Review: ‘Drive-Away Dolls,’ starring Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp and Matt Damon

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in “Drive-Away Dolls” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features)

“Drive-Away Dolls”

Directed by Ethan Coen

Culture Representation: Taking place in December 1999, in various states on the East Coast of the United States, the comedy film “Drive-Away Dolls” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two lesbian best friends go on a road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, Florida, and find out that they are being chased by criminals who want some things that are in the two friends’ rental car. 

Culture Audience: “Drive-Away Dolls” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Ethan Coen and comedies about road trips or lesbians.

Colman Domingo, C.J. Wilson and Joey Slotnick in “Drive-Away Dolls” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Working Title/Focus Features)

Neither terrible nor great, “Drive-Away Dolls” can have some appeal to viewers who are open to raunchy road-trip comedies that have lesbians as the central characters. The wacky tone is off-kilter, but the dialogue and characters are snappy and memorable. The “Drive-Away Dolls” filmmakers have said that it’s intended to be a B-movie (in other words, kind of trashy and kind of goofy), so people won’t have any expectations that “Drive-Away Dolls” is aspiring to be award-winning art.

Directed by Ethan Coen, “Drive-Away Dolls” is his first movie as a solo director since he ended his filmmaking partnership with his older brother Joel Coen. Together, the Coen Brothers’ specialty was making often-violent movies about offbeat characters, with their most-lauded achievement being the 2007 Oscar-winning drama “No Country for Old Men.” Other well-known movies in the Coen Brothers’ filmography include 1996’s crime drama “Fargo,” 1998’s stoner comedy “The Big Lebowski,” 2000’s prisoner escapee thriller “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” and the 2010 remake of the Western “True Grit.”

“Drive-Away Dolls” isn’t nearly as good as the above-named films, but it does have some quirky charm. (The word “quirky” is an over-used description for a Coen movie simply because it describes so many Coen movies.) The trick is how in how much quirkiness can be put into a movie before it becomes very irritating. “Drive-Away Dolls” comes dangerously close to being a constant barrage of quirkiness for the sake of trying to look unconventional. However, the movie takes a turn toward the end that is very conventional, so don’t expect any major plot twists.

Ethan Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke co-wrote the “Drive-Away Dolls” screenplay and are two of the movie’s producers. Cooke identifies as openly queer (as she says in the movie’s production notes and in many interviews), but the movie sometimes looks like it’s treating its lesbian characters (who are all young, under the age of 30) as caricatures. How would “Drive-Away Dolls” be if it had been written by young lesbians instead of a middle-aged husband and wife? We’ll never know, but some of the scenes with sexual activities just seem to be in the movie in a self-conscious way, as if to say: “Look at how progressive we are with these lesbian scenes.”

The racy sexual content can’t quite cover up the obvious: “Drive-Away Dolls” is essentially using the same formula that many road-trip movies have with two people as the central characters: The two people, who usually have opposite personalities, bicker with each other and bond with each other, as they face various obstacles on the way to their destination. If there’s a possibility of romance between the two people, one of the people in this relationship denies or resists the attraction.

In “Drive-Away Dolls,” the two argumentative travel partners are lesbian best friends in Philadelphia—brash and horny Jamie Dobbs (played by Margaret Qualley) and uptight and prudish Marian Pulabi (played by Geraldine Viswanathan)—who go on a road trip together to visit Marian’s aunt in Tallahassee, Florida. Jamie wasn’t officially invited by this aunt, but Jamie persuaded Marian to let Jamie go on this trip. Marian tries to dissuade Jamie from going by saying the visit will probably be boring because Marian’s aunt is a birder who is very conservative. Viewers soon learn that once Jamie has put her mind to getting something, she goes after it with gusto.

Jamie is what some people might call a “sexual free spirit” and what other people might call “promiscuous.” It’s the reason why Jamie’s most recent heartbroken girlfriend Suzanne “Sukie” Singelman, a Philadelphia police officer, has broken up with live-in lover Jamie, who admittedly has a hard time with being monogamous. Early on in the movie is a sex scene between Jamie and a woman named Carla (played by Annie Gonzalez) that has partial nudity but leaves very little doubt about what’s going on in the bed.

Jamie is so well-known at a local lesbian nightclub called Sugar’n’Spice, there’s a scene where she gets in front of a cheering audience to show off some souvenirs of her sexual exploits. Also in the crowd are Marian and Carla, who mildly scolds Marian for being at the club in a business suit. Marian’s excuse is that she just came from her office job and she’s not interested in “peddling her wares” at this pickup joint. Meanwhile, Sukie is so incensed at Jamie’s bragging antics on stage, Sukie storms up to Jamie and punches her.

Sukie has ordered Jamie to move out of the apartment. When Jamie arrives with Marian to pick up Jamie’s belongings, Sukie is trying to unfasten the bolts of a dildo that has been bolted to the lower half of a wall. This sex toy was a gift from Jamie, but Sukie angrily says that she doesn’t want it anymore. It’s intended to be a funny scene in “Drive-Away Dolls,” but if this type of thing doesn’t make you laugh, then “Drive-Away Dolls” is not the movie for you.

Sukie and Jamie also have a pet Chihuahua named Alice that Sukie doesn’t like, but Jamie is reluctant to take the dog because Jamie knows how irresponsible Jamie is. This dog isn’t used for a comedy gimmick as much as you might think it could be. Feeling some break-up blues, Jamie convinces Marian to let Jamie go on this road trip with Marian to Tallahassee.

The very first scene of “Drive-Away Dolls” shows something that is the catalyst for the danger that Jamie and Marian encounter on this trip. A man calling himself Santos (played by Pedro Pascal), but who is listed in the movie’s end credits as The Collector, is sitting by himself at a darkly lit Italian restaurant called Cicero’s and is waiting nervously for someone who doesn’t show up. Santos is clutching a silver metal briefcase. As he leaves the restaurant, he finds out too late that his waiter (played by Gordon MacDonald) was really an assassin, who followed Santos into an alley and killed him in a very gruesome way.

What happened to Santos’ body and the briefcase? And what’s in that briefcase? Those questions are answered in the movie. It’s enough to say that Marian and Jamie go to a car rental place owned by a shifty-looking man named Curlie (played by Bill Camp), who hears that the two women are going to Tallahassee. Curlie knows exactly what car he’s going to give them: an aquamarine blue Dodge Aries.

Not long after Marian and Jamie drive off, three criminals show up expecting to rent this Dodge Aries, and “Tallahassee” was their code word to get the car. There are certain things in the car’s trunk that these thugs want. After Curlie tells them all he knows about the travelers who rented the car, Curlie gets savagely assaulted for the mistake of renting the car to these unsuspecting women.

The three criminals who are on the hunt for Jamie and Marian are a cold and calculating killer called The Chief (played by Colman Domingo), an impatient hothead named Flint (played by C.J. Wilson) and a dorky henchman named Arliss (played by Joey Slotnick), who all work for a mysterious boss who is later revealed in the movie. The Chief, Flint and Arliss start their chase by going to the apartment of Sukie, who was listed as the emergency contact person for Jamie and Marian’s car rental.

“Drive-Away Dolls” stretches out the “opposites attract” schtick between Marian and Jamie for as far as it can go. Marian is horrified when Jamie immediately defaces the car with this graffiti message on the trunk: “Love is a sleigh ride to hell.” Jamie is horrified when Marian admits that she’s been celibate for three years, ever since Marian’s breakup from her ex-girlfriend Donna. During their road trip, Jamie wants to have fun at lesbian bars and pick up sex partners, while Marian would rather sit in bed at night and read a book. The movie makes a big deal out of the fact that Marian is reading Henry James’ “The Europeans” during this trip.

“Drive-Away Dolls” also has psychedelic-looking interludes that feature brief, uncredited appearances by Miley Cyrus as a hippie woman from the 1960s. Her character’s name is later revealed in the movie. The name has a connection to a famous real-life 1960s groupie who died in 2022. If you watch all of the movie’s end credits, you’ll see a caption that shows “Drive-Away Dolls” is dedicated to this real-life groupie.

Fans of Matt Damon (who plays a politically conservative U.S. senator from Florida named Gary Channel) and fans of Pascal should know that the screen time for Pascal and Damon in “Drive-Away Dolls” is limited to less than 10 minutes each, even though Pascal and Damon share top billing in the movie. It’s a “bait and switch” that will turn off some viewers who might be fooled into thinking that Pascal and Damon have a lot of screen time in the movie.

“Drive-Away Dolls” has fun with being campy, but some scenes are kind of useless. For example, Jamie and Marian encounter a traveling all-female soccer team whose members look like they’re in their late teens. Jamie and Marian end up in a hotel room with the team and their young coach, while they all take turns making out with each other.

Everyone on the soccer team is queer? Really? It looks so unrealistic and gratutitous, just for the sake of having a scene showing young women making out with each other in the same room. And what happened to Marian being so uptight? (She’s not drunk in this scene, so intoxication isn’t an excuse.) This is the type of scene that could have been edited out of the movie, and it would have made no difference to the overall story.

Qualley’s acting in “Drive-Away Dolls” looks like she’s trying to mimic the blunt-talking, verbose style of Mattie Ross, the precocious teen character played by Hailee Steinfeld in 2010’s “True Grit.” There’s a clipped, galloping pace to the way they talk that is not unlike the pace of a Kentucky Derby race horse and comes complete with a Southern twang. Jamie is originally from Texas, but her thick Southern accent (which doesn’t sound completely convincing in Qualley’s performance) and Jamie’s personal history with the South aren’t fully explained, considering that the movie makes insulting comments about Florida.

