With all the talk within social media circles since Ava DuVernay won best director at the Sundance Film Festival, I cannot remember anticipating a film as much I anticipated Middle of Nowhere. While a testament to the film’s use of social media, my excitement reflected its storyline and its offering of a humanizing story. The New York Times aptly described the film as follows: a “poignant portrait of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a nurse doing hard time in emotional limbo while her husband serves a prison sentence.” The Los Angeles Times summarizes the film’s story as somewhat classic with a story of marital crossroads, personal transformation, and self discovery: “the focus is on the couple’s relationship and, gradually, on a different kind of journey that Ruby is making, the classic one of self-actualization, of finding yourself when you feel emotionally in the middle of nowhere, a journey that allows for no shortcuts or easy answers.” While the film does play upon dominant themes, its embrace of tropes and themes specific to the history of African American film, and its intervention in the hegemony of dehumanizing narratives, especially those surrounding prisons, illustrates a film that is battling and challenging in a myriad of ways.
Middle of Nowhere gives voice to an all-too-familiar circumstance facing million of American families, particularly those of color. It chronicles the impact of mass incarceration on families, living on the outside, with relatives on the inside. According to a report entitled “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” in 2007 America was home to 1.7 million children (under 18) whose parent was being held in state or federal prison – that is 2.3 percent of American children will likely be celebrating father’s day away from dad. Despite hegemonic clamoring about family values, the prison industrial complex continues to ravage American families. Since 1991, the number of children with a father in prison has increased from 881,500 to 1.5 million in 2007. Over this same time period, children of incarcerated mothers increased from 63,900 to 147,400. Roughly half of these children are younger than 9, with 32 percent between the ages of 10 and 14. This reality is not just about children but about families forced to live at a crossroads between lack – of contact, lack of physical contact – and desire – to be free, to touch, to be with family. It is a reality that separates families and pushes members farther and farther apart. On average, children live 100 miles away from their incarcerated parents. This is the same of partners, and other family members, who are dislocated, punished and literally left out in the cold.
Chronicling the story of Ruby and Derek (Omari Hardwick) Middle of Nowhere shines a spotlight on trickle down incarceration, whereupon arrests and imprisonment travel downstream to the detriment of both families and communities. From Ruby’s conflict with her mother over her decision to wait for her husband to be released from prison to her choice to forgo medical school for a career in nursing because of their financial needs; from Derek’s inability to pay child support to his daughter’s mom, to the amount of time families must spend on buses just to remain connected to their loved ones; Middle of Nowhere brilliantly reveals the costs and consequences of mass incarceration. Derek is literally stuck in the middle of nowhere, detached geographically, physically, emotionally – he cannot see his daughter; his wife cannot kiss him. With no his release precarious at best and his future bleak given the lifetime sentences resulting from felony convictions, Derek is resigned to the middle of nowhere, existing without any paths toward freedom or even existence. It is not just Derek and his fellow incarcerated men and women housed in places like Victorville are confined to the middle of nowhere, hidden behind barbered wire fences, walls, and isolation, but their families as well.