MIDDLE OF NOWHERE at the intersection of great storytelling


Ava DuVernay has emerged as one of the most intuitive storytellers in modern times

Celebrated for a growing body of work including THIS IS THE LIFE (her directorial debut), I WILL FOLLOW and MY MIC SOUNDS NICE (a heralded documentary on female rappers), MIDDLE OF NOWHERE –her second feature length film– is DuVernay’s arresting and satisfying drama of love at a crossroads where we find Ruby (newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi), a burgeoning medical student, stymied after her husband’s incarceration for drug dealing and possession charges.

Additional cast members include: Omari Hardwick, David Oyelowo,Edwina-Findley, Dondre Whitfield and Lorraine Toussaint. Music from Goapele.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE took top honors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, receiving the Best Director Award, making DuVernay the first African American to snag the honor and she is still early in the game.  The former film publicist (Dreamgirls, Madagascar, Biker Boyz, among others) says her personal goal is to make one film per year to continue growing as a filmmaker.

Stephanie Allain, film producer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and Director of the Los Angeles Film Festival champions DuVernay, calling her work spectacular. “I respond to positivity and to stories that let us see our potential as human beings, as artists. I respond to stories where art somehow lifts one up; I respond to things that move me. Ava’s Middle of Nowhere lets us see Ruby in a predicament struggling to make the right choice. I like that. I like to see us make the right choice. And, if we make the wrong choice, I like to see us learn from that. Those are the stories that really turn me on.”

No less courageous, Allain continues, “Ava shows that you can transform yourself, your life, by following what you believe in. She decided ‘she had to’ make movies because nobody else was making movies that ‘she’ wanted to see. Many times in Hollywood you’re type cast in a role and she has just burst through all of that becoming the shining example of writer, director, distributor, producer, of the caliber in which she served as publicist.  It’s a pretty spectacular evolution on her part.”

No less spectacular is the role of Ruth, Ruby’s unrelenting mother, brilliantly performed by Toussaint (Lifetime TV’s Any Day Now and Saving Grace).

According to production notes, Toussaint said of DuVernay, “I totally trusted Ava.  She’s a young director who I felt confident with.  I knew I was in good hands.  She knows how to speak to actors and she ‘likes’ actors.  She’s collaborative, not afraid to hand you the reigns and get out of the way, or completely step in and guide.  I love the way that she often keeps the camera rolling.  Sometimes, scenes need a certain momentum.  She knows that and let us have room –even on a tight schedule—which was wonderful.”

Reportedly, DuVernay pulled off the project with a meager $200K, a virtually unheard of film budget for movies on the order of NOWHERE.  Lest we forget, Robert Townsend’s 1987 debut indie film, HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE was made for $100K, principally financed by his own credit cards.

My first person account of DuVernay is in keeping with the chorus having worked with her over the years.  Her mind is a mine of creativity.  Winner of the 2008 Audience Award from the Hollywood Black Film Festival and Pan African Film Festival, she founded AFFRM (www.AFFRM.com), the African American Film Releasing Movement to assist black independent films with marketing, distribution and audience development.

Our conversation follows –

Talk2SV:  Congratulations, I love the movie. I love your character. Based on the thrill and the challenge of playing Ruth, the matriarch who I describe as being dense, in some ways complicated yet she carries the burden of fear because she has loved so deeply and the payoff was a disappointment.

Toussaint: That’s very well put.

Talk2SV: If I have given Ruth a back story that you used to portray her, what approach or expectations if any, did you bring to this role?

Toussaint: I did not come to it with an expectation, well, that’s not quite true. I came with an expectation of working with a young director that I was told was very exciting to work with. Ava’s first and second films were critically acclaimed; she came highly recommended, artistically.  When my agent called, he said to me, ‘There’s no money in it but this is someone so interesting to work with.  We think that you would love to work with her.’ Based on that, I asked to see the script.  I must have read 10 pages and thought it was one of the best written scripts I’ve read in a long time, especially for an African American cast.  Interestingly, I was most impressed that the script was chock full of nothingness (laughter).

Talk2SV: I love hearing you say that…

Toussaint:  Allow me to explain…the day-to-day living that all of us spend most of our lives doing and the grace with which we live it, the courage with which we live it, and the anonymity in which we live it lends itself to the human condition in a way that a seemingly nothing moment, is an everything moment, a universal moment.  I thought she captured that essence in the script by virtue of what the characters said, but more importantly, what they implied and what they didn’t say, as we do in life.  Often, as a black actor, I am asked to support the main event, the main drama, the main characters and many times those roles are surface roles which automatically relegates them to being one dimensional, maybe two dimensional, if you are very lucky. But the richness of these characters jumped off the page, the complexity of them, the pain of them, the struggle, and the hope, it just jumped off the page.  It felt like such a wonderfully human script that happened to be about black people. I jumped at that opportunity because it isn’t often I get to be involved in a project that allows us to do that type of portrayal.

Talk2SV: Your articulation of this script is powerful as was your portrayal.  I agree. MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is a story steeped in the very everydayness of living. Yet every character has layers that for one, the movie doesn’t give us time to explore, but the acting allows us to walk away with an understanding of them, largely because of what they didn’t say, or how they said what was presented in the script. Let’s talk about your character, Ruth, an obviously scorned woman, implied, who has to carry the burden of her daughter’s uninformed choices coupled with the lack of romantic love present in her own life.

