Writer-Director Ava DuVernay’s second feature, Middle of Nowhere, is all about faces—black faces in extreme close-up. Ruby is a nurse whose husband, Derek, is serving time in prison. She’s put her own life on hold, delaying medical school, giving up a social life to visit him every weekend, working nights to take his phone calls during the day (one of DuVernay’s many fresh and telling details), and managing the thick file of paperwork related to his case. The camera is tight on Ruby’s face as she makes her way through her days and nights. Sometimes the camera is so close, Ruby’s face blurs in the foreground and the memory/fantasy of her husband lying beside her is the only image we can clearly see. The camera insists on remaining intimately near, demanding that we observe Ruby breathe, think, feel.
The film plays with time in a few scenes with flash-forwards to underscore that Ruby’s current life is out-of-time. Early on DuVernay intercuts Ruby’s travelling to the prison to visit Derek with the visit itself, echoing the disjointed time of the love scenes in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. This technique evokes the repetitive cycle of Ruby’s life as she seems stuck in a virtual waiting room. She is also, as the surprising flashback sequence near the end reveals, deliberately sacrificing her present existence to atone for her own perceived sins. When Ruby finds herself attracted to Brian, a bus driver she meets on her lengthy commute, she is suddenly faced with having to make decisions about not just her present but her future as well. Brian promises her he is going to work to be “what’s happening next” for Ruby, but he doesn’t know he’s talking to a woman trying to stand still. The path forward that Ruby needs to discover is a third way. She isn’t standing by a no-good man, as her mother criticizes her for, nor is she able to walk away from him. She insists the marriage is a unique bond, intensely erotic and romantic and grounded in the sense of being partners in a joint venture. Ruby does everything the judicial and corrections systems ask of her and she does it dutifully—because she understands it is what needs to be done to free her husband.
DuVernay’s close-ups reinforce Ruby’s humanity as she makes her dutiful way through the legal process, reminding us there are human beings on both sides of prison bars. The inequities of these systems and of African-American life in Compton, CA are, for DuVernay, casually integrated details of everyday existence, yet also hold their power as obstacles in Ruby’s path. Ruby’s mother and sister seem to be forever angry about their lot, but Ruby goes through her paces patiently—until she learns that her husband has betrayed their promise to each other. This is her release from the time she has been doing on the outside as well her compass to guide her along that unique path between what others impose and what is right for her.
The landmark independent film Nothing But A Man (1964) offers a similarly intimate story of people trying to figure out their lives within an oppressive system. Nothing But A Man focuses on a laborer trying to walk his own path between submission and resistance. In much the same way Middle of Nowhere revises the “stand by your man” trope, Nothing But A Man revises the “how to be a man” narrative for African-Americans. And, like in Middle of Nowhere, director Michael Roemer gives us full-frontal faces to explore in Nothing But A Man.
Writing on the film often focuses on Abbey Lincoln’s role as Josie, but the film’s title gives its true focus away. It is the unique evolution of Ivan Dixon’s Duff, like Ruby’s in Middle of Nowhere, that fascinates and surprises us, his face registering first ease and confidence and then struggle and rage. Duff is a railroad hand working in Alabama who’s been in the army as well as “up north” and moves easily through his world. He is harassed and threatened by racists in a series of incidents and resists by neither submitting to them nor outright confronting them.
Two father figures offer choices for Duff—Josie’s submissive, bowing preacher father and Duff’s own drunk, ruined runaway father—but, as with Ruby, he requires a third way. Duff finds this alternative path through Josie. While the growing civil rights movement remains off-camera, Josie represents that progressive impulse. She is educated, works in her community, and has contempt for both her submissive father and the white men he bows to. She practices a kind of non-violent resistance by asserting she doesn’t hate the racist whites around her.
Duff struggles when he finds he can’t provide for the pregnant Josie because he’s been blackballed as a troublemaker by the white employers in town. Torn between two avenues—the unattached man who destroys himself or the passive non-man who submits to the dominant society—Duff first abandons Josie, before figuring out how he wants to live, and then returns to her. He has buried his father, claimed a once-abandoned son from another woman, and returned to self-respect and a road that he, with her support, will fashion on his own terms.
The final scene of Duff’s return makes him and his family whole. Josie embraces him and it is her face, weeping with joy, half-buried in his shoulder that we linger on. He has his back to the camera, but it is in her face that we see what he has accomplished and who he has chosen to be: his own man.
In Middle of Nowhere, as at the end of Nothing But A Man, we watch Ruby give her husband an extended and deeply erotic farewell kiss, which she knows is forbidden by the rules for visiting prisoners. This act parallels Duff’s return home in that it is Ruby’s declaration of self and of life on her own terms. The camera is close on Ruby and her husband’s faces as their entire story transmits itself across their features and across the large screen in front of us, drawing us in once again. The resolutions of these intimate and emotional films may be different, but both are testaments to characters who are nothing but humans struggling to live—and we witness it, in close-up, in their faces.
Middle of Nowhere opened in theaters on October 12, 2012. Nothing But A Man is available on DVD and was recently in revival at Film Forum.