens this week in theaters.
For DuVernay, the concept for the film began with relationships. “I was definitely interested in exploring this idea of love unanchored and what happens when we are separated from the thing we identify with most,” she says. “And most of the time, that’s the people in our lives, our relationships. That’s how we define ourselves. So I was really playing with the idea of going through the loss of a loved one through her passing the time: ‘Who am I now? How do I redefine?’”
DuVernay grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and the particulars of the story were drawn from a situation she saw all too much growing up—a situation that’s unfortunately all too common even today. “It’s a story about a woman whose husband is unexpectedly separated from her because of his incarceration,” she says, “and really her journey to rediscover herself. Being from Compton I really watched firsthand so many women struggling with incarceration and the victimization of that, from their perspective. So, that all got added into the stew of the screenplay.”
The powerful lead performance comes courtesy of Emayatzy Corinealdi in her first lead role. It’s a performance of striking vulnerability, and Corinealdi credits DuVernay for helping her find the courage to explore the character in that way. “I think first it starts with feeling safe enough with Ava that I could be that vulnerable. Especially the times when she was pushing me. I like to be pushed, like most actors, to do more, to go further. There was a safety in that that I felt like I could trust in. So I took my own experiences and brought them to the character. It allowed me to be able to just let it all hang out. Honestly, because this kind of role, you kind of have to act the way it’s written. I felt like I couldn’t fail if I just trusted in that and just laid it all bare.”
Of course, that courage goes both ways. DuVernay wrote a script with lots of silences, and had to trust her actors with those silences. “You know, I love films where I get to just see people make connections that are not verbalized,” she says. “I love films with these kind of open spaces where you can actually see people thinking and working it out, quieter films where everything’s not on the nose. Unfortunately, we don’t see a lot of those films with black and brown faces. Someone wrote that it was radical to see black people thinking as much as you see them thinking in this film, and it’s true, you know? But the fact that that’s radical is really a problem and something that I want to normalize.
“It’s amazing,” DuVernay continues, “that you have this perception of what black people can and do in film, and it really affects the way we see ourselves and the way that we’re seen by others. So our goal with this film was really to populate the film with faces and bodies, and you know, brilliant talent to bring people into the heart of this woman—into her head, into the moments when she’s not telling you what exactly is going on, she’s just there, and letting that unfold.”
As you might expect, the role calls for an awful lot of heaviness, and Corinealdi acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy. “We shot this in 19 days,” she points out. “This is my first lead in a feature and there’s so much depth that you had to go to in the film. So it made me feel like, ‘Oh boy, can you do this?’ That’s when I just really had to rely on Ava and really trust in everything because I knew that we’re on a very tight schedule and you may not get a second, third, fourth take, you know? You just have to come and be ready as much as possible. So in that sense, it was difficult, but I felt that once I really got to the root of who Ruby was and what she was doing, in that sense, that gelled together pretty quickly.”
For most directors, just making a film accomplished enough to get accepted to Sundance is the thrill of a lifetime. In Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay and Corinealdi accomplish a lot more than that.