Middle of Nowhere: A Fine Neglected Film



Middle of Nowhere (2012)

Directed by Ava DuVernay

AFFRM/Participant Media, 101 minutes, R (language)



Each year some of the most creative and intelligent independent American films are shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The sad reality is that a lot of really terrific films win prizes at Sundance but are seldom seen outside of the festival circuit. One of them was Middle of Nowhere.


There have been several movies made with that title, but the one I’m talking about was directed by the talented Ava DuVernay, who won a director’s award at Sundance. She and several of her actors were also feted at various festivals that spotlight Black films. DuVernay, a Los Angeles native, turned her lens and pen–she wrote the script–at the carcel state. Statistics show that 35 percent of American prison inmates are Black men, though they are just 13 percent of the overall population.


Middle of Nowhere references the location of the correctional facility in which Derek (Omari Hardwick) is pulling an eight-year sentence for unspecified crimes. DuVernay filmed the prison scenes at USP Victorville, which is roughly 100 miles from Compton where Derek’s wife Ruby (Emayatzy) lives. She’s a nurse who is in medical school studying to become a doctor. Derek’s arrest puts a serious crimp in her plans. Derek assures Ruby that he’s both devoted to her and that he’s a passive victim of circumstance. The long commute by bus to visit him behind bars will eventually lead her to drop out of school, a decision–along with her marriage to Derek–that leads to estrangement from her mother Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint) and her sister Rosie (Edwina Findley). A furious Ruby becomes a relentless crusader working for Derek’s early release.


A small number of viewers complained that Middle of Nowhere is slow and weak as a drama. They missed the point. DuVernay’s prison sequences–the journey from Compton, the barren desert landscape, the cold efficiency of check-ins and frisks, rolled coils of razor wire, electronic rows of maximum security doors–are so well done as to suggest a gritty prison drama. Ditto bodily injuries to Derek that he insists are not serious. The ambience and suggestions of block violence are chilling, but this is not Derek’s story; it’s Ruby’s.


DuVernay does not suggest that justice was subverted or done. This is an insider film, but one of the mind, not the clink. It probes the toll Derek’s imprisonment takes on Ruby. She has sidetracked her career, alienated her family, and lost friends to the point that her only real solace is the kindness of the bus driver, Brian (David Oyelowo). He is clearly attracted to Ruby, but he’s also sympathetic and gentle. Ruby is at the point where she needs to believe that Derek was, as he insists, just a guy who got “caught up” in stuff that he neither planned nor initiated. But what if–as Derek’s friend Rashad insists–that’s not true? What if he’s done a lot of things Ruby doesn’t know about?


In essence, as the late Roger Ebert observed, Ruby becomes trapped inside of her own identity crisis. Who’s the unjustly imprisoned party? Should she push on with her crusade or move on? How much personal capital can Ruby spend before concluding she has made a bad investment? And there’s Brian….


This is a very well-acted film that was made on a shoestring budget. If, at times, it looks it, that’s because the entire project came in at $200,000 and was a wrap after just 19 days. To put that in perspective, most Hollywood studio films take at least 40 days to film, have budgets north of $35 million, and spend about $40,000 on catering alone. Need I list for you the ones whose food was more digestible than the movie? Middle of Nowhere is both a small jewel and a bargain by comparison. It’s available on DVD and various streaming platforms.


Rob Weir





Music for April 2024: Otava Yo, Steve Martin, Robby Hecht, Afro-Semitic Experience and more



I avoided Russian music in protest against the war in Ukraine until I came upon the St. Petersburg-based Otava Yo whose spearhead, Alexey Belkin, also opposes the war; he has a Ukrainian mother and a Latvian wife. Otava Yo has suspended concerts in Russia because of the war, a gutsy move given Putin’s iron hand and a reduced opportunity to shop its new recording Loud and Clear. I don’t speak a word of Russian, but I can tell you it’s one it’s an exciting record. The band is often called a folk rock band because of its emphasis on traditional music. In Belkin’s words, “[in] turbulent times … [when] everything we know literally crumbles before our eyes,” a return to heritage reinvigorates. (They also add modern touches.)


