"Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God"
premiers Sunday, March 6 on ABC.
Reviews of "Their Eyes Were Watching
God," "Born into Brothels" and Spike Lee's
Plus, in Brief, "Hitch" and "Diary of a Mad Black
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic
about these movies and Black film issues! Click here.
In the role of a professional "date doctor," Will Smith ventures
into the realm of serious romantic comedy—without a Black woman to be found
within kissing distance. Still, despite the obvious reach for a larger audience
with tlk as Smith's love interest, "Hitch" delivers enough
of the quirkiness, queasiness, humor and humiliation that accompany dating and
mating in the modern age.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman:
and quality drama are really not the point of Tyler Perry's popular stage plays. Perry frolics in the tepid waters of
the melodramatic, where the morality tale meets Jesus and Bible (All the better
to keep those packed church busses rolling up to the theater!) In "Diary
of a Mad Black Woman," which has made the leap from the stage to the big
screen, the action lurches back and forth between Perry's chitlin circuit
comedy and the heart-wrenching saga of a soap opera. But don't get it twisted.
In this story of one woman's tragedy and journey of self-discovery, there
is plenty that is genuinely funny—especially if you like that pistol-packing
grandma humor. And there is also plenty to make you as mad as the mad Black
woman in the movie. Perry, who is a handsome gentleman, plays three roles,
two to a
comic tee, and Kimberly Elise has enough acting chops to keep Perry, and this
film, out of the chitlin soup. —Iverem
Eyes Were Watching God"
Zora Neale Hurston's lush, seamless 1937 novel, "Their
Eyes Were Watching God," is especially not suited for the
cruel commercial interruptions of broadcast television. Nonetheless,
a movie based on the book, premiering this Sunday, March 6, at
9 P.M. on ABC, retains enough of Hurston's Southern magical
realism, deep empathy for Black women and powerful love story to
make this production a milestone for both Black film and television.
The movie is remarkable for its depiction of hot Black romance
and sexuality. But it would be an understatement, as well as a
cliché, to say that sparks fly between the movie's
star, Halle Berry, and the last of her three husbands in the movie,
played by Michael Ealy. These two can burn down the bed, and their
chemistry is what makes the movie rise above the restrictions of
its format and at least touch the level of Hurston's ebullient
"Their Eyes Were Watching God," rescued from out-of-print
status during the 1970's flowering of the Black Studies movement,
tells the story of Janie Crawford (Halle Berry), a Black girl who
grows up poor in rural Western Florida but never gives up on the
idea that life should be filled with deep, abiding love. Janie
lives with Nanny (Ruby Dee), her grandmother, who, fearing that
the teen-ager is starting to kiss boys, marries her off to an elderly
farmer, Logan Killicks, who has "60 acres" of land,
and therefore can offer his young wife a step up in life. A weepy
Janie takes this step up, but then soon finds herself stepping
out on the old man. She runs away and marries Joe Starks (Ruben
Santiago-Hudson), who, in the story, becomes the mayor, principal
landowner and businessman of Eatonville, Florida, the first African
American town to be founded and incorporated the United States
(and also Hurston's hometown.)
In her second marriage, Janie finds the higher social standing
and wealth that Nanny always wanted for her. In the beginning she
is showered with love, and then later, only showered with possessions.
She realizes over the course of 20 years that she is also a possession.
She is the mayor's trophy wife who is kept in her place—only
a more highfalutin place. As fate would have it, life offers Janie
yet another chance at love and a fuller definition of living. She
meets Vergible "Tea Cake' Woods (Ealy), an migrant
laborer, with a taste for gambling and liquor, who is much younger.
Janie cannot pass up this chance to see if she can, at last, find
a fulfilling love.
This is a quality production by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films.
The settings, which appear to be on location, don't have
that made-for-TV cheesiness. The cast, which also includes Terrence
Howard, delivers believable performances that keep us in the Deep
South during the first half of the 20th Century. Berry has to be
given props for a topshelf performance, and so does Ealy and Santiago-Hudson.
Berry has the starpower to draw audiences but she may be miscast
as a woman described in the book as "very dark" and
therefore defying the typical barriers of color discrimination
within the Black community, especially during this time period.
Also, Berry's stylists may have gone overboard with a long,
wild hair weave that contrasts to the book's depiction of
Janie's hair worn in a long, thick braid.
Despite such troubling departures from the novel's fabric, "Their
Eyes Were Watching God" is a worthy effort at adapting to
the screen one of the great and classic American novels.
"Born into Brothels"
"Born into Brothels"
There is such innocence and sweetness depicted in "Born
into Brothels" that it is easy to forget at moments that
the children featured are growing up in the squalid red light district
of Calcutta, India, and that the mothers of all of these children
work as prostitutes.
The movie, which won an Academy Award, is shot almost entirely
in the narrow alleys and rickety tenements where made-up women
and girls line up shoulder-to-shoulder to feature themselves to
prospective clients. There are no facts or figures given here in
voiceover, or by intellectual talking heads, on poverty or AIDS
in India, or how India's caste system impacts prostitution.
