Adaptations, Analysis, Black women, cinema, Film, For Colored Girls, Hollywood, Movies, race relations, Reviews, The Help, Waiting to Exhale

The Help For Colored Girls Who Are Still Waiting to Exhale

“The black woman is the mule of the world.” — Zora Neale Hurston

Being a black woman in America is to be rendered irrelevant, irreverent and invisible on a daily basis.  Nowhere is this reflected more than on television and in the movies.  We are often shown denigrating each other, raising hell, trying to snare a man à la Flava Flav, or vexing over the identity of the baby daddy.  Other depictions include the jump-off, Mother Earth, confidante, tormentor, victim, and objects of ridicule by men in drag.  The lack of non-stereotypical, relatable images is why the release of such films as Waiting to Exhale, For Colored Girls and, currently, The Help become major events for many of us.  In groups we attend screenings and gather for live and online discussions.  Some are just happy to see themselves, while others yearn for realistic, multi-dimensional characterizations that, unfortunately, are few and very far between.  Perhaps there is an unspoken wish for inspirational and empowering images – a shero – instead of the usual cautionary tales.  As for me, my expectations were tempered long ago.

Waiting to Exhale
 
Even though I was a fan of the book and looked forward to its release, Waiting to Exhale has become unwatchable over the years.  Much of what made it a compelling novel was discarded in the adaptation.  Though the movie featured four black women prominently, the underlying, not so subtle theme was:  White women are more desirable than black women.  The only two scenes worth revisiting feature Bernadine (Angela Bassett): the cathartic car burning and Bernadine’s encounter with James (Wesley Snipes) at a hotel bar.  Their too-brief interaction took the movie to a deeper dimension with unfulfilled promise.  Having read the sequel Getting to Happy, which is now in pre-production, I have no desire to see that as a film.  The good news is the novel is so atrocious that any adaptation will be an improvement.
 
For Colored Girls

Seeing the staged production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for the first time in the 1970s was an unforgettable experience.  Blown away by the poetry, storytelling and the performances, I left the theatre feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world.  I doubted the play with its non-linear narrative could be successfully adapted to film.  My skepticism quickly changed to a strong sense of foreboding when I learned that Tyler Perry would be at the helm.  From the business perspective, I understand why Perry was selected.  His track record at the box office is impressive and he has cultivated a loyal audience.  However, Perry was totally inappropriate for the material.  His forte is comedy – exaggerated, over-the-top comedy with stereotypes and clichés.   His few attempts at drama have been heavy-handed and well-intentioned at best.

Perry’s interpretation of For Colored Girls left me emotionally drained and in need of a nap.  The plotlines were thin and the characters were not well developed.  There were some great performances, including standouts Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad.  There were, however, missed dramatic opportunities.  Yasmine/Yellow (Rose) was denied the chance to confront her rapist.  Instead her “redemption” was to slap his cold, lifeless face as he laid in the morgue.  The story would have been greatly enriched and more depth added to Yasmine’s character if we had followed her efforts to put the rapist behind bars.  Instead a clumsily, contrived situation was introduced to wrap up her storyline.  What a copout!  In frustration I could only imagine how much more directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash would have brought to the production.  I really appreciate August Wilson for insisting on director approval before his plays could be adapted to the big screen.  Can you imagine Perry or one of the Wayans directing Fences?

The Help

In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, Bea (Claudette Colbert) gets rich from her maid’s (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe.  Delilah (Beavers) wants no share of the profits and is content to continue as Bea’s maid.  There is a scene where the two women turn in for the night.  Bea ascends the stairs as Delilah descends to her room downstairs.  That scene summed up the movie: Black people are happy in their place – tending to the needs of whites.  That same sense of “selflessness” is present nearly 80 years later in The Help, which begins and ends with Aibileen (Viola Davis) comforting and encouraging white females.

“You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important.” – Aibileen

Like Delilah, Aibileen is greatly responsible for Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) success.  When Skeeter is offered a new job in New York, Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) assuage Skeeter’s so-called guilt and encourage her to go – as if there was ever a possibility Skeeter wasn’t taking off.  Meanwhile Aibileen is unemployed with little to no prospects, and Minny appears destined for a life of servitude with no hope of upward mobility.  In my reimagined scene, Skeeter informs Aibileen and Minny about her job offer.  She justifies her departure while Aibileen and Minny smile politely and exchange knowing looks.  As Aibileen and Minny reflect on the injustice of being used once again, their words wish her well but their eyes do not.  That would have been more realistic.

