Middle of Nowhere probably wasn't intended to be a corrective to the Tyler Perry oeuvre, but Ava DuVernay's film goes right in a lot of places where Perry often goes wrong.
Most film critics don't have to deal with the problem of Tyler Perry, because the filmmaker and his studio take themselves out of the critical sight line: After the brutal notices of his first two (wildly successful) films, his regular distributor Lionsgate simply ceased screening his work in advance for critics. "Early on," Perry told the Urban Daily last February, "I realized that we were paying quite a bit of money to have these movies screened for critics around the country and most of the critiques were horrible. So I'm like, why am I paying for people to say these are terrible films?"
In a sense, everybody won: Perry didn't need critical kudos to make money, and critics were removed from the difficult position of having to wrestle with the Perry Problem. Here is a one-man cottage industry, a prolific and powerful filmmaker who makes films for an underserved audience while providing work to an army of black actors and technicians. But noble intentions are good enough, and the fact of the matter is, Perry is a terrible filmmaker. His staging is creaky, his dialogue is shrill and obvious, his pacing is grotesque, and his oft-worrisome messages are delivered with all the subtlety and finesse of a foghorn. But it's important that he's making these films, because no one else is—for the time being, anyway. Hopefully that's changing.
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Godard famously said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another one, and while Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere presumably was not devised as a response to the Perry oeuvre, this exceptional picture certainly serves a secondary function: As a feature-length instructional essay on all that Mr. Perry's two films a year do so poorly. Though the landscape of directors telling these stories is certainly barren (and dominated by Mr. Perry), the comparison is not simply a matter of contrasting the work of Perry with another black filmmaker. The connection comes into play when looking at the stories they're telling. Middle of Nowhere features exactly the kind of love-triangle narrative—the devoted wife, the flawed husband, and the option presented to her by a hard-working "good man"—that Perry explores in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Meet the Browns, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and elsewhere. On paper, Middle of Nowhere sounds like something directly out of the Perry playbook. But the filmmakers couldn't be more different, in style or maturity.
Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, and the film begins with her visiting her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) in prison. He's just been sentenced to eight years, and she is determined to stand by him, promising weekend visits and daily phone calls, insisting that he'll get out in five years of "good time." He tries to resist: "I'm trying to tell you to keep going with your life... Don't stop for me." "You are me," she replies. "Remember?"
Four years pass. (Four years, the on-screen text adds, of good time.) Ruby works as an RN, her previously mentioned plans of medical school apparently scuttled. True to her word, she has visited Derek every weekend, and her dedication has been rewarded. Since he'll be entering into a solid home, Derek is being considered for an early release, even earlier than the five years they were hoping for. And then (I'm treading lightly here) something happens that shatters Ruby to pieces, forcing her to rethink her commitment and the value of it. And that's why she stops resisting the interest of Brian (David Oyelowo), the kind bus driver who takes her home from work and has taken a shine to her.