There are, instead, moments of cinema verite, when the camera records
what is happening on the street. One such mesmerizing sequence
is at the start, when the camera captures the flow of activity
at night, seemingly at the eye-level of a young child. In grainy,
slow motion, there is a blur of brightly colored outfits, painted
lips, men walking by to survey the women, figures disappearing
into back rooms closed off only by a curtain. These moments share
time with close-up interviews with the children, who speak frankly
about their lives and aspirations. One girl has been told that
in two years she will join "the line." Another boy,
a talented photographer, broods over his abandonment by his mother
and his father's drug addiction.
Filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski walk a fine line between
pandering to what is lurid and sordid in this environment and,
on the other hand, offering a naïve narrative that ignores
the realities of India's sex workers. Without sentimentality,
the movie makes it clear that without intervention, the children
are almost certain to follow a similar path.
The intervention comes in the form of photography lessons comes
from Briski, a New York-based photographer. The lessons and the
small cameras given to each child provide for this movie close-up
and startling images from the eyes and perspectives of the children.
The lessons and photos also provide a way for Briski to try to
raise money for the children and to expand their world.
This outreach on the part of the artist does take her deep into
the realm of missionary work but I was not offended by it. Rather,
such an effort only seemed natural as an extension of the access
she was granted into an illegal world tolerated by India's
government, and governments the world over. Because Briski is not
a passive observer, she does become a part of the story and, therefore,
a part of the movie. The focus on her is not excessive, however,
but we do watch as she goes through the excruciating paces of finding
a boarding school that will admit the children, and then securing
the proper photos, immunizations and required government records.
Then she tries to convince the parents to let the children go and
convince the children to go. This is far afield from simple photography
and documentary, and it is not clear how much, if any, of this
effort was decided on before the film was made.
"Born into Brothels" is a sobering portrait of life
as it is lived by many children in the world. It doesn't
dig too deeply into the big causes or history, but it casts an
unswervingly sympathetic eye on its young subjects, and its images
tell a thousand words.
Spike Lee's "Sucker
In "Sucker Free City," which premieres on Showtime
this Saturday at 8 p.m., director Spike Lee makes his foray into
an aspect of Black film that he often criticizes—the drug-gang-violence-hip
hop flick that dominates depictions of urban African American life.
In Lee's hands, these familiar themes are made more complex.
No thug and nothing thuggish is painted as glamorous or slick.
Rather, this film is a study of petty, marginal criminals living
Written by a newcomer, Alex Tse, "Sucker Free City" is
set in San Francisco and alternates between the gang activities
of a group of young Black men in the Hunter's Point section
of the city; a hotheaded enforcer for the Chinese Mafia in Chinatown,
and a young White man straddling the white collar work world and
Lee and Tse have a good time making fun of street life stereotypes.
Leon, second in command of the V-Dub street gang in Hunter's
Point, is forever swigging from a huge bottle of malt liquor that
resembles a cartoon rocket. Most of the V-Dub crew acts as if they
are all on "liquid crack." The one exception is K-Luv,
(Anthony Mackie) who doesn't like gang violence and is more
interested in making money by bootlegging CDs. Nick (Ben Crowley),
a young White man who has decided to forego college, has a few
hustles going, including credit card fraud, until he almost gets
caught. In Chinatown, Lincoln (Ken Leung) is collecting protection
money for Mr. Tsing, leader of community's crime organization
and, at the same time, carrying on a secret and scandalous affair
with Mr. Tsing's daughter. Lincoln oozes with insecurity
and racial hang-ups. He tells his younger brothers to be like Yao
Ming, the Chinese basketball player who can "dunk on Shaq" and
challenge the Blacks.
As in most urban flicks of this type, "Sucker Free City" is
a very male world and, unlike the usual thug flicks, the marginalization
of women does not translate into an automatic propping up of men.
Rather, the men are walking and talking examples of criminal and
violent male behavior. They are the collateral damage of a city
and national economy that has pushed them into the few remaining
areas of San Francisco where poor people can afford to live. The
women, for the most part, just aren't relevant. K-Luv has
a girlfriend, the only young Black woman in the story, who is shuffled
off screen in less than a minute, while his grandmother seems to
suffer from dementia. Lincoln's love interest, Angela, is
a spoiled princess who uses him for sex while pushing her preppie
medical student boyfriend toward the altar. Lincoln's sister,
Samantha, as well as his mother, are the only women depicted who
might have a brain.
The varied story lines give the film a sense of layering and complexity,
but, at the same time, the story jumps around quite a bit. In part
to keep the various city neighborhoods straight in the film, a
short paragraph giving some history about each area is flashed
on the screen. Such set-ups make this movie feel like a pilot episode
for a new urban TV series, perhaps something West Coast-based to
rival the East Coast dominance of gritty cable dramas, such as "The
Wire," "The Sopranos" or "Street Time." Nothing
is tied up in a neat Hollywood ending. The story lines are a bit
drawn out, but the characters are certainly interesting and could
Esther Iverem's reviews of these movies also appeared
— March 4, 2005
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