“I found God in myself and I loved her.  I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange

Nothing But a Man

I discovered Nothing But a Man in college.  It is now one of my favorite films and the best onscreen depiction of a relationship between a black man and black woman and how it is impacted by racism, loss of income and a child from a previous relationship.  Initially, most of my attention was drawn to the commanding presence of Ivan Dixon as Duff.  I thought his wife Josie (Abbey Lincoln) was too agreeable.  However, with maturity I began to appreciate Josie’s quiet strength and admired how she continued loving Duff, even when he didn’t love himself.  In the midst of hate, violence and patriarchy, Josie did not allow herself to be defined by others’ fears, insecurities and ignorance.  She retained a kind, loving nature and strong sense of self.  Now that’s a shero!  It was then that I began to recognize those qualities in many of the women around me like my mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends.  This is why I don’t get upset or put much stock into how we’re portrayed and perceived anymore.  People who want to believe the worst are going to do so regardless.  I don’t need television and movies to affirm me.  There are sheros all around me, and every now and then I see my shero smiling back at me in the mirror.

 

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Academy Award, cinema, diversity, Eddie Murphy, Film, film industry, Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood, Lena Horne, Louis Gossett, motion picture industry, Movies, Oscars, PS 22, race relations, Sidney Poitier, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Everything You Need to Know About the Oscars — Part 3: The Illusion of Inclusion

PS 22 Chorus at the Oscars

And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true…” – lyrics from “Over the Rainbow”

In a highly ironic and revelatory twist, the 83rd Academy Awards concluded with a performance of “Over the Rainbow” by Staten Island’s PS 22 Chorus.  At first glance, it appeared that the Oscars and the film industry valued youth and ethnic diversity.  However, with nary a person of color honored and The King’s Speech as the night’s big winner, that carefully presented picture of inclusion was nothing more than an illusion.  While some viewers gushed over the chorus’s “inspirational” performance, all I saw were white honorees smiling down benevolently at the group of predominantly Black and Latino singers.  Once again, I was reminded how little the Oscars and the film industry have progressed in regards to diversity.

“You look very appealing to a younger demographic.” – Anne Hathaway

Attempting to boost sagging ratings by attracting a younger audience, the best picture nominees were expanded from five to 10 in 2009.  The rationale was that more viewers would watch if popular films (translation: box office mega hits like The Hangover) were contenders for the top prize.  Demographics and ratings also influenced the selection of Anne Hathaway and James Franco as this year’s co-hosts.  The Social Network emerged as an early frontrunner for best picture.  However, reminiscent of the old bait-and-switch, The King’s Speech – a 1930’s period drama about Great Britain’s royalty (white, privileged and beyond wealthy) – triumphed over the more contemporary and youth-driven Inception and The Social Network.  Viewers who tuned in expecting a youth-oriented program discovered instead that it was business as usual.  The values and preferences of the Academy’s older voters prevailed.

“When they first came to me and said that they wanted me to present the award for best picture, my first reaction was to say, No!  I’m not going because they have not recognized Black people in the motion picture industry.” – Eddie Murphy

I remember watching the Oscars that night in 1988 and feeling very bored and disconnected.  Two things prevented me from channel surfing – the misplaced remote control and my comfortable chair.  Instead I flipped through magazines as the show dragged on and on.  Then Eddie Murphy came out to present the Best Picture Oscar and took the show to another level.  Crackin’ and fackin’ – mixing humor and truth – Murphy broke from the script and shared why he was reluctant to be there.  Suddenly, I felt better.  Not only did Murphy say something I could relate to, he had the audacity to express it at the program’s climactic moment.  His comments, particularly the timing, drew some criticism, but Murphy gained my deep admiration for his truthfulness.

“[My manager] said, ‘What are you talking about?  Black people win Oscars.’  I said Black actors and actresses have won Oscars throughout the 60 years.  Hattie McDaniel won the first one.  Then Sidney Poitier won one and Lou Gossett won one…” – Eddie Murphy

Although additional black actors have won Oscars over the last 23 years, not much has changed systemically regarding diversity and how movies are green lighted.  Similar to the suggested influence of youth, ethnic diversity in the film industry is superficial.  Blacks and other minorities are still often portrayed stereotypically and/or in limited ways – when they’re visible, that is.  There were no people of color – insignificant or otherwise – to be found anywhere in The King’s Speech or among the nominees this year.  Instead the children from PS 22 were brought out to sing about rainbows and infinite possibilities.  The message was loud and clear:  Hollywood prefers to look inclusive without actually being that way.

This year’s memorial homage to Lena Horne also reflected the film industry’s brand of diversity.  During Horne’s heyday in the 1940’s, her musical numbers were filmed as segments that could be easily removed for segregated southern audiences without affecting the plot of the movie.  In other words, though Horne was in the movie, she was not an integral part.  Lena Horne’s isolation continued as she was “honored” individually with an introduction by a very grateful Halle Berry.  Horne was praised for her perseverance; however, a real tribute would have acknowledged the racial discrimination that Horne and other actors of color endured.  Instead of compensating for the unfulfilled potential of Horne’s film career, the tribute demonstrated the industry’s denial and/or unwillingness to address its inequities.