Qualley looks like she’s trying too hard to be funny as Jamie, while Viswanathan has a more naturalistic (and better) comedic style as Marian, who can say more with a few cynical eye rolls than Jamie can say with any of her motormouth rambling. Jamie’s dialogue can be hilarious at times, but it’s very stagy, much like a lot of the comedy in “Drive-Away Dolls.” All the movie’s supporting characters are not developed enough to have full personalities. Just like a slightly rusty car, “Drive-Away Dolls” is a comedy that spurts and lurches and takes a while to rev up, but it eventually can take you on a path that goes where it’s expected to go.

Focus Features released “Drive-Away Dolls” in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on March 12, 2024. “Drive-Away Dolls” will be released on Peaock on April 12, 2024, and on Blu-ray on April 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Rustin’ (2023), starring Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald

January 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan and Colman Domingo in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

“Rustin” (2023)

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, from 1960 to 1963, the dramatic film “Rustin” (based on real events) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Openly gay activist Bayard Rustin battles people inside and outside the civil rights movement in his plans for a large-scale peaceful protest in Washington, D.C., while his personal life has various entanglements.

Culture Audience: “Rustin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a compelling but somewhat formulaic biography about an influential civil rights activist who has historically been overshadowed by more famous people.

Aml Ameen in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

Colman Domingo gives a commanding and charismatic performance in “Rustin,” a briskly paced drama that tells the story of underrated civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who fought several public and private battles against racism and homophobia. It’s the type of movie that never lets you forget that you’re watching a drama, because the main characters often talk as if they’re giving speeches and lectures instead of having normal conversations. The movie delivers plenty of inspiration and heartfelt moments, but it zips around so much, some viewers will think that “Rustin” is a bit shallow and formulaic.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, “Rustin” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008’s “Milk”) and Julian Breece co-wrote the screenplay for “Rustin.” The “Rustin” screenplay isn’t Oscar-worthy, but it has many memorable moments because of the way that the cast members interpret the dialogue. For the purposes of this review, the real Bayard Rustin (who died in 1987, at the age of 75) will be referred to by his last name, while the movie character of Bayard Rustin will be referred to by his first name.

“Rustin” is not a comprehensive biopic, since the story takes place only during the years 1960 to 1963. However, the movie capably shows how Rustin is an often-overlooked influence in the U.S. civil rights movement and was a driving force in the historic 1963 March on Washington. Not all of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios are believable, such as the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Aml Ameen) becomes almost like a sidekick character whenever Bayard (played by Domingo) goes on rants about how Bayard wants things to be.

Although “Rustin” shows Bayard experiencing violent racism (shown mostly in quick flashbacks), the biggest conflicts he has in the movie is with other civil rights officials. “Rustin” takes a realistic look at how internal power struggles and feuds within the U.S. civil rights movement often caused damage to the movement and/or slowed down progress. And in case it isn’t obvious to viewers, Bayard points it out in a preachy comment after preachy comment that racism isn’t the only enemy to the civil rights movement.

Early on in the movie (which is told in chronological order), Adam Clayton Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) tries to ruin Bayard’s reputation by spreading stories that Bayard (an openly gay bachelor with no children) and Martin (a married father) are secret lovers. Bayard vehemently denies this accusation and puts in his resignation notice with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), because he thinks that Martin will back up Bayard and publicly urge him not to leave the NAACP.

However, Bayard (who was based in New York City during this time) doesn’t get Martin’s support, and the NAACP accepts Bayard’s resignation. It leads to a period of estrangement between Martin and Bayard, who becomes disillusioned with the NAACP and other aspects of the civil rights movement. Congressman Powell is portrayed as a power-hungry liar, but he isn’t the only person who becomes an enemy of Bayard.

Bayard’s main adversary in the movie is NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins (played by Chris Rock), who disagrees with Bayard on almost everything. When Bayard comes up with the idea of having a massive protest that would bus in at least 100,000 people from around the United States, Roy tells anyone who’ll listen that it’s a terrible idea because Roy thinks the event would be too expensive and too hard to manage. The 1963 March on Washington ended up getting a crowd of about 250,000 people.

Roy (who is portrayed as egotistical and stubborn) also puts up a lot of resistance to Bayard’s plan to make it a two-day event, because Roy thinks a one-day event is more realistic. Bayard’s most loyal ally in these conflicts is union organizer A. Philip Randolph (played by Glynn Turman), who is like a father figure to Bayard. Bayard’s biological family is not part of the story. (It can be assumed he’s estranged from his family members because they disapprove of his sexuality.)

Meanwhile, although Bayard is open about his sexuality to the people who are closest to him, he struggles with finding a life partner because he’s a workaholic who’s afraid of committing himself to one person. In real life, Rustin often blurred his personal and professional lives, by hiring his lovers as his assistants. He also frequently dated younger men, many who were white. In the movie, the character of Tom (played by Gus Halper), a white worker for the NAACP who becomes Bayard’s assistant, isn’t based on anyone specific but is a composite of these types of men who would be sexually involved with Bayard.

Tom’s on-again/off-again relationship with Bayard gets sidelined in the story when Bayard has a deeper emotional connection with a closeted Christian preacher named Elias Taylor (played by Johnny Ramey), whose wife Claudia Taylor (played by Adrienne Warren) expects Elias to be the heir to her pastor father’s church. “Rustin” gives glimpses into Bayard’s nightlife activities, such as Bayard going to gay bars or cruising for sex partners on the street, but these are very fleeting glimpses. During this time when it was illegal in the U.S. to be homosexual or queer, the movie has one scene showing law enforcement raiding a gay bar that Bayard frequented. Bayard luckily avoids getting arrested in this raid because he wasn’t in the bar at the time.

“Rustin” gives only a very short acknowledgement that although women were valuable members of the civil rights movement, women were often overlooked and underappreciated when it came to who got the most power and the most glory in the movement. Dr. Anna Hedgeman (played by CCH Pounder) is depicted as the character who is the most outspoken about this sexism. Bayard temporarily appeases her by having her be a mid-level manager in the activities that he plans.

Although Bayard shows empathy and support for the women closest to him—including civil rights activist Ella Baker (played by Audra McDonald)—in the end, he doesn’t place a high priority on elevating qualified women into the highest positions of power. The movie has numerous scenes of meetings with African American civil rights leaders, and there are no women in the room. Almost all of the people whom Bayard personally mentors are other men, including an eager young activist named Courtney (played by Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan), who has a platonic relationship with Bayard.

Meanwhile, most of the female actors in the movie are portraying characters who don’t have names and mostly do the work of assistants and secretaries. Martin’s wife Coretta Scott King (played by Carra Patterson), who doesn’t have much screen time in “Rustin,” is shown in the movie only as a housewife, which is what her husband wanted her to be. In real life, she had a college education and her own accomplishments outside of being a wife and mother. Da’Vine Joy Randolph makes a cameo as Mahalia Jackson performing at a rally led by Martin, but this scene-stealing appearance gives no further insight into Jackson’s involvement in the civil rights movement.

Because “Rustin” tends to make Bayard a forceful and dominating presence in every scene that he’s in, other important civil rights leaders are reduced to a handful of soundbites. They include John Lewis (played by Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Medger Evers (played by Rashad Demond Edwards), Cleve Robinson (played by Michael Potts), Whitney Young (played by Kevin Mambo) and James “Jim” Farmer (played by Frank Harts). The obvious intention is to make Bayard look larger-than-life, but it’s often to the detriment of realism and development of other characters in the story that should have been depicted in a more meaningful way.

Some of the movie’s dialogue is a little hokey. For example, in a scene with Tom and Bayard in Bayard’s home, Tom is getting ready to smoke a marijuana joint. Bayard mildly scolds him by saying about smoking marijuana: “Last time I checked, that was illegal.” Tom replies, “Last time I checked, we were illegal.”

But the movie also delivers some memorable zingers, such as a scene where Bayard confronts Martin about homophobia among civil rights officials: “On the day I was born black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”

“Rustin” has a very talented cast, but it’s less of an ensemble movie and more of a showcase for Colman, who admirably brings a lot of soul and vigor to the role. Ameen is very good in the role of Dr. King, but the movie makes the Dr. King character become secondary to Bayard’s outspoken presence whenever they’re in the same room together. It’s a little hard to believe that Dr. King, who had his own strong personality, would be this subdued around someone with less power and less authority in making decisions for the civil rights movement. The movie gives credit to Rustin for influencing Dr. King to follow the non-violent philosophies of Mahatma Ghandi.

“Rustin” wants to make a point of how the real Rustin didn’t get enough credit for things he did behind the scenes in the civil rights movement. But by making him such a big personality who put himself at the center of conflicts, “Rustin” somewhat contradicts this movie’s message that the real Rustin was easily overlooked because he wanted to “fly under the radar.” It’s not until near the end of the movie that the character of Bayard shows humility in not seeking the spotlight for himself in the civil rights movement. A few more of these humble moments would have made the character more interesting and the movie more convincing in its premise that Rustin didn’t really want the widespread public recognition that he deserved.

Netflix released “Rustin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 17, 2023.

Review: ‘The Color Purple’ (2023), starring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey and Phylicia Pearl Mpasi

December 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks in “The Color Purple” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Color Purple” (2023)

Directed by Blitz Bazawule

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia and in Tennessee, from 1909 to 1947, the musical “The Color Purple” (which is inspired by Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name) features a predominantly African American group of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An oppressed woman named Celie endures horrific abuse and a forced separation from her beloved sister, but she meets certain people who change her outlook on life.

Culture Audience: In addition to appealing to the obvious target audience of fans of “The Color Purple” book and its various adaptations, the movie musical version of “The Color Purple” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and filmmakers, as well as to people who don’t mind watching musicals that shows extremes in human emotions.

