Little Woods: How Nia DaCosta's Directorial Debut Subverted Rural Noir - VRGyani News and Media

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Little Woods: How Nia DaCosta's Directorial Debut Subverted Rural Noir

When Hollywood movies and independent features take their stories out of big cities, the films that emerge, such as entries in the rural noir subgenre, can often adhere to a lot of troubling stereotypes that render these territories and their inhabitants as one-dimensional cliches. Thankfully, not all rural noirs have slavishly devoted themselves to these norms. Case in point: Nia DaCosta’s 2019 directorial debut Little Woods. Before she helmed the 2021 take on Candyman, DaCosta was shaking up the rural noir, especially in terms of who these films focus on and what kind of stories are deemed “important” within this subgenre.

The former quality pertains to how often rural noirs position outsiders as the protagonists rather than people who’ve lived in these rural areas all their lives. A film like Wind River, for example, is about outsiders (portrayed by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen) entering an Indian Reservation to explore a murder. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan imbues humanistic touches to the inhabitants of this location. However, the inherent point-of-view of this rural thriller can’t help but create a barrier between the audience and those who live here. The natural inhabitants don’t get to headline a story focused on their anguish.

RELATED: 'Candyman' Revisited: Everything You Need to Know Before Nia DaCosta's New Film

A similar tendency to tell these rural thrillers through the eyes of outsiders permeates this genre heavily, such as the film Texas Killing Fields making one of its lead characters a New York detective played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. An attempt to provide a point-of-view surrogate for moviegoers who live outside rural territories can’t help but lend a voyeuristic quality to depictions of issues specific to rural communities. These problems need to be addressed, but are these the best eyes to examine them through?

Little Woods, meanwhile, centers on people who live right in the middle of the rural community at the heart of this story, which sees two sisters turning to crime after they're given a week to pay the mortgage on their late mother's home. Ollie and Deb Hale (Tessa Thompson and Lily James) are not out-of-towners going through the character arc of learning people in North Dakota are human beings. They’ve existed in this area their whole lives and have developed fully dimensional existences that go far beyond any classic Hollywood stereotypes. Eschewing the trend of telling these stories through outsider’s eyes doesn’t just thoughtfully subvert genre norms, it’s also helpful to the basic tenets of DaCosta’s storytelling.

Rather than spend time justifying, say, why a California detective is in North Dakota, Little Woods uses the longtime residency of its protagonists as a means to jump right into its story. The familiarity Ollie and Deb have with North Dakota lends a sense of completing immediacy to their story, which focuses on their perspectives rather than molding the story to fit a definition of “accessible.” It also informs critical details like Ollie’s prior run-ins with the law in the local area or Deb’s connection to their childhood home. The backdrop of Little Woods is steeped in decades of life, every corner and location emanates with so much history. Chronicling people who have always lived in that area makes this quality apparent.

The subversive perspectives put center frame in Little Woods extends to the very presence of Ollie as a protagonist in the piece. Films of any genre set in rural parts of America do not have a strong track record of recognizing the existence of people of color in these areas. Titles like Lawless don’t even feature prominent people of color in their casts. This problem of erasing the very existence of people of color in these storylines is so common that only a handful of modern rural noirs, such as Out of the Furnace, make room for multiple characters of color.

Little Woods is the most notable exception to this trend, with this deviation extending to qualities off-screen. After all, this film is the rare rural thriller written and directed by a woman of color. Meanwhile, the film’s protagonist, Ollie, is a Black woman who also gets to be the centerpiece of the story. Her white sister, though a prominent part of the story, is the supporting figure in Little Woods, a reversal of the typical racial norms in rural noirs. Someone relegated to the background of other rural thrillers is now brought to the forefront, with DaCosta even presenting this prominence in a naturalistic fashion. It’s not even something Little Woods overtly lingers on. The presence of a Black woman having a life in a rural area is depicted in a naturalistic fashion.

Another way Little Woods separates itself from other rural noirs is by focusing on everyday citizens rather than law enforcement officers. Titles like Wind River center their stories on FBI agents tracking down criminals, where Little Woods technically focuses itself on a criminal. Ollie is on probation when the story begins and much of what follows fascinatingly challenges society’s perception of what’s “lawful” and not. Crossing the border is technically a crime, but is it a wicked thing to do when it’s the only way to get your sister urgent healthcare needs? By centering its story on more everyday protagonists, Little Woods further upends the conventions of rural noirs, particularly in its lead characters and its typical moral code.

Meanwhile, plot details that are depicted as “important” to the central characters of Little Woods are a further departure from standards in this genre, especially Deb’s desire to get an abortion. American cinema in general, let alone the specific subgenre of rural noirs, doesn’t often go near the topic of abortion. Here, like the presence of a Black woman in a lead role, Little Woods treats this detail of its screenplay with naturalness. Deb knows what she wants here, her decision to get an abortion isn’t used to create strained conflict within herself or with Ollie.

Deb’s conflict comes from another real-world situation underexplored in rural noirs, the lack of access women in rural areas have to healthcare. Scenarios like Deb struggling to secure an abortion as well as the complexities informing Ollie’s decision to break the law while on probation make the world of Little Woods one rife with both depth and unique storylines. Sociopolitical issues usually avoided because they’re too heavy or controversial are here interwoven as an organic part of the fabric of DaCosta’s narrative tapestry.

Following in the footsteps of other subversive entries in this genre like Winter’s Bone or Frozen River, Little Woods upends the concepts of what is considered “important” in this domain to help reinforce the diversity in real-world rural communities. Individuals like Ollie or Deb are not just confined to the silver screen, they exist in North Dakota and all other rural communities across America. Now, their plights, struggles, and even moments of tender unity can finally be seen on-screen.

In being cognizant of these qualities, Little Woods separates itself sharply from even other unorthodox entries in the rural noir. By going down this route, DaCosta forces viewers to confront heady challenges often kept off-screen, like the struggles women have in accessing healthcare. Oh, and she’s also able to deliver a compelling noir that would make Nicholas Ray or Samuel Fuller proud. Like those great noir directors, DaCosta realizes a film can both be in touch with the real world and keep you on the edge of your seat.

Long before she was drumming up scares in Candyman or even orchestrating the larger-than-life superheroism in The Marvels, DaCosta was effortlessly tapping into reality to rewrite the rules of rural noirs with Little Woods.

KEEP READING: Teyonah Parris on Working With Nia DaCosta on 'Candyman' and Watching Her Make History with 'Captain Marvel 2'



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