Otava Yo display an array of expected instruments–fiddles, guitar, bass, drums–but also those less familiar: glockenspiel, fife, gusli (a psaltery in the zither family), zhaleika (a type of hornpipe), and volynka (Russian bagpipes). Add the female vocal ensemble Vasilisa and the result is something that sounds like a hybrid of Swedish folk/grunge band Garmarna and the high-octane vocals of Finland’s Värttinä. Try “Don’t You Fly, Nightingale” for robust singing. Though it’s one of the more “subdued” pieces on the album you can see and hear what Belkin means about leaning on tradition during trying times. “This One” gives insight into their goofy sense of humor and how a gusli integrates into a tune. For crashing sounds, lusty voices, bagpipes and psychedelic fiddles, “Good Evening” will get you energized. “Timonia” reminds me of Quebeçois music when the performers decide to go full-scale insouciant. It’s over the top, but in a good way! I love Otava Yo and Loud and Clear is my album of the month.



I vividly recall when Steve Martin did a standup act at my Pennsylvania college before  he was a big star He was so funny that we rolled out thinking, “Who is this guy?” Back then, he had a banjo as comic prop. It’s no longer a secret that he really knows how to play it. If you’ve not gotten the word, listen to him exchange licks with Grammy Award bluegrass banjo artist Alison Brown, mandolin wizard Sam Bush, and Grammy Award fiddler Stuart Duncan. Martin even handles the vocals on “Bluegrass Radio” on a new Compass Records release.



New Haven-based Afro-Semitic Experience began as the meeting of two jazz-infused minds, African-American pianist Warren Byrd and bass player David Chevan, a white Jew. It grew into a movable feast of up to eight musicians in a mixed-race ensemble that ventures into jazz, funk, world music, swing, group singing, and social justice offerings. You’ll hear most of them on My Feet Began to Pray, words attributed to the late Representative John Lewis when he was a young man on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. The band commemorates that episode, all so traumatic back then but now a pivotal moment that justifies the group’s sunny  treatment. Check out Byrd leading the band in “Unity in the Community,” which has a decided Black church feel. Then duck into the synagogue for “Rakhmones Nign,” rakhmones being Yiddish for mercy or empathy. “Moanin’” opens with some scat and sways into bebop-influenced jazz with sizzling horns and swinging keys. Get the picture?


Anandi is the one-name handle for Portland, Oregon-based jazz singer Anandi Gefroh. A Better Way is jazz-based but contains message music, some rock instrumentation, and tinges of pop. Anandi is Sanskrit for bliss and she brings that, her yoga practices, and her devotion to social justice to the fore. The title track, for instance, probes homelessness and poverty. Producer/keyboardist Greg Goebel lays down solid hooks that add drama to Anandi’s simple-yet-profound condemnation of the status quo: There’s got to be a better way. She gives a big-vocal bluesy soul treatment to “Truth, Peace, and Solitude,” a call to balance body, soul, and mind. Other songs are reverential (“Mandela”), reminders that love can be like Kahlil Gibran’s A Tear and a Smile (“Pleasure With the Pain”), and pleading with a scintilla of common sense (“Please Don’t Go to Bed Angry”). She also does a jazz cover of Jim Pepper’s “Witchi Tai To,” widely regarded to as the first Native American hit single back in 1969. You can decide what you think of a non-Native woman covering a peyote ritual chant. 


Robby Hecht
titled his new release Not a Number. It’s the title track as well, his attempt to put faces on the Covid’s human toll. His echoey guitar is designed to haunt and hurt. In numerous ways, the same sentiments are personalized elsewhere. This album deals with other forms of misfortune, disappointment, and struggle: divorce, sadness, recovery…. Hecht’s voice is perfect for conveying poignancy–sweet, but with a hint of pain. Note the content and video visuals of “Someone to Dance With.” He sings: I’m trying as hard as I can/To follow the steps of my well-rehearsed plan/To keep my wingtips on the ground/But up in my head I’m spinning around. The vid ends with dog adoption, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the dance he envisioned whilst acting as the proverbial third wheel. “Old Radio” is surface nostalgia, but its folk-styled wistfulness suggests both memory and yearning. As a transition Hecht offers a mirthful homage to “Tattoos.” That’s not my thing, but if it’s yours it’s show-and-tell time. I’m always a fan of well-crafted songs, though, and Hecht delivers.