Colman Domingo in “The Color Purple” (Photo by Ser Baffo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie musical “The Color Purple” creatively blends emotional highs and lows in this glitzier version of the book and the 1985 dramatic movie. More comedy and joy balance out the trauma and abuse, but the overall theme of resilience remains the same. Some fans of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” novel and some fans of director Steven Spielberg’s 1985 “The Color Purple” movie might not warm to this movie musical if they’re offended by the thought of putting song-and-dance numbers in the most upsetting parts of the story, or if they don’t like how the musical alters key parts of the original story in the novel, including the ending. However, fans of the “The Color Purple” stage musical will be pleased by how the 2023 version of “The Color Purple” is faithful to the stage musical while bringing a vibrant cinematic life of its own.

Directed by Blitz Bazawule and written by Marcus Gardley, the 2023 movie musical version of “The Color Purple” astutely depicts the movie’s most fantastical and elaborate production designs as being manifestations of the imagination of protagonist Celie (played by Fantasia Barrino) during moments in her life when she’s dreaming of escaping from her grim circumstances. It’s a manifestation that is ideal for the visual medium of cinema, which has the benefit of film editing that a stage production does not.

The Tony-winning “The Color Purple” stage musical had its first Broadway run from 2005 to 2008; has gone through various touring incarnations; and experienced a successful Broadway revival from 2015 to 2017. Barrino played the role of Celie on Broadway from 2006 to 2007. Marsha Norman wrote the book for the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The songs range from expressing the depths of despair of a mother who has a child taken a way from her (“Somebody Gonna Love You”); the defiant declaration of not putting up with abuse (“Hell No”); the sultry seduction of adults freely expressing their sexuality (“Push Da Button”); and the triumph of independence and self-acceptance (“I’m Here”).

What “The Color Purple” stage musical and movies have in common are the involvement of Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones. Jones was a producer and composer for the 1985 “The Color Purple” movie, and he continued in the role of producer for the stage musical and the 2023 “The Color Purple” movie. Winfrey made her Oscar-nominated movie debut as an actress in 1985’s “The Color Purple,” and she’s a producer of the stage musical and the 2023 “The Color Purple” movie. Spielberg is a producer of “The Color Purple” movies, while Scott Sanders is a producer of “The Color Purple” stage musical and the 2023 version of “The Color Purple.”

“The Color Purple” movie musical (which takes place in Georgia and Tennessee) begins in 1909 in an unnamed rural area of Georgia, where 14-year-old Celie Harris (played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) has given birth to her second child: a son. Celie’s father Alfonso (played by Deon Cole) snatches the child away and cruelly tells Celie that she will never see this child again. He did the same thing when Celie gave birth to her first child, who was a daughter. Both pregnancies resulted from Alfonso raping Celie. It’s implied that Alfonso sold both children to be illegally adopted.

The only happiness that Celie experiences in her life is from her close relationship with her younger sister Nettie (played by Halle Bailey), who is very protective of the more insecure Celie. Nettie is the person who teaches Celie to read. They spend hours reading together, often in a tree, where they can’t be seen by their horrible father.

Alfonso isn’t done selling members of his family. A widower farmer named Albert “Mister” Johnson (played by Colman Domingo) is an abusive bully who is looking for a new wife. He insists that most people call him Mister. Mister is attracted to Nettie, but Alphonso will only allow Mister to marry Celie, who is sold into this marriage by her father when Celie is 18 years old. Barrino portrays Celie as an adult. The rest of the movie shows what happens to Celie through a period of time spanning to 1947.

In the first year of Mister and Celie’s miserable marriage, he lets Nettie live in the same household. But when Nettie rejects Mister’s sexual advances, he evicts her from the house and tells her that she can never come back. This forced separation scene isn’t as heart-wrenching as how it was in the 1985 “The Color Purple” movie, but it’s still one of the more emotionally difficult scenes to watch. Nettie promises to write to Celie every day, but Mister intercepts the letters because he tells fearful Celie (who has been beaten into submission by Mister) that he is the only person in the household who is allowed to handle the mail.

During the worst parts of Celie’s life, she meets certain people who have different effects on how she sees herself and others. Shug Avery (played by Taraji P. Henson) is a Memphis-based jazz and blues singer, who is open about her fluid sexuality. Shug is considered the “morally wayward” daughter of Reverend Avery (played by David Alan Grier), the leader of the local church attended by African American people in Celie’s area.

Mister has been in love with Shug for years. He acts like a giddy schoolboy, every time she visits the area. However, she treats him more like a sexual plaything, and she refuses Mister’s wish to make him her only lover. Mister and Shug openly carry on an affair when she’s visiting. What Shug doesn’t expect is to befriend Celie, who sees life from an entirely new perspective when she gets to know confident and sassy Shug. The connection between Celie and Shug goes beyond friendship into sexual intimacy.

Harpo Jackson (played by Corey Hawkins) is Mister’s sensitive adult son, who falls in love, marries, and starts a family with a feisty and outspoken woman named Sofia (played by Danielle Brooks), who doesn’t hesitate to get involved in physical brawls if anyone tries to pick a fight with her. The marriage of easygoing Harpo and domineering Sofia goes through ups and downs. At one point, they break up, and Harpo moves on to having a live-in girlfriend named Squeak (played by H.E.R.), who gets caught in the middle of the volatile relationship between Sofia and Harpo.

With a cast this talented and with breathtaking musical numbers (including dazzling choreography from Fatima Robinson), it’s hard to go wrong in this musical version of “The Color Purple.” This version of the story puts more emphasis on the “sisterhood” of Celie, Shug and Sofia, compared to the original story that makes Celie much more of a loner character much longer in the story. All three women have their own trials and tribulations in a society that expects them to allow their lives to be dictated and controlled by men.

Barrino, Henson and Brooks are standouts in their own right in this movie. Barrino’s Celie is often downtrodden but never completely pathetic, as she maintain her dignity during all much emotional and physical abuse that is inflicted on her. Barrino depicts Celie with slightly more intelligence than Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Celie in 1985’s “The Color Purple.” (A plot development in the last third of the movie shows Celie getting a life.

Henson puts a more comedic and lively spin on Shug, who has more comeback quips than Margaret Avery’s more understated, Oscar-nominated version of Shug in 1985’s “The Color Purple.” Henson’s Shug (especially during the musical numbers) is bold, brash and not at all interested in being subtle. In this movie, Shug’s signature song “Push Da Button” is every bit the decadent extravaganza that is should be.

Brooks, who had the Tony-nominated role of Sofia in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” is a scene stealer not just with her acting but also with her powerhouse singing. She’s arguably the strongest vocalist in this entire cast. Beyond the vocal theatrics, Brooks brings a swagger to the role of Sofia, whereas Winfrey’s version of Sofia had more stomping. Sofia is lovably flawed with a fiery temper that gets easily triggered, because she’s lived her life constantly being on the defensive from personal attacks.

The original “The Color Purple” novel and movie got some criticism for its portrayal of African American men as being either abusive or wishy-washy. In this version of “The Color Purple,” Mister is not depicted as an irredeemable villain. There are glimpses of his vulnerability, such as his fear of his cantankerous and misogynistic father Ol’ Mister (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), who scolds Mister for not being controlling enough of Celie.

Some viewers might have a problem with a certain turning point in Mister’s story arc that’s very different from the novel, but the intention seems to be to make Mister more human and less of a one-dimensional villain. Domingo as Mister handles this balancing act with considerable skill. The father/son relationship between Mister and Harpo is explored in more depth in addressing issues of how toxic masculinity can be passed down in a family for generations, unless someone in the family is willing to stop the cycle.

Even in settings where many of the characters live in poverty, “The Color Purple” is rich in its depiction of African American culture at this particular time in this region of the United States. The scenes that take place in Celie’s imagination are entirely consistent with how Celie dreams about how her life could be more glamorous and happier than it really is. An inspired set design shows Celie giving Shug a bath, while the bathtub revolves on a giant gramophone turntable.

“The Color Purple” can certainly spark debate about whether or not the world needs another version of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And there are definitely worthy discussions to be had about why so many “awards bait” movies centered on African Americans have a lot of violence, poverty and/or trauma. But for what it is in depicting a specific group of African Americans during a time in American history before the U.S. civil rights movement, this version of “The Color Purple” is a worthy adaptation that gives each of the principal characters clear and distinctive personalities and varied ways to better understand who they are.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Color Purple” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023. UPDATE: The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 16, 2024.

Review: ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,’ starring the voices of Lana Condor, Annie Murphy, Toni Collette, Sam Richardson, Will Forte, Colman Domingo and Jane Fonda

June 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chelsea Van Der Zee (voiced by Annie Murphy) and Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken”

Directed by Kirk DeMicco

Culture Representation: Taking place in the U.S. city of Oceanside, the animated film “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” features a cast of characters depicting humans, krakens and mermaids.

Culture Clash: A female teenage Kraken, whose family has been hiding its kraken identity from humans, uncovers an ancient legacy when a rival new student enrolls in her school. 

Culture Audience: “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” will appeal primarily to people who want to see reliably entertaining animated films with simple messages about self-confidence and being yourself.

Pictured from left to right: Trevin (voiced by Eduardo Franco), Margot (foreground, voiced by Liza Koshy), Bliss (voiced by Ramona Young), Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) and Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White) in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” does what it’s supposed to do as a family-oriented animated film. The story and visuals are appealing, but improvement was needed in world building and explaining various characters’ backstories much earlier in the movie. If you don’t know what a kraken is and have no interest in finding out, then skip this movie. Everyone else will at least be mildly entertained by this animated movie that is adequate but not a classic.

Directed by Kirk DeMicco, “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” has an over-used story of a teenage girl trying to fit in at her school while having a crush on a boy whom she wants to date. However, the movie should be commended for at least taking a unique and darking approach of making a kraken family at the center of the story. It’s something that no animated film from a major Hollywood studio has ever done before. Pam Brady, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi wrote the screenplay for “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” with additional screenplay material written by DeMicco, Meghan Malloy and Michael McCullers.

