A group of young southern housewives (all brought up by black maids working for meagre payment) gathered around to play bridge every week in each other’s house drinking wine and having fun. Beneath this facade is a series of complex relationships which included jealousy, in-fighting, pretense, hate, and compassion, courage, inferiority, humour, discrimination, ignorance, among very many others. The time was early to late 60s, and the place was Mississippi. The movie is an adaptation of “The Help” a best-selling novel written by 40 year old Kathryn Stockett.
I saw the movie today and it was a moving experience. (I have written a short review on Nigerianstalk.org.) My attention was first called to the movie in May at a house party at a professor’s house. She’s a 70 year old history professor here who occupies a vivid memory span of some of the event recalled in the book. I recommend the movie to everyone who is interested in a few more nuances of the race relations in the South of the 60s and their implications for today’s society. It is an important story.
The adaptation of a stage play to film is tricky, and one should credit Tyler Perry for attempting that uphill task with his adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s play into film. Full disclosure: I am a fan of plays. I am a bigger fan of adaptations, especially if I have read the play first. In this case, I hadn’t. All I had going for me was a perception of the director as one very much in tune with his female base, willing to approach them from the most emotional point of their interest.
I had seen The Diary of a Mad Black Woman – his first film I saw. Then I saw the Madea Family Reunion which featured some of my favourite actresses. Maya Angelou was there. Then there was Why Did I Get Married and its sequel which I grossly disliked (and blogged about) for its over-sensationalist approach to family dysfunctions in the black community. In all his films I have seen, what I always took away is his ability to portray things as they exist in the reality of many. In doing so, he contributes to the (some have said “stereotypical”) portrayal of black life.
Initial thoughts on For Coloured Girls is that it does like all his work – with the brilliant performances of Kimberly Elise, Anika Rose, Phylicia Rashad, and Thandie Newton – once again takes an unflinching look at the painful lives of black women, their pains and victories. The positives are a star-studded cast, a language that sticks as much as possible to the lines of the play, and a story that is as complex as it is haunting. The negatives include the failure of the story to offer more than the pain of loss and the beauty of community. The promise of the first half of the story fails to move anymore after an hour, and at times seems like an earnest fight against an inevitable failing. Maybe it’s in my expectation of too much from it all, or my sociocultural distance from the emotional experience being so beautifully portrayed.
The summation of course is not that we need less of these kinds of works. It is that we need more, and better. And this is where Tyler Perry gets a thumb up.
I have chanced upon a large collection of very old movies some of which I should have seen a long while ago but couldn’t because of inaccessibility. As much as I can, I will tell you my views on them, and the impact they had on me (for those that do make an impact, that is). The last week has been a tour of Guys and Dolls, a movie featuring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando (before he became the large framed guy we grew up knowing). The 1955 musical is famous for being the only movie in which the two famous men starred together, and the only one in which Marlon Brando sang. The story is nuanced and playful, but very entertaining, and timeless.
The other new memorable film I saw, also a musical, is The Fiddler on the Roof, a powerful story of family, love, tradition and the departure therefrom, and the story of the Jewish persecution in Tsarist Russia. I am always inevitably drawn to stories that have real life historical background because they constantly remind that we’re not just watching a movie, but learning from the story of a people that lived during a trying period in the larger history of the world. This story, based on the life of Tevye, a poor Jewish man with five daughters, is set in 1905 and tells of the endurance and transience of tradition, the strength of love’s bond, the perseverance of humanity in the face of persecution, the conviviality of family life, and the presence of hope in every dire situation. It was particularly interesting for me to discover that the persecution of Jews in Russia did not start during the Second World War but had been there far much earlier. And when you see a whole village trooping out on their feet in the cold winter out of a place where they’d lived for generations into the outside world to places unknown, your heart breaks. Add to this a letting go of a father of her daughter who had abandoned the faith and family tradition by marrying a Christian secretly, then you get a scene of denouement with a powerful emotional finish.
I can’t tell you more of any of them without letting out the plot, but I must strongly recommend them for whomever is interested in musicals, history, love, laughter and a few teardrops. You may also come off with a strong love for a few of the songs in The Fiddler on the Roof. My favourite is “Sunrise, Sunset.” and “If I were a rich man”, but you may also like “Tradition” and “Matchmaker.” As for Guys and Dolls, watch out for “Luck be a Lady” and a few other jazz classics.
There are very many memorable scenes in this movie which I was seeing for the very first time but these two stand out. One is the emotionally charged scene of utmost patriotism in the face of danger and oppression. The German soldiers were singing Die Wacht am Rhein and Victor Lazlo comes to overshadow it with the beautiful and heartfelt rendition of La Marseillaise that would make the head of anyone swell, French or not. A very defining scene in fact. I couldn’t get enough of it. (The irony of this scene to a viewer like me lies, of course, in the fact that both the German and the French folks were engaged in that phychological fight for superiority while occupying Morocco, a country that technically belonged to neither of them.)
The other is a very tender love scene full of nostalgia and affection. A black man (perhaps from America, having fleed from the discrimination of the South) played a moving slow rendition of a now favourite song. It was my pleasure to discover on iTunes today that the song As Time Goes By has been remade after the movie by greats like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong among many others. Even Kenny G did an instrumental version. A great song by many standards, and the movie gives a very strong emotional background to its appreciation. Play it Sam.
Full of laughter, drama, intrigue, action, romance and bravery, with very superb acting by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid Casablanca has suddenly become one of my most favourite movies of all time. A wonder I’m seeing it now just for the very first time.