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Sundance 2012: Meaty roles for black actors in 'Middle of Nowhere'

January 20, 2012 |  6:51 pm

The black British actor David Oyelowo is on a hot streak: In 2011, he appeared in "The Help" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," and he's starring in "Red Tails," George Lucas' $58-million action flick about the Tuskeegee Airmen. Though "Red Tails" opened nationwide Friday, Oyelowo was in Utah in support of a very different film with a much lower budget, showing up at the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of a tiny passion project, "Middle of Nowhere."

He came to the L.A.-set character drama, written and directed by film-publicist-turned-filmmaker Ava DuVernay, in the randomest of ways. An investor on the film happened to encounter Oyelowo on an airplane and gave him the script. Oyelowo read the story — about a woman who struggles with loyalty and sacrifice after her husband is incarcerated — and signed on.

"It's a real challenge to find African American characters with depth," he said at a post-screening Q&A, "But when I read this, it was just like 'Do the Right Thing,' or 'She's Gotta Have It,'  the characters just lept off the page.... Ava is transcending what is called 'black cinema.'"

The film stars Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby, a nurse who puts her own dreams on hold when her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is sentenced to eight years in prison. Ruby deals with the disapproval of her mother and financial stress as she strives to support Derek emotionally and maintain their union, making regular trips to the prison in Victorville to visit him and working for his release. Oyelowo, 35, plays Brian, a bus driver who takes an interest in Ruby. 

The movie is quite a showcase for Corinealdi, who appears in nearly every scene, often in intense and lingering close-ups that would be a challenge for a veteran, let alone a newcomer. 

DuVernay, who hails from the Compton-Long Beach area, said she was inspired to write the story (and film it in just 19 days) because she knew many women from her neighborhood who had been through similar ordeals. "I was interested in the lives of women in waiting," she said. "You'd be surprised how common this is."

DuVernay added that it's not just a "black and brown people problem." After it was announced that "Middle of Nowhere" would screen at Sundance, DuVernay said she got a call from a female studio executive in Hollywood. "She said this was her story, and nobody knew."


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Sundance 2012: A Joel Edgerton thriller that evokes...'The Hangover'?

— Julie Makinen in Park City, Utah

Photo: Emayatzy Corinealdi and David Oyelowo in "Middle of Nowhere." Credit: Sundance Film Festival.