A kraken is a giant mythical sea monster whose origins are off of the coast of Norway. In “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” 16-year-old Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor) and her family are living “under the radar” in the U.S. city of Oceanside, by having the appearance of humans and trying fit in as human beings. What’s kind of silly about the movie is that the members of this kraken family all have blue skin, which makes it obvious that they’re not human. It would look worse in a live-action film, but in an animated film, there’s more room for suspension of disbelief.

Ruby is intelligent and compassionate, but she insecure about her physical appearance, and she has a slightly goofy personality. Her overprotective mother Agatha Gillman (voiced by Toni Collette) is a successful real-estate agent who dominates the household and is the main parental disciplinarian. Ruby’s laid-back father Arthur Gillman (voiced by Colman Domingo) is much more lenient and understanding of Ruby’s curiosity. Also in the household is Ruby’s 7-year-old brother Sam Gillman (voiced by Blue Chapman), who has the “cute kid” role in the movie.

Agatha and Arthur know that their family is “different,” but they have instilled the attitude in their children that they must blend in with humans as much as possible. Agatha’s number-one rule for her children (especially Ruby) s that they must never go inside or near a large body of water. Needless to say, Agatha is horrified and disapproving when Ruby says she’s interested in studying marine biology for a possible career.

Ruby attends Oceanside High School, where she has a small circle of three friends who are all considered “misfits,” just like Ruby. Margot (voiced by Liza Koshy), who is queer or a lesbian, loves musical theater and is the most talkative and outspoken of the friends. Trevin (voiced by Eduardo Franco), the quietest of the group, is addicted to playing hand-held video games. Bliss (voiced by Ramona Young) is moody, sarcastic, and dresses like a nerdy Goth.

Ruby prides herself on being a “mathlete”—someone who excels at math and at being an athlete. She has a big crush on a fellow student whom she’s tutoring in math. His name is Connor (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who is a free-spirited skateboarder. The school’s prom is coming up. Ruby, Connor, and Ruby’s friends all think the concept of a prom is a “post-colonial patriarchal construct” that they think is very uncool.

However, Margot ends up changing her mind about boycotting the school’s prom when her girl crush asks Margo to be her prom date. Trevin and Bliss then want to go to the school’s prom too. Feeling left out, Ruby decides she wants to also attend the prom, with Connor as her date. Ruby tries to work up the courage to ask Connor, who’s attracted to her, but Ruby isn’t seeing the obvious signs of this attraction.

The added allure for Ruby to go to the prom is that it will be an act of rebellion against her mother. As soon as Agatha found out that the prom will take place in a building that’s near the ocean, she forbade Ruby from going. Margot, Trevin and Bliss convince Ruby that she shouldn’t be so afraid of getting her mother’s disapproval for something that should be a fun and positive experience for Ruby. These three pals tells Ruby that she should lie to Agatha about where she is going on the prom night and go to the prom instead.

Shortly before Ruby decides she’s going to ask Connor to be her prom date, he accidentally falls into the ocean and almost drowns. Ruby dives in to rescues him. And that’s when Ruby finds out that she can turn into a giant kraken. She’s horrified and now knows why her mother Agatha forbade her to go into any large body of water. Connor is unconscious and doesn’t see who rescued him. After a short stay in a hospital, he is released.

Meanwhile, there’s a new student at Oceanside High School: a confident, physically attractive redhead named Chelsea Van Der Zee (played by Annie Murphy), who witnessed this rescue and knows that Ruby wants to keep Ruby’s kraken identity a secret. And so, Chelsea takes credit for rescuing Connor. People believe Chelsea’s fabricated “hero” story, and she immediately becomes popular. As already shown in the “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” trailers, Chelsea has a secret identity too: She’s really a mermaid.

There are more Gillman family secrets that are revealed to Ruby, including a longtime feud between mermaids and krakens. Agatha’s bold and confident mother, whose only name in the movie is Grandmamah (voiced by Jane Fonda), comes from a long line of kraken warrior queens. Grandmamah is estranged from Agatha, who refused to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Ruby also finds out that 15 years earlier, there was a Battle of the Tridents, where mermaids were defeated and went into hiding. There’s an all-powerful trident that mermaids and krakens have been battling over for several generations. When Ruby decides she’s going to embrace her kraken heritage and asks Grandmamah to mentor her, you can easily guess what the movie’s big showdown will be.

Other featured characters in this movie includes a local tour guide Gordon Lighthouse (voiced by Will Forte), who has a boat and who believes that krakens are very dangerous for people. Brill voiced by Sam Richardson) is Agatha’s younger brother, who is earnest and dorky. He’s the type who wears Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals with socks. Brill ends up getting involved in some of Ruby’s adventures.

“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” has some explanations about kraken and mermaid lore in the middle of the movie, when those explanations should have been earlier in the film. The characters of Ruby, Agatha and Grandmamah have well-defined personalities, but some other characters (such as Sam and Bliss) don’t do much except take up space. Other characters (such as “cool love interest” Connor, “mean girl” Chelsea and “meddling neighbor” Gordon) are the types of characters that have been in many other types of scripted entertainment.

Some viewers might compare “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” to the 2022 Oscar-nominated Pixar movie “Turning Red” because there are some striking similarities. “Turning Red” is a much better movie overall, but “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” isn’t an intentional ripoff. “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” was in development for years prior to it getting made, so any similarities to “Turning Red” are coincidental.

Everything in “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” is just fine or average, but not so terrible that it feels like a complete waste of time to watch it. There’s a jumbled explanation of the Battle of the Tridents, but it’s not so confusing that viewers will feel lost. At the very least, anyone who watches “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” will see a teenage heroine who is very different from the usual teenage heroines in other animated films.

Universal Pictures will release “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken” in U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2023.

Review: ‘Candyman’ (2021), starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Colman Domingo

August 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Candyman” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Candyman” (2021)

Directed by Nia DaCosta

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, the horror film “Candyman” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An up-and-coming conceptual artist (whose latest art exhibition explores themes of racism against black people) experiences the horror of Candyman, a legendary African American ghost representing black people who have been the targets of violent racism.

Culture Audience: “Candyman” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the 1992 “Candyman” movie, filmmaker Jordan Peele and horror movies that have themes of racial inequalities and social justice.

Teyonah Parris and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Candyman” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The 2021 movie “Candyman” is not a remake/reboot of the 1992 horror movie “Candyman” It’s a very worthy sequel that takes a more creative and more socially conscious approach to race relations and racist violence than the first “Candyman” movie. The 2021 “Candyman” somewhat sputters out toward the end, almost like the filmmakers ran out of ideas of how the story should conclude. But most of the movie strikes the right balance of paying homage to the original “Candyman” while coming up with its own clever sequel story.

The fact that the 2021 “Candyman” movie is a sequel, not a remake/reboot, is hinted at in the movie’s first trailer, which briefly features Vanessa Estelle Williams, who was a cast member of the original “Candyman” movie. She makes a non-flashback cameo in the 2021 “Candyman” that is memorable and not too surprising, considering her character’s story line in 1992’s “Candyman.” And there’s another non-flashback cameo from another original “Candyman” cast member that is supposed to be a sudden plot twist, but this person’s appearance is not really a surprise. It would only be a surprise if this person wasn’t in this sequel.

One the main differences in the 2021 “Candyman” movie and the 1992 “Candyman” movie is that the latter film now has diversity in the race and gender of the writers, producers and directors. The 1992 “Candyman” had only white men as the director, writer and producers. Meanwhile, 2021’s “Candyman” has an African American woman as the director/co-writer (Nia DaCosta) and an African American man (Jordan Peele) as a co-writer/producer.

DaCosta and Peele co-wrote the 2021 “Candyman” screenplay with Win Rosenfeld, who is one of the producers of the film. Ian Cooper is the other producer of 2021’s “Candyman.” Peele was the first black person to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; it was for his 2017 horror film “Get Out.” He has said in many interviews that he wants the horror movies that he writes and produces to explore themes of racism and race relations.

Peele was originally going to direct this “Candyman” sequel, but instead handed over the directorial reins to DaCosta. “Candyman” is her second feature film, and it shows that she has immense talent, especially when it comes to crafting visuals that are perfectly suited for the story. It’s rare for a horror movie directed by a woman of color to be released worldwide by a major studio. Let’s hope that “Candyman” is a step in the right direction for more opportunities to be opened up to talented and qualified women of color directors for horror movies, a genre that is overwhelmingly dominated by white male directors.

People don’t need to see the 1992 “Candyman” to understand the 2021 “Candyman” movie, which does an excellent job of recapping and explaining the original “Candyman” film. Candyman is a mysterious and vengeful ghost of an African American man who died because of racist violence. Both movies takes place in Chicago, but the themes in both films speak to universal and ugly truths about how racism is usually the reason why black people are harmed by people of other races.

In the 1992 “Candyman” movie, Candyman’s real name was Daniel Robitaille (played by Tony Todd), an artist/slave’s son who was murdered by a racist white mob in 1890. Why was he murdered? He and Caroline Sullivan, the daughter of a white aristocrat, fell in love with each other, and she got pregnant. Daniel met Caroline because her father had hired Daniel to paint her portrait.

Before he was murdered, right-handed Daniel’s right hand was amputated. As a ghost, he now has a hook where his right hand was. The angry mob of people who killed Daniel covered him in honey and unloaded a swarm of bees onto him. The ghost of Candyman is supposed to appear when someone looks in a mirror and chants “Candyman” five times. If there are bees nearby, that means Candyman could be somewhere close.

In the 1992 “Candyman” movie, university graduate student Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen) is researching the Candyman legend for a doctorate thesis. Candyman is summoned, and he ends up wreaking havoc in Helen’s life, as she is blamed for murders that Candyman committed. In the movie, Williams portrays a single mother named Anne-Marie McCoy, whose baby son was kidnapped. Anne-Marie lives in Chicago’s low-income Cabrini-Green area, where many of the African American residents believe that Candyman is real.