“And I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but, hey, what the heck.  I’ve got to say it.  Actually, I may not be in trouble because the way it’s been going, we get one about every 20 years.  So we ain’t due for one until about 2004, so this may all be blown over.” – Eddie Murphy

What will it take to see genuine diversity in Hollywood?  Change will not happen voluntarily or by moral persuasion.  Nor does the film industry take kindly to any type of critique.  Eddie Murphy was the front-runner for his 2006 supporting performance in Dreamgirls – having won all the major awards up to that point.  When his name was not pulled from the sacred envelope, many blamed the apparent snub on the ill-timed release of Norbit.  While Norbit didn’t help, I believe it was his candid observations back in 1988 that kept the golden statuette out of his grasp.  Murphy was well aware that his remarks could affect his chances of ever winning an Oscar, however, he underestimated how long it would take for it to be “blown over.”

“I have no regard for that kind of ceremony.  I just don’t think they know what they’re doing.  When you see who wins those things – or doesn’t win them – you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is.” – Woody Allen

Will I watch the Oscars again next year?  Probably.  Old habits die hard.  I won’t be watching to see what or who is considered the best.  Those are decisions I can make for myself.  We are all capable of making those choices.  My interest in watching will be what’s going on in the film industry in regards to trends, innovations and political maneuvering.  I confess there’s a part of me that still hopes for some progressive changes.  However, I know better than to hold my breath.

Academy Award, Film, film industry, Hollywood, motion picture industry, Movies, Oscars, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Everything You Need to Know about the Oscars — Part One: Revenge of the Nerds

I began this blog more than a month ago as the 2010 movie awards season culminated with the Academy Awards (informally known as the Oscars).  The working title was If I Produced the Oscars, and my intent was to critique the overall quality of the awards ceremony with suggestions to make it more efficient and entertaining.  However, after watching the program and frustrated attempts to blog on the aforementioned topic, it dawned on me that the Oscars and the film industry are two sides of the same coin.  Consequently, a critique of one is applicable to the other, which raises the following question:  What do the Oscars reveal about the Hollywood film industry and vice versa?  This will be examined over the next few weeks in a three-part series:  Part One: Revenge of the Nerds; Part Two: All in the Family; and Part Three: The Illusion of Inclusion.

“Congratulations, nerds.” — James Franco

As co-host of the Oscars this year, Franco’s attempt at humor revealed much about the film industry’s priorities.  When founded in 1928, the Oscar’s stated purpose was to acknowledge the excellence of professionals in the film industry.  However, the Oscars, with all its related pomp and pageantry, became more of a popularity contest and fashion show for movie stars than a way to recognize worthy accomplishments.  Eighty-three years later, little has changed.  Those who work in front of the camera are the focus of adoration, as evidenced by the most frequently asked question of the evening: “Who are you wearing?”  Meanwhile, the “nerds,” who are responsible for the film industry’s scientific and technical innovations, are barely acknowledged.  Their participation is reduced to a brief video recap of a previously held awards ceremony.  Like those relegated to the kiddie table, the scientific and technical honorees are to be seen (barely) and not heard.    

This apparent disregard for the visionaries who operate behind the scenes also reflects the film industry’s overall resistance to change and taking risks.  For example, when The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, was released in 1927, it was excluded from the Oscar’s Best Picture contest.  The given reason was that it shouldn’t compete with silent films.  The film’s technological breakthrough was of no consideration.  However, it was not until The Jazz Singer created such a sensation (translation: made lots of money) that the industry took notice and transitioned to talking pictures.  A great deal of the film industry’s progress and modifications – impacted in the past by television and more recently by digital technology and streaming media – continue to be made under duress.

TO BE CONTINUED…

1960's, American Dream, Civil Rights, Documentary, history, King Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery to Memphis, race relations

A Tribute Fit for Dr. King

Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten.  A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present.

 Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)

Though I have attended numerous programs honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including panel discussions, political forums, dramatic presentations and church services, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis remains my favorite way to remember him.  I used to look forward to watching this documentary on the local PBS station every year.  Due to issues with the King estate, however, the broadcast rights became unavailable and the film disappeared.  Fortunately, the uncut, 185-minute version is screened occasionally – especially around the King Holiday and now throughout Black History Month.

King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis chronicles Dr. King’s life and the civil rights movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to his assassination in 1968.  Watching the nonviolent protests that I had previously only heard and read about, I couldn’t and still cannot even begin to imagine the courage, commitment and self-control of those – many whose names we will never know – who willingly faced racial hostility in the forms of verbal and physical assaults, incarceration and sometimes death.  Recalling those warriors for justice and their sacrifices keeps in perspective how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

The documentary also offers glimpses of Dr. King not usually seen by the general public.  Insightful moments include Dr. King playfully saying, “Give me some sugar,” as he hugged a young admirer, and his humorous account of Rev. Abernathy praying with his eyes open during a riotous confrontation in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  It is particularly poignant to see Dr. King celebrate what would be his final birthday.

Whether it’s your first time or if it has been a long while, I strongly recommend that you see King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis.  If the film is not being shown in your area, the good news is that it is now available for purchase at http://afilmedrecord.com.  However you choose to view the film, it is well worth the extra effort.