Toussaint: Yes that’s very true. And I think we come upon Ruth at a time in her life when she’s on the brink of softening.  As tough as you think she is, she desperately wants to be the soft place for her grandson to land, in a way that she wasn’t able to be with her daughters; it becomes paramount to her as if it were a kind of divine apology. Ruth wants to be there for him. She wants to be that sweet soft place at the center of all women and especially all of us black women where often times we are battling in the world and doing what we’ve got to do. That image is not necessarily the first one that shows up, that we put out front. But with her grandson, a generation away, where she’s had some distance, she’s had some perspective, there is some hindsight, there is also great regret. Ruth wants to make up for it, for the mistakes that she made.  She wants to let her heart lead for a change.  And, as it is in life, sometimes it may be too late because the damage that has been inflicted –just by virtue of survival– may not give her the opportunity to do that where she most wants to or where she thinks that she may be can, which is definitely with her daughters, but more so with her grandson.

Talk2SV: I could listen to you talk about this film all day.

Toussaint: You know, with mamas and daughters, I’m a daughter; I am an only daughter of a divorced mom. I am the single mother of an eight-year-old daughter so I know; I understand the complexity of mothers and daughters from both sides. As such, it [the experience] gave me the opportunity to pay homage to black mothers of a particular ilk because they are flawed and powerful and full of love and full of fear and those are the elements that I wanted to use to drive Ruth, no matter what. I wanted her love to drive her character. Now, often times in life, the ways in which we express it, create the opposite effect of what we intend because at the center of it is this incredible need, desire, to have her daughters’ be more than she is, was, to do more, not to make the same mistakes that she did.  Now Ruth can look back on her missteps and see the price of them. She doesn’t want her daughters to pay the price that she is presently paying.  So her incredible love for her daughters and desire for them to be better, do better, doesn’t have the effect that she wants. It actually back fires because its vehicle is criticism. There is this undeniable love in this mother for her girls but something is broken at the core of their relationship.  It just comes out the wrong way, it’s, her love for them is received the wrong way and that’s the heart break of that character, of that woman, for me.  I recognized her heartbreak when I read it in the script.  That is the heart break, at its core but, I knew I wanted to go on the journey because I know that woman, she is in my family.  She’s not my mother but she’s my aunt who also raised me. As Freud and Jung say, “you must kill the mother, you must kill the father,” because in order for my daughter to be free, really free, to be her own woman, she’s got to silence even my voice in her head, as well intentioned as it is because that will be the only way that she will actually be better, that she will be more loving.  That is the only way she won’t make the same mistakes –in the same ways– that I did. Motherhood is sacrificial love, there’s no doubt about it.  You would lay yourself down for your children, in a heartbeat, in any way that they need it.

Talk2SV: What is your daughter’s name?

Toussaint: My daughter’s name is Samara Grace.

Talk2SV: Beautiful. I can’t let you go without asking about your Any Day Now character, attorney Rene Jackson.  Will the image of her ever leave you? How do you feel about that career-defining character?

Toussaint: You know, I think in a funny way, this film compares with that role, with that acting experience. When I did Renee Jackson it was kind of a quintessential moment where life and work came together in a magical way. It was a sweet spot where there was a merging of character being that it’s a memorable role.  Out of that experience I have lifelong friends. Annie (Potts, her costar on Lifetime’s Any Day Now) is a lifelong friend.  The producers of that show are forever friends. It really was a love fest.

Talk2SV: I can’t tell you how liberating those characters were for me, personally.

Toussaint: I am so pleased to hear that because they were a joy, a daily joy. Annie and I would pinch ourselves on set, literally, and say to each other, ‘Oh my God, how did we get so lucky?’ That was juicy work.

Talk2SV: Is there any talk of a reunion show?

Toussaint: No, the executive producer/creator actually approached Lifetime back in ’08, right around the time President Obama was coming into power; we thought it would be a really interesting discussion to put forth through these characters. We actually thought we had something to say, right at that moment; we approached Lifetime and for some reason they didn’t go for it.

Talk2SV: Would you and Annie consider taking it to the stage, it would be a powerful theatrical presentation, even if for a limited run.

Toussaint: (Lengthy pause) We’ve never even thought of that. You’re the very first person to actually say, ‘bring it to the stage.’

Talk2SV: Today’s iteration of Rene Jackson and Mary Elizabeth Sims and the turn of events since we last visited with them—the thought could make for engaging drama.

Toussaint: It is an interesting idea…the scenario opens it up to many different kinds of discussions.

Talk2SV: Ruth is sort of the next manifestation of Rene.

Toussaint: Well, she’s the next manifestation of Lorraine because when I was doing Rene, I was not a mom. Now that I am, the whole landscape has shifted, dramatically.  What’s nice about liking where I am right now, I am allowed to play women like Ruth, who I think of as not being a “pretty character” but when I saw the work, I got over ‘who’ she was internally.

Talk2SV: She’s hard to embrace.

Toussaint: The inner vanity way but she’s incredibly beautiful in the truthfulness in which I have delivered her. As I get older as an actress, I am less concerned with how things look, even more deeply committed to getting to the heart of it, to the truth of it and as simply as possible with as little intrusion as possible, even from me. I’m more able and willing to get out of the way of my work, allowing me to surprise myself in the delivery of it.

Talk2SV: I read that you love to garden.  Does it have some other meaning to you?

Toussaint: Yes it does. I think in another time I’d probably be a true pagan in terms of my worship of nature; it’s in my DNA, it’s at my core. As I talk to you, I’m looking out at the canyon– I moved to the ocean.  I feel like I must have either green or blue because I don’t quite know who I am if I’m not close to nature. I see myself clearly in nature so, yes, I garden. I grow things. I can spend all day in the yard digging and planting; it is one of the few things, like acting, where I step out of time and I could be there forever– it transports me.

Movie clips from MIDDLE OF NOWHERE:

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