One of the criticisms that the original “Candyman” got was how a movie that was supposed to be about an African American ghost haunted by racist trauma instead centered the story on a white woman who was being blamed for a black man’s crimes. In addition, there was a sexual component to why Candyman specifically targeted Helen (it’s explained why in the movie), as if Candyman’s main priority was to go after a white woman as a sexual conquest. It played into the same racist stereotypes that got Candyman murdered.

The 2021 “Candyman” movie attempts to remedy some of these problematic racial depictions, by making toxic people the targets of Candyman’s wrath. There’s a middle-aged boss who abuses his power by sleeping with his willing young adult female interns, because he implies that he’ll give them career rewards if they sleep with him. There’s a racially condescending art critic who has no problem exploiting black people’s pain in art if it means she’ll get some glory from writing about it. There’s a small group of “mean girls” in high school who bully an African American female student. And, not surprisingly, racist white cops are the biggest villains in the story.

In the 2021 “Candyman,” up-and-coming conceptual artist Anthony McCoy (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) decides to make the Candyman legend the theme for an art installation that is part of a gallery display. Anthony’s live-in girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (played by Teyonah Parris) is a curator at the gallery, which is owned by her boss Clive Privler (played by Mike Davis), who is very impressed with Anthony’s talent. Anthony hasn’t been able to make money as an artist for quite some time, so this gallery exhibit is a big career boost for him.

Before he creates the art installation, Anthony does more research into the Candyman legend by going to the places in the area formerly known as Cabrini-Green, where Candyman was known to haunt. In real life, the Cabrini-Green housing project’s buildings were torn down from 1995 to 2011, to make way for gentrification. While in the former Cabrini-Green area, Anthony gets stung by a bee on his right hand.

Anthony also meets someone named William Burke (played by Colman Domingo), who claims to have seen Candyman. It happened when William was about 11 or 12 years old. Back then, William went by the name Billy (played by Rodney L. Jones III), who grew up in Cabrini-Green.

Billy first saw this man named Sherman Fields (played by Michael Hargrove) literally come out of a hole in the wall of public laundry room to offer William some candy. (It’s one of the creepier scenes in the movie.) At the time, someone was going around the neighborhood giving kids candy that had razor blades hidden in the candy.

Did Sherman do the same thing to Billy? That question is answered in the movie. But it’s enough to say that a sketch of Sherman is on a “Wanted” poster that the cops have posted in the neighborhood. Billy is frightened by this stranger and sees him as Candyman. Billy yells for help. Some patrol officers who were staked out in their car nearby storm into the room to rescue Billy and arrest Sherman. Things do not end well for Sherman, an unarmed black man surrounded by white police officers.

It’s not spoiler information to say that the 2021 “Candyman” movie takes the approach that several black men who were murdered by angry and racist white people could become Candyman. William says in the movie: “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that it’s happened—that it’s still happening.” At another point in the movie, William says, “Candyman ain’t a ‘he.’ Candyman’s the whole damn hive.”

“Candyman” also has plenty of social commentary on gentrification. Cabrini-Green has been renamed the North Side, which is the home of upscale residential buildings that were developed as low-income people were priced out of the neighborhood, and higher-income people (usually white) moved in. Anthony and Brianna live in one of these upscale high-rise buildings.

Brianna comes from a cultured and educated family, so her background is very different from Anthony’s background. But that doesn’t mean she had a perfect childhood, because she’s haunted by a childhood tragedy that’s revealed in this movie. Brianna’s openly gay and sassy younger brother Troy (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) provides much of the comic relief and “real talk” in the movie. He has a new-ish boyfriend named Grady (played by Kyle Kaminsky), who is as laid-back as Troy is energetic.

Troy is the one who actually tells Brianna and Anthony the legend of Candyman. It’s in an early scene in the film where Anthony and Brianna have invited Troy and Grady over to dinner for a small housewarming celebration, since Anthony and Brianna have recently moved into this loft apartment. Brianna scoffs at the idea of believing in ghosts, while Anthony is intrigued. Once he hears about Candyman and looks further into Candyman stories, he’s inspired to make it a theme for his current art installation. And it’s about time that Anthony gets paid for his work, because Troy is starting to disapprove of Anthony being constantly broke while Brianna has to pay all of the couple’s bills.

Brianna, Troy and some of the black people who interact with them at the art gallery represent the educated African Americans who too often are overlooked or underrepresented in American-made movies. The 1992 “Candyman” movie had some of this representation with Helen’s best friend Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh (played by Kasi Lemmons), who was also Helen’s partner in writing their doctoral thesis. However, the rest of the black people in the first “Candyman” movie were working-class or poor people from the ghetto.

Brianna and Troy are immersed in the art world. Their late father Gil Cartwright (seen in a flashback and played by Cedric Mays) was an artist. Brianna also mentions at one point in the movie that up until Troy started dating Grady, Troy had a pattern of dating European artists. The movie shows what often happens when black people have to navigate in an industry dominated by white people, some who are often racially condescending, racially insensitive or downright racist when it comes to judging people who aren’t white.

The snooty art critic Finley Stephens (played by Rebecca Spence) represents this entitled mindset of white supremacy. When she first sees Anthony’s at installation at the gallery, she dismisses it as mediocre and trite depictions of racial injustice, possibly because what she sees in the art installation makes her uncomfortable. But when certain murders happen and start to be linked to the Candyman legend, Anthony’s art gets a lot of media attention.

And suddenly, Finley changes her tune. She praises Anthony for being a visionary and arranges to interview him for an article. It’s an example of how some white people who are media influencers only seem to care about up-and-coming black artists when those artists are getting attention from media outlets that have a mostly white audience. When Finley interviews Anthony, more of her racial condescension is on display.

“Candyman” is a visually compelling movie that makes use of shadow puppetry to tell parts of the Candyman story. It’s a better alternative than using live actors to re-enact the racist violence that’s in the movie. DaCosta brings a confident tone to her horror storytelling, which remains grounded in realism, even as supernatural occurrences are happening around the characters. The first “Candyman” movie had some over-the-top hokey moments, but the 2021 “Candyman” movie never lets you forget that racist violence is a real-life horror story for too many people.

There are also some gruesome but realistic-looking visual effects and makeup, especially when Anthony’s bee sting turns into an alarming infection that spreads through his right arm and beyond. Musically, the 2021 “Candyman” movie score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (also known as Lichens) skillfully builds off of Philip Glass’ memorable score for the 1992 “Candyman,” including Glass’ haunting piano refrain that has become the franchise’s musical signature. Violence and gore are expected, but they aren’t gratuitous or exploitative in the 2021 “Candyman” movie. The point of the movie is to show that racism and revenge for racist crimes create a vicious cycle where there are no real winners.

The casting of this “Candyman” film is top-notch. The result is acting that is superior to the average horror movie. Everyone plays their roles well, with Abdul-Mateen, Domingo and Stewart-Jarrett as particular standouts. But realistically, no one in this cast is going to be nominated for Oscars because the acting isn’t Oscar-caliber. And this “Candyman” movie could have had more speaking roles for Asians and Hispanics.

The plot starts to get a little messy in the last 20 minutes of the film. Now that viewers know that several people could be Candyman, there could be an untold number of “Candyman” sequels. However, future “Candyman” sequels are better served by limiting the Candyman character to being depicted by just one person per movie and giving that person an interesting character arc. Otherwise, too many Candymen in a movie can spoil the story.

Universal Pictures will release “Candyman” in U.S. cinemas on August 27, 2021.

Review: ‘The God Committee,’ starring Kelsey Grammer, Julia Stiles, Janeane Garofalo, Dan Hedaya and Colman Domingo

July 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kelsey Grammer and Colman Domingo in “The God Committee” (Photo by Matt Sakatani Roe/Vertical Entertainment)

“The God Committee”

Directed by Austin Stark

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2014 and 2021, mostly in New York City, the dramatic film “The God Committee” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A hospital committee has a limited time to decide which patient will get a life-or-death heart transplant; years later, one of the committee members ends up being involved in a controversial heart transplant experiment. 

Culture Audience: “The God Committee” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in medical dramas about ethical dilemmas and won’t mind too much that there’s a far-fetched sci-fi aspect to the film.

Julia Stiles and Kelsey Grammer in “The God Committee” (Photo by Matt Sakatani Roe/Vertical Entertainment)

The medical drama “The God Committee” has enough gripping suspense that it didn’t need a futuristic subplot about experiments to use pig hearts in heart transplants for humans. Although this type of medical advancement could happen in an unknown future, it’s a part of the movie that’s an unnecessary distraction from the real story: the debates and dealings that go on behind the scenes when medical committees decide which people deserve organ transplants the most.

Austin Stark directed and wrote the screenplay for “The God Committee,” which is based on Mark St. Germain’s play of the same name. Stark does an admirable job of making this story as cinematic as possible, with numerous realistic set pieces and compelling cinematography by Matt Sakatani Roe. There’s nothing in this movie that looks like a theater stage at all.

“The God Committee,” which is set mostly in New York City, jumps back and forth in time between two years: 2014 and 2021. The movie opens in Buffalo, New York, in 2014, when 18-year-old Eli Gurny (played by Daniel Taveras) is shown being accidentally hit and killed by a car while riding his bicycle on the street. He was a healthy organ donor, and his heart has been made available in November 2014 to an unnamed hospital in New York City.

Dr. Andre Boxer (played by Kelsey Grammer), an influential and arrogant surgeon at the hospital, has been told that one of his patients has priority to get the heart. The patient’s name is Selena Vazquez (played by Patricia Mauceri), a widowed grandmother who desperately needs a heart transplant to stay alive. She’s already been told that she’s getting this new heart, so she’s relieved and elated.

However, Dr. Boxer has other plans for that heart, and he shares this information with his much-younger secret lover, another doctor who works at the same hospital. Her name is Dr. Jordan Taylor (played by Julia Stiles), who hasn’t been working at the hospital for very long. Dr. Taylor and Dr. Boxer, who are both unmarried, have agreed to keep their fling a secret because they don’t want it to taint their professional reputations.

