The Color Purple

Posted on December 24, 2023 at 5:04 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual content, violence and language
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, attack, character beaten by police
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2023

Copyright Warner Brothers 2023
Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple is the acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Celie, a young Black woman in the rural Georgia of the early 1900s. Through her letters, written to her sister Nettie, we learned the story of her horrific abuse, told in the simple language of someone who had no education and little sense that she deserved better.

The book was made into a dramatic film directed by Stephen Spielberg, with Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, who becomes Celie’s step-daughter-in-law. It then became a successful Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, and a book by Marsha Norman. “American Idol” favorite Fantasia Barrino was a replacement Celie and Danielle Brooks played Sofia.

And now it is a movie again, with Barrino and Books repeating their Broadway roles. This version is unexpectedly joyous and heartwarming. That is in large part thanks to director Blitz Bazawule, who shows us the characters’ strengths with the musical numbers before the storyline does. It is also thanks to the raise-the-roof, powerhouse performances from Barrino, Brooks, and Henspn, any one of which would blow the doors of of a theater, and all three together lift our spirits like a gospel choir. Every note is pure and thrilling. Every one is a revelation. Henson has the showiest part and she brings her endless movie star charisma to Shug the performer. But she also brings infinite compassion and gentleness to the intimate moments. Any lesser performer might make us question why someone as flamboyant and apparently hedonistic as Shug would find what no one else in Georgia seems to see in Celie. But Henson makes us understand why she gives Celie two things she has never had before, respect and a sense that she is worthy of love. She makes Shug another character who has made choices for her own survival but maintains a core of warmth.

Brooks is bursting with life force as Sofia, until her insistence on respect from others brings her devastating repercussions from the only white characters we see in the film. We learn from her story about abuse from outside that creates ripple effects in their community. We also see with Mister’s relationship with his father, how abuse is passed on through generations. And, with his son (Corey Hawkins), how healing through generations is also possible.

Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as young Celie and Halle Bailey (“The Little Mermaid”) as the her sister Nettie show us that having one person care is enough to make a difference. Mister throws Nettie out and she leaves with a missionary family for Africa and their separation is more devastating to Celie than her abuse by Mister, again underscoring the critical importance of a sustaining relationship.

The movie is frank about Celie’s abuse, including repeated rape by the man she believes is her father and then by the man her father sells her to, known to her only as Mister. But this version is more about Celie’s growing understanding of her own power, including the power of forgiveness. We also see other characters show resilience, generosity, and remorse. If the conclusion, as in the book and the previous movie, seems to tie things up a little too quickly, by that time we are so happy for Celie and so moved by the music we are fine with it.

Parents should know that this movie includes extreme abuse of a very young woman including rape and battery and having her children taken away. The film also includes misogynistic and racist attacks, a character beat up by police, betrayal, drinking and drunkenness, and strong language.

Family discussion: What are the events that make Celie understand that she could say no and that she deserved better? Why did Shug see more in Celie than anyone else? What made Mister change his mind?

If you like this, try: the book and the Spielberg movie

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The Best of Enemies

Posted on April 4, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, including racial and disability issues
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 1, 2019
Copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

The biggest divide in this big, divided world is not between people of different races or religions or political beliefs; it is between people who have different ideas of who is “us” and who is “them.” “The Best of Enemies” is based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a white supremacist and the Grand Exalted Cyclops (president) of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black woman who was a community activist working for civil rights and economic justice.

In 1971, Ellis and Atwater were appointed co-chairs of a charette, a dispute resolution mechanism used to resolve complicated community disagreements. Originally developed for land use debates among parties with multiple and varied interests, it was adapted for other kinds of issues by Bill Riddick, played in this film by Babou Ceesay.

Ellis and Atwater lived in Durham, North Carolina. Seventeen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Durham schools were still divided. When the school attended by the black children burned down, the city had to decide whether to let them attend the school the white children were attending. The court did not want to deal with it, so they asked Bill Riddick to see if he could get the community to come to some agreement.

Ann Atwater worked for Operation Breakthrough but it was more than a profession; it was her calling. We first see her arguing on behalf of a young woman whose apartment is uninhabitable. And throughout the film we see that her entire life is one of advocacy and generosity. Everyone she meets is either someone to be protected or someone to help her protect others. Her sense of “us” encompassed the world.

C.P. Ellis ran a gas station. He loved his family, including a disabled son who lived in a residential facility.  The Klan made him feel respected and important. He created an outreach program to bring teenagers into the Klan. And he organized outings like the time they shot up the home of  a young white woman coming home from a date with a black man.

He agrees to co-chair the charette because he believes that anyone else who got the position would cave. And there are those in the town who would never associate with the Klan but who are glad to support them in private.

Rockwell and Henson make Ellis and Atwater into fully-developed, complex characters. There’s a world of history in the way Henson walks as Atwater, shoulders hunched, hitching her hips along.  In one scene where she reprimands young black boys for tearing down a KKK hood on display, and then straightens it herself after shooing them away, the expression in her eyes speaks volumes about what she has seen.  And when we see the patience and tenderness Ellis has for his disabled son, we get a sense of all he thinks has been taken from him and how much it matters to him to hold on to something that makes him feel powerful.

