In both society and pop culture, the idea of “standing by your man” goes back as far as time. A wife supported her husband and her place was at his side. As long as that support is reciprocal, no problem, right? However, slowly but surely that staunch loyalty that a woman “owes” her man seems to have morphed into something slightly more drastic–the “ride-or-die chick.”
In modern popular culture, especially modern black popular culture as it is often portrayed, the “ride-or-die chick” has become the model for the ideal partner. She is the Bonnie to his Clyde. The Tiny to his T. I. The Chrissy to his Mr. Jones. She is the woman who sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter what, no questions asked.
Director Ava DuVernay’s latest film Middle of Nowhere made me think about the reality and the irony of that ultimatum turned ideal: ride or die. The movie tells the story of an African American woman, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), as she deals with life during her husband Derek’s (Omari Hardwick) imprisonment.
I kept thinking about what it means to ride. When you ask someone to ride with you, you’re asking them to come with you on a journey. You’re usually asking them to sit in the passenger’s seat. Sometimes you’re asking them to put on their helmets or seatbelts. A ride can be a leisurely, scenic trip, as in a horse-and-carriage ride through Central Park. It can be an adventure, as in a ride at an amusement park. It can be a mystery if you’re driving around in the “middle of nowhere”–pun intended. It can even be a disaster, like if you happen to be riding in your car and suddenly collide with another one at an intersection.
Asking someone to ride with you is asking that person to be there with you and for you, whether you want someone to enjoy the rush with you when the rollercoaster plunges down the incline or whether you need someone to call 911 after that collision. It is asking someone to relinquish control and to trust you. As I watched the movie, the more I thought about what it means to ride, the more I realized that Ruby rode. She literally rode.
She rode on a bus for hours on a regular basis to visit Derek in prison. She rode the bus to work and back to help pay his legal fees. She held his hand and encouraged him. She fought for him when he could not fight for himself. Ruby rode.
But then the flip side of that is that if asking someone to ride with you and for you is such a crucial request, one would think that the person you ask has to be a special person. So, if that person is so special, why would death be the other option in that ultimatum? Ride or die.
Even as Ruby fought so hard for Derek, she was taking her own blows. She was dying on the inside, but she was never dead. The actress, Emayatzy Corinealdi had an amazing ability to portray Ruby’s pain, often without saying a word. The moments of silence and the looks that the characters shared with one another were as meaningful, powerful, and intense as any of the words delivered on screen.
Still the question remains: if you love someone enough to ask them to ride with you, why on earth would you ask them to do so or die? Honestly, you wouldn’t, and to Derek’s credit, he technically didn’t. So, I guess the oxymoronic nature of that expression lives on…
Middle of Nowhere made me realize that as romantic as it may sound, it is not logical or possible to ride or die with someone you love. There is no OR about it. If you are riding with them, you are dying with them too. It’s ride AND die. Derek may have been the one behind bars, but Ruby was just as imprisoned. It was his punishment, but Ruby was being punished. Derek’s mistake was that although he knew that his incarceration was affecting her, he didn’t truly understand or appreciate that the “or” was really an “and.” Whatever he did to himself, he was doing to Ruby. Once Ruby understood that riding equals dying, she had a choice to make…
I’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s previous movie I Will Follow, as well as her BET Documentary My Mic Sounds Nice and I was already a fan and follower of hers. However, I can definitely see why Middle of Nowhere earned Ms. DuVernay the honor of being the first African American woman to win the Best Director award at Sundance 2012. Even though I’m going to tell you why I think this is true, I urge you to go see it and find out why for yourself.
In addition to the honest dialogue, I really appreciated the way that African Americans, flaws and all, were portrayed in this movie. There were some moments in the film where I expected Ruby to go all waiting-to-exhale burning clothes and what not (and where in my opinion, she would’ve been justified to do so), but she didn’t. She handled her challenges with grace and class, even in intense moments of conflict. Although the movie deals with the very real problems of single parenthood and incarceration in the black community, the people on the screen were characters and not caricatures.
Derek is not portrayed as a stereotypical criminal. He is human and flawed, but still honorable, in many ways. Because the characters were real and relatable, even in the moments when I was angry with or disappointed in Derek, I still felt that he was a good person. I still felt the love that he had for Ruby, and I felt like Ruby and I were riding the same rollercoaster. Ruby was riding with Derek and I was riding with Ruby.
I can honestly say that until this movie, I’d never really thought about what life must be like for the families of people who are incarcerated. In a general sense, of course, I understand that what happens to one person happens to everyone that person loves. However, this film did an amazing job of illustrating that you never know how your actions are affecting the people around you, from your choice to commit a crime to your choice to pretend to be superwoman.
Middle of Nowhere is a heartfelt and sobering reminder of the contagious and interdependent nature of our human existence.