The morning after Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor have spent the night together at his place, Dr. Boxer tells her that he’s not going to let his patient Selena Vazquez have the young, healthy donor heart that she was promised, because Dr. Boxer thinks that Selena is too old to deserve this heart. Dr. Taylor reacts with dismay and disgust, but Dr. Boxer has already made up his mind. It’s the first sign that Dr. Boxer has a “god complex,” where he knows that he has considerable power to make life-or-death decisions.

Dr. Taylor isn’t just disappointed with Dr. Boxer for this decision. She also seems to want more from the relationship than he’s willing to give her: possibly some real love or at least enough respect to act like he’s not embarrassed to be seen with her in public. When Dr. Boxer drives himself and Dr. Taylor to the hospital, he makes sure to drop off Dr. Taylor far enough away from the hospital entrance, to minimize the chance that any co-workers will see that Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor took the same car to work. She reacts by saying in an exasperated tone about their secret relationship: “Boxer, the only person I’m silently judging on in this—whatever this is—is myself.”

Now that Dr. Boxer has made up his mind that his patient Selena Vazquez won’t get the heart, who will get this organ transplant? Most of the movie is a riveting debate among the five people on the hospital’s organ transplant committee who will vote to make the decision. Dr. Taylor is the committtee’s newest member, who will be replacing Dr. Boxer on the committee, much to Dr. Boxer’s annoyance. He’s being replaced because he had already announced his resignation from the hospital to join the private sector.

Dr. Boxer had no say in who would replace him on the hospital’s organ transplant committee. He doesn’t hesitate to let Dr. Taylor and other colleagues know that he doesn’t think Dr. Taylor is a good choice to replace him on the committee because he doesn’t think she has enough experience as a doctor to make organ transplant decisions. Needless to say, it’s very easy to see that the fling between Dr. Taylor and Dr. Boxer isn’t going to last much longer.

Dr. Boxer won’t have long to complain about Dr. Taylor replacing him on the committee, because he will be leaving the hospital in December 2014, just one month after the committee makes the decision about who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. In the movie’s scenes that take place in 2021, viewers see what Dr. Boxer was doing for work after leaving the employment of the hospital: He became the lead scientist for an experiment called X-Origins, which would allow organs from different species to be transplanted into each other.

Back in November 2014, the issue of who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart will be decided in a matter of a few hours. The five people on the organ transplant committee are:

  • Dr. Boxer, who is stubborn and the most hardline about making decisions based on science, statistics and logic, not sentiment or emotions.
  • Dr. Taylor, who is compassionate and open to take other factors into consideration besides science, statistics and logic. She also thinks ethics are essential in making her decision.
  • Dr. Valerie Gilroy (played by Janeane Garofalo), a tough-talking bureaucrat, who is well-aware of the financial problems that the hospital is facing. She’s also feeling pressure because a national medical publication recently downgraded the hospital’s rating, and she wants to bring the rating back up.
  • Nurse Wilkes (played by Patricia R. Floyd), a somewhat gossipy and very outspoken person, who is most likely to know a patient’s day-to-day actions in the hospital and the most likely to let a patient’s personality be a factor in her decision.
  • Dr. Lau (played by Peter Kim), a psychiatrist who is very analytical and is the least-talkative committee member.

A sixth member is normally part of the committee, but that person is unvailable. However, a sixth person will be sitting in, but not voting, on this committee’s deliberation over who will get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. This sixth person is Father Charlie Dunbar (played by Colman Domingo), who has been a priest for only three years. Before becoming a priest, Father Dunbar was a defense attorney for 15 years, and he was married.

Father Dunbar’s purpose for sitting in on this meeting is to provide any advice or opinions if anyone on the committee is struggling with moral or ethical issues in making their decision. He’s there because the hospital’s board of directors felt it was necessary that morality and ethics should not be overlooked when making these life-or-death decisions, in case any outside people question the committee’s decisions. Father Dunbar is available to counsel the committee members as a group and on an individual basis.

Dr. Boxer strongly believes that religion or spirituality should play no role in the committee’s medical decisions, so he thinks that Father Dunbar has no business sitting in on any of the committee’s meetings. There’s nothing Dr. Boxer can do about it though except try to ignore what Father Dunbar has to say. Dr. Boxer and Father Dunbar predictably clash during this committee deliberation.

Later, it’s revealed that Father Dunbar left the legal profession under a cloud of suspicion and scandal before he became a priest: He was disbarred in 2006 for doing something illegal that isn’t fully explained in the movie. And he avoided prison by “finding God” and cutting a deal with the district attorney. You can bet that this scandal will be brought up when the inevitable arguments happen during these committee meetings.

There are three patients at the hospital who’ve been moved to the top priority list to get the next available heart transplant. The problem is that due to a shortage of available hearts, only one can get an immediate transplant, and that person will get Eli Gurny’s heart. The other two patients will have to wait for a heart transplant for an undetermined period of time.

The three patients whose future health will be decided by this committee are:

  • Trip Granger (played by Maurizio Di Meo), a 30-year-old scion who hasn’t done much with his life but party a lot and live off of his rich father’s money. Trip is a recovering drug addict who has recently been admitted to the hospital after having a heart attack. If the toxicology reports find that his heart attack was drug-related, he will be ineligible for the heart transplant, because he’s been hospitalized before for overdosing on cocaine.
  • Walter Curtis (played by Kyle Moore), a 48-year-old married father who has a steady job, which he needs to help support his family. Those factors are to his advantage in getting the committee members to vote for him. However, what works against Walter is that he’s overweight and bipolar, which are two factors that make some of the committee members think he won’t be a good risk for the heart transplant.
  • Janet Pike (played by Georgia Buchanan), a 59-year-old wealthy widow with no children and no living relatives. To her advantage, she doesn’t have any problems with her weight or mental health. But to her disadvantage, she doesn’t have a support system of family members; a younger candidate could be considered a better option; and she has expressed resistance/hesitation in the past about getting an organ transplant.

There are more than just statistics that factor into the decision making, so there are plenty of arguments and debates on the committee. Trip’s wealthy mogul father Emmett Granger (played by Dan Hedaya), who accompanied Trip when Trip was taken to the hospital’s emergency room, has met with Dr. Gilroy privately and made a very tempting offer: He’s told her that his non-profit Granger Foundation is willing to donate $25 million to the hospital if Trip gets the heart transplant.

It’s money that the hospital desperately needs for important equipment upgrades and other improvements. Dr. Gilroy is also eager to do anything she can to boost the hospital’s industry rating, which directly impacts her career at the hospital. But what Emmett is offering is essentially a bribe. And would Trip deserve to get the heart transplant, even if no money was being offered?

Certain members of the committee are leaning toward Walter getting the transplant because he has a family to support and he seems to be the most willing to get the transplant. However, other committee members express doubts about Walter because it’s revealed that Walter attempted suicide, before he was diagnosed with being bipolar. He has responded well to his bipolar medication since then, which some people on the committee think is encouraging, while others think Walter’s past suicide attempt should disqualify him, no matter what.

The main issues that certain people on the committee have with Janet are that she’s the oldest candidate, she has no family members, she’s ambivalent about getting an organ transplant, and one of the people on the committee describes Janet as a “bitch.” This derogatory name calling gets Dr. Boxer very irritated because he thinks that the committee’s decision should not be based on which patient has the nicest personality. Although she is wealthy, Janet has not hinted that she’s willing to bribe the hospital so that she can get the transplant, and it’s unlikely that she would ever make that unethical offer.

Trip has been unconscious since he was brought to the hospital, so no one in the hospital really knows what he has to say for himself about getting a heart transplant. But someone who knows Trip very well was hospitalized at the same time as Trip was: his girlfriend Holly Matson (played by Elizabeth Masucci), who has mysterious lacerations and bruises on her body. Because Holly is awake and able to talk, Dr. Taylor has an empathetic conversation with Holly to find out if Trip was using drugs before having his heart attack and to find out why Holly is physically injured. Holly seems terrified to say how she got her injuries, but she tells Dr. Taylor some important information that could affect how the committee members will vote.

The committee’s debate over who should get the heart transplant comes with some intriguing twists and turns. Many details, including Trip’s toxicology test results, are revealed that can sway people’s decisions. And each person on the committee brings personal agendas and biases. However, not much backstory is given on these characters because the movie’s main focus is on what these characters do in 2014 and 2021.

There’s an early scene in 2014, when Dr. Taylor is talking to a hospital colleague, who knows that Dr. Taylor’s mother is a well-known plastic surgeon. When the colleague asks Dr. Taylor why she didn’t become a plastic surgeon too, Dr. Taylor says she wanted to become an organ transplant surgeon because “I watched a friend from college die, waiting for a heart [transplant].” It’s implied that this tragic personal experience influences how Dr. Taylor thinks and acts on the committee.

What’s less interesting about “The God Committee” is the time spent in the 2021 scenes on Dr. Boxer’s lab experiments for X-Origins. It’s not spoiler information to say that one of the results of these experiments is that he discovers that a pig’s heart can be successfully transplanted into a human. Considering that this type of transplant is not medically possible in 2021, it gives “The God Committee” a science fiction tone that the movie doesn’t need.

There’s a lot more that’s revealed in the 2021 scenes about what happened to Dr. Boxer and Dr. Taylor since they stopped working together at the hospital. They are both still living in New York City in 2021, so there are scenes where they cross paths again. The decision that the committee made about which patient got Eli Gurny’s donated heart has ripple effects that have continued into 2021 and beyond. There’s a plot development in the 2021 part of the movie that’s a little bit like a soap opera, but it would be entirely plausible in real life.

