After living with my partner for two years, and after spending the past month in a PhD program where conversations on gender and sexuality are constant, I have become more aware of the way in which my life conforms to rather conventional gender norms. I do most of the cleaning, (though gratefully for both of us, I am not expected to cook), I wear an engagement ring signifying my “taken” status, and because of my unconventional academic schedule I often feel like a housewife as I welcome my future hubby home from work. My social life, while never robust, has tightened around my partner, our families, and the home I have been so focused on creating. And while I don’t necessarily see a problem with making him a priority, I have been challenging myself to spend more time talking to girlfriends, to not always consider my fiancé my first option when I want to take someone to an event, to go places in a social capacity on my own. It was quite an achievement for me to spread my independent social wings twice in one weekend, heading first to Art Walk downtown and then to Sunset Sundance Cinemas for a screening of “Middle of Nowhere” followed by a Q & A with writer-director Ava DuVernay. DuVernay is the first African American woman to win Sundance’s “Best Director Award,” a well-deserved honor, and it was wonderful to get a chance to have an opportunity to hear directly from her after the screening. Q&As can often go one of two ways, a swoony rave fest or pretentious picking game, but I found this one to be meaty and productive. The director refused to answer affirmatively on story questions, which I had many of, but it was probably for the best. Rather than color the movie for future viewers, she allowed the ambiguities and questions to hang, as they did in the film, and as they do in real life.
This story of a young woman who withdraws from medical school to focus on supporting her incarcerated husband is beautifully filmed, slow paced and complex. It focuses not only on a husband and wife dealing with the pressures that African American families disproportionately face but the complex interactions between mothers, daughters, and sisters. Lorraine Toussaint, who was also at the Q&A, was particularly powerful as a mother whose longing to connect with her daughters battles with the realities she would like to create for them, if she had control. The back story of this family and the reasons for Derek’s incarceration remain cloudy. No artificial expository techniques serve to spoil the realistic unfolding of Ruby’s day to day existence. The film focuses on her struggle to define her identity in the context of a union that has subsumed her life. I see the film as a story not only about a woman fighting for her love, but a woman struggling to perform the identity of good wife. The presence of her large diamond ring constantly signals her tenuous grip on that performance. The ring and flashback glimpses into the lifestyle that they shared offer hints as to how the pressure to play the role of provider is implicated in her husband's current predicament. Ruby's relationship with a charming bus driver is not just about loneliness, romance, or revenge; it both threatens her status as good wife and offers a way back to the person she used to be. Allowing Black women a kind of complexity we rarely get to see in ourselves on screen, this film interrogates the price of love and the limits of “for better or worse.”