Starting Friday, Leavenworth will be listed with the likes of Los Angeles, New York City and Detroit as the site of a select-engagement film premiere.
That’s not an honor the city has frequently enjoyed, but the circumstances this time are a little different — the star of critically-acclaimed film “Middle of Nowhere” said Leavenworth has been and remains close to her heart, a place where the desire to become an actress was discovered and nurtured.
Emayatzy Corinealdi is a 1998 graduate of Leavenworth High School and stars as Ruby, the focal point of Ava DuVernay’s second feature film “Middle of Nowhere.”
The film has become a critical success since it was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year. DuVernay became the first African-American to receive Sundance’s award for best director for a dramatic film. Corinealdi’s performance has garnered descriptions like the following, in USA Today: “Corinealdi is wonderful in this breakout role, imbuing Ruby with dignity and palpable sadness.”
It’s exceedingly difficult to find critics who were not impressed with Corinealdi’s turn as the wife of Derek, a man recently sentenced to an eight-year prison term. Ruby puts medical school on hold to devote more time to commute for regular visits with Derek. Critics have praised the movie for emotional complexity and being melodrama-free. Though she’s lived in California for the last decade working as an actor, Corinealdi said her experience post-Sundance has been somewhat surreal.
“This is my first lead in a feature film,” she said. “It’s all different. It’s been like ‘Oh, wow, this is really happening.’”
Her father Edward, who still lives in Lansing, said his daughter has always been very self-determined and believes in what she’s doing.
“I just feel very proud of her,” he said. “So proud, that’s all I can say.”
A military child, Emayatzy said she took inspiration from every place she called home growing up — from Cherry Hill, N.J., to Youngstown, Ohio, and Leavenworth.
“In each place, I learned something new,” she said she realized upon reflection.
“Leavenworth was one of the key places for me, in terms of becoming interested in acting.”
Growing up, she said she was convinced that she was going to become a lawyer and even had a practice planned with a friend. But she said she realized some time during high school that her favorite part of being a lawyer was the drama, the oratory — in other words, the acting.
At Leavenworth High School, she became involved with a number of creative efforts, like creative writing class and the drama club led by Henry Elliott or Joyce Williams’ People of Color group. But she said she found inspiration everywhere, from home economics to Spanish class to track and field.
Page 2 of 3 - By the time she left, Corinealdi said her choices had become clear.
“I kind of transferred, from ‘I kind of like doing this’ to ‘hey, I love doing this,’” she said.
Her father is organizing a reception from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the lobby before the 7:10 p.m. screening of the movie at the Landing 4 Theaters. Williams, who is working to contact teachers from Emayatzy’s time here, said Emayatzy and her family would like to thank those who were a part of shaping who she has become. Edward said anyone from the community is invited to come to the reception, even if Emayatzy herself can not make it.
In addition to the people, Emayatzy said coming of age in a city known as the home of a federal penitentiary would serve as a different kind of inspiration. Playing the role of a woman who gives up a potentially lucrative career for her incarcerated husband, she said she went back to the kinds of stories that she remembered hearing from female friends or acquaintances.
“I was always aware that they were with these guys and they stayed with them,” Emayatzy said, though she did not at the time dive deeply into those personal details. “It wasn’t until I got this script that I went back to them.”
The movie does more than present a dramatic account of what for many living here may be a daily reality — the film’s distributor, Participant Media, is also hoping viewers take action with a campaign aimed at ending what they call “predatory” prison phone rates that make it more difficult for families to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones.
Showing the film to members of the Federal Communications Commission, Emayatzy said, has caused them to reinvestigate the petition against those rates from Martha Wright, who first filed a complaint in 2000.
Because of the part that Leavenworth and her other hometowns played in her success, Emayatzy said it was important for her to have a screening here, as well as in New Jersey and Ohio. It did take some lobbying, however.
“Leavenworth was nowhere near the list of places where this movie was going to play,” she said, though she said she eventually convinced DuVernay.
Williams said the Landing 4 Theaters, located downtown, will be playing the movie for a week, starting Friday. She said she hopes that the community will come out to show their support.
“We’re trying to get as many people to go Friday and Saturday as possible,” Williams said.
Emayatzy said in the meantime, she continues to get offered parts, thanks to new management following Sundance. She said she hopes to keep finding meaty parts similar to Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington. But no matter where her career takes her, she said one place will always be close, at least in spirit.
Page 3 of 3 - “I love Leavenworth and I’m proud of that,” she said. “I always tell people that — it ended up being seriously the best thing that ever happened to me.”