If the “God Committee” had left out all the sci-fi medical experiments, it would have been a much better movie. It could easily stand on its own as an engaging medical drama, solely based on the dilemmas faced by the committee in deciding which patient should get Eli Gurny’s donated heart. Since it’s the main plot of the film and because all the principal cast members give very good performances, any other flaws of the movie are overshadowed by these assets.

No matter what scientific and technological advances there will be health care, “The God Committee” takes a fascinating and sometime disturbing look at the human foibles that are inevitable when human beings make medical decisions. Needless to say, socioeconomic factors are also directly related to what type of health care an individual receives. But the movie’s intention is to make people think more about which medical professionals get to make life-or-death decisions for organ transplants and how much power these people should really have.

Vertical Entertainment released “The God Committee” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Zola,’ starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough

June 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Zola”

Directed by Janicza Bravo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Florida and briefly in Detroit, the comedy/drama “Zola” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A stripper-turned-waitress in Detroit meets and quickly befriends a scheming stripper, who entices to the waitress to travel to Florida to make easy money stripping for a weekend that ends up wilder than they both expect.

Culture Audience: “Zola” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramedies about the perils of being a sex worker that are raunchy and violent with a quirky and sometimes off-kilter vibe.

Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

The dramedy film “Zola” (directed by Janicza Bravo) has been getting a lot of comparisons to director Harmony Korine’s 2013 violent and hedonistic romp “Spring Breakers” and director Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 stripper crime drama “Hustlers.” It’s probably because all three movies, which blend carefree partying with an ongoing sense of danger, are about women unapologetically using their bodies and sex appeal to get what they want, as they have various levels of involvement with sleazy characters. “Zola” is not as hilariously bonkers as “Spring Breakers,” and it’s not as well-paced as “Hustlers,” but there are enough offbeat comedic moments and memorable performances for people curious enough to take this bumpy ride with two very different strippers.

The “Zola” screenplay, written by director Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, is based on a series of real-life tweets made in 2015 by A’Ziah “Zola” King, who went on an epic 148-tweet rant about her misadventures during a stripper road trip with a fast friend who eventually became her enemy. (The movie’s prologue has a statement that reads, “What follows is mostly true.”) In real life, this friend-tuned-foe is named Jessica Rae Swiatkowski. In the movie, her name is Stefani Jezowski.

And in the beginning of the movie, Zola (played by Taylour Paige) gets right to the point when she says in a voiceover: “You want to know how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Much of the comedy in the movie comes from the racial and cultural dynamics when Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough) end up clashing and getting on each other’s nerves.

Zola, who is African American, can best be described as a free spirit with boundaries. She has no problem with being a stripper, but she refuses to be a prostitute. She’s fun-loving but level-headed, trusting but cautiously jaded. Stefani, who is white, can best be described as someone with insecurities over her identity. Stefani desperately wants to sound like she’s a tough black person who’s “from the streets,” but she switches to an “innocent white girl” persona when it suits her. Stefani has no qualms about being a prostitute, and she’s very impulsive and manipulative.

Stefani (who is 21) and Zola (who is 19) meet one day when Stefani is a customer at the Detroit diner where Zola works as a waitress. (In real life, Zola worked at Hooters.) Stefani’s way of complimenting Zola is by telling her, “Damn, bitch. You’ve got perfect titties. I wish I had titties like that. They look just like little apples.”

Stefani’s date with her at the restaurant is a man named Johnathan (played by Nasir Rahim), who’s about 15 to 20 years older than Stefani. In reaction to Stefani complimenting Zola about Zola’s breasts, Johnathan says, “Oh, so you’re just going to pull that dyke shit in front of me and not include me.” Stefani replies like a gum-chewing teenager, “You’re so dumb!”

Stefani is so intrigued with Zola that she follows her into a back room for the diner’s employees only. Stefani tells Zola that she’s sure they’ve met somewhere before, so Stefani asks if Zola is a dancer. Zola says she used to dance, and Stefani’s eyes light up. She tells Zola that they should dance together sometime. Stefani also mentions that she’s a single parent to a daughter, whom she calls her baby, and shows Zola a picture of the girl.

In the beginning of the movie, there are hints that Zola and Stefani might be sexually attracted to each other. When they have their first conversation, the movie shows heart graphics on screen, as if there’s instant infatuation. Although it would be very predictable for Zola and Stefani to be openly bisexual and act on it with each other—a very common trope in stripper movies that are usually directed by men—Bravo doesn’t use that formula.

Instead, Zola’s attraction to Stefani is how easily Stefani can make someone feel like an instant best friend. Zola also seems fascinated by this woman who clearly wants to be accepted by the African Americans. And so, when Stefani calls Zola the next day to invite her to go on a road trip to Florida to make some easy stripping money, Zola is intrigued but doesn’t immediately say yes. Zola wants to know who else is going on the trip before she agrees to go on the trip.

One of the people on the trip is Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derreck (played by Nicholas Braun), who is very passive and has anxiety issues. The other person on this road trip is in the driver’s seat, literally and metaphorically: a Nigerian immigrant who doesn’t have a name in the movie but who is listed in the film credits as X (played by Colman Domingo), who switches back and forth between his Nigerian and American accents. A recurring joke in the film is that people keep bungling X’s real name when they say it, so it’s unclear what his name really is. In real life, the alleged pimp’s name was Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe.

Zola has a live-in boyfriend named Sean (played by Ari’el Stachel), who isn’t thrilled that Zola will be going back to stripping, even if it’s only for a weekend. Zola has sex with Sean to ease some of his disapproval. She also convinces him that the trip will be good for them because they need the extra money. And so, when Zola gets into the black Mercedes SUV with Stefani, X and Derrek, she’s feeling pretty good about this trip to Tampa, Florida. That feeling won’t last long.

Within 24 hours, Zola finds out that X is Stefani’s domineering pimp. And he wants Stefani and Zola to turn tricks for him. He’s the type of gun-carrying pimp who will take all or most of his prostitutes’ money, and say it’s for their “expenses.” And when Zola tries to leave, X threatens her and tells her that he knows where she lives.

One of the biggest flaws in the movie is how supposedly street-smart Zola couldn’t figure out a way to leave this bad situation, since she’s not being held captive physically (she’s never tied up or locked in a room), and X isn’t with Zola and Stefani all of the time. Zola has her purse with her at all times. Couldn’t she use a credit card, debit card or another method to pay for a way back home? And if she was afraid to call the cops, why didn’t she at least call her boyfriend Sean to tell him what was happening so that he could help her get out of there?

The movie isn’t concerned about letting Zola find a way to escape because it’s implied throughout the movie that a big part of Zola likes to seek out danger as a way to bring excitement to her life. Zola’s biggest regret seems to be that she misjudged Stefani, who at first seemed like someone Zola could trust as a friend, but ends up being someone who becomes extremely annoying and mistrustful to Zola.

The best parts of “Zola” have to do with some of the “ratchet” banter between Zola and Stefani. There are also some characters they encounter who bring some laughs. In a strip club dressing room, there’s a hilarious scene of a stripper prayer huddle, led by a “large and in charge” husky-voiced dancer named Hollywood (played by Ts Madison), where the strippers pray for men with “good credit,” “culture” and “big dicks.” The stripper named Hollywood acts like a melodramatic church preacher who’s praying for a miracle.

There’s also a recurring catch phrase that Zola says in a deadpan voice when she’s stuck in a room where Stefani is having sex with someone: “They started fucking. It was gross.” And during a scene where Zola is on a strip club stage and getting a bill tucked into her bikini bottom by a middle-aged white customer, he says to her with some excitement, “You look a lot like Whoopi Goldberg!” It’s the movie’s way at poking fun at white people who think that all black people look alike.

The movie also parodies the racial differences between Zola and Stefani, in a segment where Stefani gives her “rebuttal” version of what happened, based on a series of Reddit messages that are re-enacted in the movie. In Stefani’s version, she’s an innocent Christian girl who was led astray by a “trashy” black woman. In this re-enactment of Stefani’s version of the story, Stefani is wearing a conservative-looking pink skirt and blazer and Zola is literally wearing garbage bags when they get in the car on the road trip. It’s an obvious commentary on how the race card can be played in trying to manipulate people’s perceptions of who’s “guilty” and who’s “innocent,” based on someone’s physical appearance.

Just like in “Hustlers,” the lingering camera angles on the stripper activities and dancer bodies are meant to be more sensual than exploitative. Pole dancing is presented as an athletic art form that requires talent in balance and precision. And although Stefani and Zola both have sex scenes and stripper scenes, neither has full-frontal nudity in the movie. It’s a very “female gaze” film because only men have full-frontal nudity in “Zola,” during a montage where Stefani entertains a series of customers in a hotel bedroom.

Zola, Stefani, X and Derrek are an unusual quartet that will keep viewers interested in seeing what’s going to happen to them. And without the talents of the actors depicting these characters, “Zola” wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is vibrant and eye-catching. It was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” according to the “Zola” production notes. But how a movie looks won’t matter much if the movie’s characters don’t hold people’s attention.

Some of the movie’s editing gives “Zola” almost a hypnotic quality, particularly in scenes where Zola and Stefani stand in front of a mirror and seem mesmerized by their own images. As if to demonstrate how in sync they are before their friendship turns sour, there’s a scene where Zola and Stefani do their hair and makeup together with almost identical movements. However, as visually striking as many of the scenes are in “Zola,” the movie’s pacing tends to drag in the middle of the film.

There’s also a shady character named Dion (played by Jason Mitchell), whose intentions are telegraphed so blatantly, it leaves no room for suspense or mystery for why Dion is in the movie. He’s a stranger who chats up Derrek at the hotel where they’re staying at, and when Dion shows up again later in the movie, viewers won’t be surprised why. People can easily predict what can happen in any movie where a pimp with a gun carries around a lot of cash and makes it obvious that he’s traveling with prostitutes and no backup security people. The last third of “Zola” crams in an action scene that’s a little clumsily handled and fizzles out some of the naughty comedy that enlivens the movie.

