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"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
"Sucker-Free City."
Plus, in Brief, "Hitch" and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman"

By Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic

Talk about these movies and Black film issues! Click here.

In Brief:

Hitch

Hitch?:
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

Diary of a Mad Black Woman:
Realism 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


"Their 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 narrative.

"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 Free City"

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 marginal lives.

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 street hustling.

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 be developed.

Esther Iverem's reviews of these movies also appeared on www.BET.com.

— March 4, 2005

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