This is a thoughtful, sincere drama, beautifully performed with a touching conclusion, first of the story itself, and the small acts of kindness that make “thems” into “us-es,” and then with the footage of the real-life Atwater and Ellis. When she takes his arm to help him walk out of the room, our own us-es get a little larger, too.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with issues of bigotry and racism including attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. It includes some strong language with racist epithets and a sexual reference. Characters drink and smoke and there are violent, racially-motivated attacks.

Family discussion: What did Atwater and Ellis have in common? Why did she help his son? Why did she tell the boys not to take down the KKK hood? Who is the Ann Atwater in your community and what are the issues?

If you like this, try: the book by Osha Gray Davidson and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book

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Hidden Figures

Posted on December 23, 2016 at 9:15 am

Copyright 20th Century Fox

The sign on the office door said, “Colored Computers.” That was not a reference to IBM’s Big Blue or to a machine of any kind. In the early days of the space race at NASA, computers were people doing all of the complex, unprecedented math calculations by hand, and the “colored” computers were the African-American women who had more talent, more dedication, more integrity, despite less pay, less credit, and less resources than their colleagues. Twice marginalized, as women and as African-Americans, they were heroically dedicated, capable, and resilient. Their story, unknown until the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is beautifully told in this heartwarming, inspiring film.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe, “Moonlight”) are stopped by a highway patrolman on their way to their office at NASA. They get out of the car, expecting the worst. In his own way, the white patrolman expects the worst, too. This is Virginia, just a few years after the state shut down the entire school system to avoid complying with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This is the same era depicted in “Loving,” the true story of the couple who challenged Virginia’s laws prohibiting marriage for people who were not of the same race.

This was also the era of the space race. President John F. Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” But there was another reason to go to the moon. The Soviet Union was ahead of us in space exploration, and beating them had huge symbolic, morale, and political value.

And that meant that something was more important than the deeply institutionalized racism and sexism of the era — ability. These women and their colleagues were simply too good to be overlooked. And to contribute all that they were able, that meant removing some obstacles and indignities. It was not until Johnson’s boss (Kevin Costner) exploded because she was not at her desk when he needed her that he learned she had to go a quarter of a mile to the “colored” bathroom in another building. And it was her vital importance to the project, not any commitment to inclusion or justice, that led him to insist on change. John Glenn (a likable performance by “Everybody Wants Some!!‘s Glen Powell) refused to get on the rocket ship that would make him the first person to orbit the earth until Johnson personally verified the calculations.

Henson, Spencer, and Janelle Monáe are clearly thrilled to have roles of such significance and depth and honor their characters with performances of wit and subtle charm. When Jackson has to go to court for the opportunity to take the evening classes at a segregated local high school that will qualify her for an engineering degree, when Vaughan decides to teach herself computer programming to make sure that the first-ever mainframe being installed at NASA does not make her work obsolete, when Johnson explains that it may be unprecedented to have a woman in the top-level meeting but it is also unprecedented to send a man to the moon, we see the power of their intellect and the steel in their souls. A light-hearted girl’s night shows us the support they gave each other and how much it meant to each of them.

Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan plotted a course for NASA to put men into space. They also plotted a course for all of us to do things because they are hard, because they are important, because we can do better.

Parents should know that this movie includes extensive portrayal of the racial and gender prejudice of its time, along with smoking and social drinking and some language.

Family discussion: Why did the women in this film continue to be so loyal to a system that constantly disrespected them? Why did Dorothy Vaughan want to learn how to use the IBM machine? What do you think of her reply to Vivian Michael?

If you like this, try: “The Right Stuff” and “The Dish”

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Hidden Figures Will Tell The Story of Three Black Women at NASA

Posted on July 10, 2016 at 8:00 am

Three of my favorite performers will star in a new film called “Hidden Figures,” the true story three African- American women who worked for NASA during the 1960s space race.  of Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson will star as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who are a crucial part of NASA’s history.

Here’s Katherine Johnson.

And the cast congratulates her.

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If You Love Cookie on “Empire” — More From Taraji P. Henson

Posted on March 8, 2015 at 3:41 pm

The breakout hit of the television season is the steamy, soapy, musical melodrama “Empire,” and the breakout star (long overdue) is the fabulous Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, just out of prison after 17 years and determined to get back everything she has lost or missed, including the recording company she founded with her now ex-husband Lucious, played by Terrence Howard.

As the show concludes its season later this month, now is a good time to stock up on some of Henson’s earlier work as we wait for “Empire’s” second season.

Henson and Howard first worked together in Hustle & Flow. She was the one who insisted that he be added to the cast in “Empire” because she knew their chemistry was right for Cookie and Lucious.

Henson was nominated for an Oscar when she played the adoptive mother of Brad Pitt’s character in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.

One of my favorite Henson performances is in the underseen Talk to Me, based on the real-life story of Washington D.C. disc jockey Petey Green. Henson played his flamboyant wife, rocking a miniskirt and an enormous Afro.

She starred in I Can Do Bad All By Myself as a singer who has no interest in taking responsibility for the children left to her care.

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