“Zola” can also get a little too repetitive with the back-and-forth interactions of Stefani doing something to irritate Zola, and Zola reacting by calling her a “bitch” or some other insult. Derrek’s relationship with Stefani is exactly what you think it is: He’s madly in love with her and easily forgives her transgressions when she makes cutesy romantic talk to him. There’s no backstory of how Derrek and Stefani met and how long they’ve been together, but it’s clear that she’s not really in love with him and she’s just using him.

Very few movies can successfully balance violence and raunchiness with satire and emotional gravitas. “Zola” makes an attempt and often succeeds, but it’s a movie that might disappoint people who are expecting a more unique, madcap adventure. The movie also somewhat glosses over the real horrors of sex trafficking, just to get some cheap and tawdry laughs. Zola might be skilled at making sassy and salty remarks, but she’s got a lot to learn about being a truly powerful and independent woman.

A24 will release “Zola” in U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

January 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chadwick Boseman, Dusan Brown, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Viola Davis  and Glynn Turman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1927, in Chicago and briefly in Barnesville, Georgia, the dramatic film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking blues diva and her rebellious cornet player have conflicts and power struggles with each other, while they both have constant battles with white racism and the emotional scars that this bigotry has left on them.

Culture Audience: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will appeal primarily to August Wilson fans and people interested in well-acted movies about African American experiences.

Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in “May Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs as one of the rare movies adapted from a celebrated play that can actually claim to be better than the play, thanks to powerhouse performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The movie version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is based on August Wilson’s play that debuted on Broadway in 1984, takes place mostly in a small recording studio, but the deep emotional impact and the breadth of social issues experienced and conveyed by the characters go beyond the confines of that studio. The story is set in 1927, but the story’s themes are universal and timeless.

Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins in Barnesville, Georgia, where blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Davis) is giving a foot-stomping, rousing performance to an enthralled audience in a tent. She’s sweating profusely, as she does in every scene in the movie, and caught up in the rapture of giving a raw and passionate performance for the adoring crowd.

When she’s off stage, Ma isn’t the fun-loving, “good time gal” that she might appear to be when she’s on stage. Ma is a middle-aged diva who’s feeling the pressure of being considered a “has-been” as her former protégée Bessie Smith is almost certain to surpass Ma in popularity. It’s an ageism problem faced by many entertainers, especially women, who are at the mercy of fickle audiences and industry people who might end up moving on to someone who’s considered younger, more contemporary and more attractive.

Ma has earned the nickname the Mother of the Blues, and she’s not about to give up her reign at the top that easily. She uses her clout and her unique talent as reasons to do and say what she wants, including showing up late, berating her employees, and making people kowtow to her sometimes-unreasonable demands. It’s clear that Ma’s way of asserting her power is to counterbalance the humiliation and pain of racism that she experiences as a black woman in America, where white supremacy was legal in the form of racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” references the Great Migration, a period of time (1916 to 1970) in U.S. history where millions of black people relocated from the states in the South to states in other parts of America. These areas outside of the South were often viewed as presenting better opportunities for people of color, but these areas certainly were not immune to racism. When Ma travels to Chicago for the one-day recording session that’s the majority of this story, it represents her own personal parallel to the Great Migration.

Where Ma goes, drama usually isn’t far behind. Upon arriving in Chicago during a sweltering summer, she gets into a dispute on the street when she’s accused of pushing down a white man. A cop (played by Joshua Harto) who’s called to the scene is inclined to arrest her, but Ma uses her clout, loud voice and her “take no crap” attitude to get the cop to back off.

Ma, who lives openly as a lesbian (as did the real-life Ma Rainey), is traveling by car to the recording studio. Accompanying her are her much-younger lover Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige) and Ma’s teenage nephew Sylvester (played by Dussan Brown). As gruff as Ma is to most people in her life, she shows tremendous loyalty to the few people who are closest to her, especially Sylvester.

Dussie Mae is an attractive young woman whose relationship with Ma is fairly new and is more like a “trophy girlfriend” than a soul mate to Ma. Throughout the movie, it’s implied that Dussie Mae is somewhat of a gold digger. Dussie Mae goes through life using her looks and sex appeal to get people to financially support her—not because she’s mean-spirited but because she’s too unsophisticated to doing anything else with her life.

Ma, as usual, is running late on her way to the studio, where she is scheduled to record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” When Ma and her two-person entourage (Dussie Mae and Sylvester) finally get there, Ma takes charge and sometimes gets into subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles with the men who’ve been waiting for her at the studio. These power struggles have many different layers that exemplify issues of gender roles and racial discrimination.

The six men in the recording studio who experience Ma’s mercurial range of emotions during this challenging day are:

  • Levee (played by Boseman), the charismatic, foul-mouthed cornet player who’s the newest and most arrogant member of Ma’s band.
  • Cutler (played by Colman Domingo), the band’s trombone player who is very loyal to Ma and considers himself to be the most experienced and skilled in dealing with her mood swings.
  • Toledo (played by Glynn Turman), the band’s pianist who is the most likely to be the jokester in the group.
  • Slow Drag (played by Michael Potts), the band’s bass player who is the quietest and most laid-back member of the group.
  • Irvin (played by Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s longtime manager who often has to be a peacemaker when she decides on a whim to throw situations into chaos.
  • Sturdyvant (played by Jonny Coyne), the manager of the recording studio who grows increasingly impatient with Ma’s diva antics.

In the scenes in the recording studio, Irvin and Sturdyvant (who are white) are often together in a booth that overlooks the recording room where they can watch through a glass window what’s happening down below with the Ma and the rest of her African American colleagues. Irvin and Sturdyvant usually leave the booth to go into the recording studio when there’s a problem that affects their time and money invested in this recording session. And there are several interruptions to the recording session for this reason.

The higher location of the booth and its separation from the main recording studio room are obvious metaphors of the spoken and unspoken racial barriers that exist between the people in this recording session, where racism is a festering wound that has impacted the characters on a personal and societal level. Ma and her colleagues are all too aware that even though Ma is the star in this room, she still has a subservient role to the white men who control the music industry. It’s a role that she expresses with a lot of emotional pain, bitterness and defiance throughout the story.

At one point in the story Ma says with heavy resentment: “They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they care about is my voice.” She adds, “If you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.” And later in the story, Ma reveals that even though Irvin has been her manager for the past six years, the only time he invited her to his home was so she could perform for his “white friends.”

There are also issues over gender roles that permeate the story. When Ma arrives at the recording studio, she finds out that all the men who’ve been waiting for her have already decided that she will record a new, more upbeat version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with the arrangement written by Levee. Ma refuses and declares that she is going to record the original version of the song. She also insists that her nephew Sylvester is going to do a short spoken intro to the song, even though he’s a stutterer.

Ma literally and figurately throws her weight around as she has diva tantrum after diva tantrum. At one point, she shouts: “I make more money for this outfit than anyone put together!” And when she finds out that the Coca-Cola that she requested in advance isn’t in the studio, she refuses to start recording until she gets her Coca-Cola.

All of the members of her band are very compliant except for Levee, who constantly challenges Ma’s decisions and tries to assert himself as a visionary musician whom Ma needs if she wants to get more respect for her music. Early on in the story, Levee tells Cutler: “I ain’t like you, Cutler. I’ve got talent. I know how to play real music, not none of this jug band shit.”

Levee shows flashes of vanity (he brags about his shiny yellow shoes and is aware of how good-looking he is) and hubris (he thinks all of his ideas should be immediately accepted), but underneath that cockiness is someone who’s got deep-seated emotional pain and trauma. During the long stretches of time that the musicians in the band are waiting for Ma, Levee slowly opens up about his past and reveals secrets that explain why he acts the way that he does.

At one point, Levee is teased by the other members of the band when they see Levee acting in a very deferential way to Irvin and Sturdyvant. The band mates try to make Levee feel like he’s an “Uncle Tom,” which triggers Levee into losing his temper and then revealing a defining incident from his past that permanently changed his outlook on life. He tells this story in a harrowing monologue that’s one of the best scenes in the film.

Ma and Levee’s clashes with each other aren’t just about music. An observant Ma notices that Levee has been looking at Dussie Mae in a way that makes it obvious that he’s attracted to her. Dussie Mae flirts back when Ma isn’t around. And it doesn’t take long for Levee to ramp up his sexual advances toward Dussie Mae, even though the other band members warn Levee that Dussie Mae is “Ma’s girl.”

Levee’s disagreements with Ma over her musical direction, as well as Levee not even trying to hide that he’s interested in making moves on Ma’s lover, put him in a precarious situation where he might or might not be fired from the band. As time goes on during the day, and Ma goes back and forth about whether or not she’ll complete the recording, Levee is going through his own insecurities and turmoil. At times, he also clashes with Cutler, especially when it’s revealed how Levee feels about God and religious beliefs.

Under the assured direction of Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” not only has a top-notch cast but the movie also excels in costume design, production design and music. The stage/play version of the story takes place in the winter, but the filmmakers made the astute decision to change the season to summer during an oppressive heat wave. It gives the movie more of a “pressure cooker” look and tone that are accurate reflections of the simmering tensions that permeate throughout the entire story.

Davis and Boseman give award-worthy performances in this movie that goes beyond personality conflicts and ego posturing. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (which was Boseman’s last movie; he died of colon cancer in August 2020) is also a story of the shared trauma of racism and how even the strongest of souls are tested by this insidious societal cancer. Viewers who are sensitive about hearing racially derogatory names should be warned that the “n” word is said many times in this movie, usually when uttered by Levee.

Even though the movie is called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the character of Ma has a lot less screen time than Levee does. If Ma is the heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” then Levee is the soul. Levee and Boseman’s heartbreaking performance represent anyone who has survived trauma inflicted by other people but struggles with the damage that can be inflicted by self-destruction.

Netflix released “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 18, 2020.

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