If you don’t know the difference between bluegrass and “old-time” music, the first is recently composed and slicker, whereas the second is traditional and more raw. Listen to Molsky’s Mountain Drifters for a clinic in the latter. Bruce Molsky plays banjo, guitar, and fiddler but it’s the last of these in which he’s in the upper crust. Hence,  in his trio work Molsky leaves the banjo and guitar in the capable hands of Allison de Groot and Stash Wyslouch respectively. All of their recordings are wonderful but I recently took advantage of a two-for-one offer to score Closing the Gap and the eponymously titled Molsky’s Mountain Drifters. Theirs is Appalachian music stripped to its basics, yet filled with verve, energy, and expert musicianship. “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” ought to get you sashaying. If you know the folk standard “Stewball,” “Old Kimball” is closer to its root. “Old Jawbone” is pure infectious hills music and “Cumberland Gap” is a classic Americana tune.  There’s lots more you can find online to whet your appetite.   


Rob Weir


A Novel for Jackie Robinson Day



 Double Play (2004)

By Robert B. Parker

G. P. Putnam & Sons, 288 pages

★★★ ★


A few weeks ago I reviewed Mortal Stakes, an older Robert Parker Spenser mystery with baseball at its center. I noted that the late Parker was a baseball fan. Later he wrote Double Play, an unusual book that’s part memoir, part history, and part fiction. Its pivotal character is Jackie Robison who, in 1947, broke the color barrier that had been in place in Major League Baseball since the 1887.


Fact: When Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he received death threats. Just how credible they were versus demented posturing by cowardly White racists is a hotly contested topic, but they were enough of them that they could not be ignored. Fact: Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1932, and spent much of his life in Boston, but was devoted to the Dodgers. The memoir voice of “Bobby” in Double Play is a thinly disguised homage to his childhood memories. Fiction: Robinson never had a White bodyguard named Joseph Burke.


Double Play is as much about Burke as Robinson. Parker was nine when World War II began and filtered his memories of the 1940s through Burke, a young man who hastily marries an older woman before heading off to war. He survives Guadalcanal, though he took five machine gun bullets and nearly died. Burke musters out and returns home to find his wife has left him. Burke is hollowed out by all of it: war, the metal in his body, his father’s death, divorce…. He copes by feeling nothing, caring about nothing, and saying as little as possible. He (like Parker) does a stint as a boxer, though he’s more of a brawler than a ring artiste. Through all of the character development Parker gets the rhythms and moods of the period letter-perfect: the movies, how the Japanese are reconfigured as “Japs,” the music, the tough guys and celebs at Toots Shor’s New York restaurant, USO shows, clothing….


Burke becomes a tough guy for hire and has no moral qualms about who pays his meal ticket. He signs on to chauffer/babysit 18-year-old Lauren, the daughter of Julius Roach, who has a fondness for bad boys. Her current obsession is Louis Bouciault, the spoiled son of another gangster. This doesn’t work out according to script, but his demeanor and work ethic leads Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey to hire him as Jackie Robinson’s bodyguard. Although the book is titled Double Play–a double entendre of the baseball term and criminal double crosses–there is enough intrigue that it could have just as easily been called Triple Play and even that might not cover it. Niceties go out the window when thugs are embarrassed and word on the street is that one spurned wise guy wants to take out Robinson.


Parker presents the Burke/Robinson relationship as fraught by indifference on Burke’s part and prideful distrust on Robinson’s. Burke has one job: Keep Jackie safe and he couldn’t care less about what Robinson thinks. Robinson, a Black man, views Burke as just a piece of White muscle. Well, we kind of know how that is going to change. Parker wrote a piece of what we now call alt.history wrapped inside his remembrances and an imagined mystery. It’s filled with contrivances–a good kid ruined by war, a damaged man redeemed by love, turf battles, two gun men on opposite sides who bond, the don’t- mess-with-family rule of thugs–yet somehow Parker makes it work.


Double Play, like most of Parker’s books, is a quick read. It might have been his singular talent to make his tales so breezy that readers are spirited along and don’t dwell on the unlikely. Call it an impressionistic novel that evokes the time period and gives a sense of what Jackie Robinson endured before he became an American icon. Read it in that spirit.


I emphasize again that this is not a true story in any literal sense. If you want an actual Robinson biography, I recommend Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. If, on the other hand, you want a thrilling read and some insight into how a Springfield White kid was transfixed and transformed by a Black man wearing an MLB uniform, Double Play is your ticket.


Rob Weir