Sunday, February 10, 2008

Livin' In A World of Ghetto Life

By Odienator (sistahs, don't blame Boone for this)

Back in the late 80's, I worked in a video store known for its large collection of Black cinema. An older gentleman came into the store one day to return a copy of Sparkle. Not having seen the film since I was a kid, I asked him "so how was it?" He replied "she was still wearing that same dress."

Sparkle's dress is infamous, and for the DVD, Warners has done a good job keeping it from view. Instead, they have taken the lead actresses' heads and put them on the bodies of some people wearing dresses straight out of Dreamgirls. It's appropriate, because before there was Dreamgirls, there was Sparkle. The creators of Dreamgirls would be struck down by Mahalia Jackson-wielded lightning from de Upper Room if they said they'd never seen Sparkle. The plot is at times almost identical, and there's a character named Effie, here the matriarch of Sparkle's clan played by the fine actress Mary Alice.

I rented Sparkle after the gentleman returned it, and was reminded how much I disliked it as a kid. 20 years later, I rented it again for this series. I watched it last night. The guy was right: Sparkle is still wearing that hideous dress. You know what else? The movie's a bigger piece of shit than I remembered.

Sparkle has two things going for it. It is well acted by its cast, especially Lonette McKee and Mary Alice. It also has a fine Curtis Mayfield soundtrack featuring one of the biggest songs he wrote for another artist (though, vis-a-vis Mayfield's post-Superfly soundtrack output, I prefer Claudine to this). That's all it has going for it. The direction by Sam O'Steen is frustrating. Several of the musical numbers are shot with people's heads in the way, or through the applauding hands of the audience. It looks like Aunt Martha's home video footage of the high school talent show. The rare scene O'Steen frames well stands out because it's an orphan to the rest of the movie's terribly chosen shots. Usually, an editor turned director (O'Steen edited Cool Hand Luke, Chinatown and the Graduate among others) knows how to use a camera. Just ask Hal Ashby. Apparently O'Steen didn't.

Sparkle's real destructive force is its screenplay by Joel Schumacher. It has no idea how to build momentum nor how to tell a story, and late in the film, it spews out some ridiculously bad pseudo-Black power bullshit that's an insult to the intelligence of even the stupidest ghetto denizen. It's telling that Schumacher's best scripted scene is also O'Steen's best shot in the film (it's depicted above to your left). Both are so good that it only makes the rest of the movie more rotten.

Sparkle takes place in Harlem in 1958. Effie (Mary Alice) is the mother of three daughters, Sister (McKee), Delores (Dwan Smith) and Sparkle (Irene Cara). Sister is the oldest, and is a fast girl destined for trouble. Sparkle is the youngest, a d0-gooder who idolizes Sister and has a crush on wannabe music producer Stix (Philip Michael Thomas, way before Miami Vice). Delores, the only one in this movie whose name didn't come from the My Baby Daddy Book of Ghetto Names, is the middle girl, a dark-skinned beauty who spends the entire film spouting anti-White dialogue that's as real as that cheese product in a can. She says "cracker" a lot, but the way the dialogue's written, you'd think she was talking about a box of Ritz.

Along with Levi (Dorian Harewood) , they form a quintet of singers who win a talent show. Stix tries to parlay the win into some nightclub appearances, but has a hard time convincing people to take a group with two guys and three girls. Levi drops out so that he can work for Harlem low-life, Satin (Tony King), and Stix drops out too after realizing he can sell a trio of nice-looking girls from Harlem. Stix writes the songs and the group, christened Sister and the Sisters, has their first club gig.

Soonafter, as in WAY TOO SOONAFTER, Sister falls for Satin. She goes with him despite seeing him kick the ever-loving shit out of the woman he's dumping for her. Sister goes anyway, which is absurd, but I was willing to grant the film its premise. However, Schumacher's screenplay does a terrible job of handling her tragic-mulatto style story arc. King plays Satin as nothing but a huge Black buck; it's not even clear what criminal activity he runs up in Harlem (I assume it's drugs). King just glares at the camera, smokes cigars, gets darker (complexion-wise, that is) as the movie goes along, and every so often uses the one truly compelling character in the film as a punching bag.

Effie sees Satin's handiwork on Sister's face, and she has a scene of motherly intervention so well written and shot that I was shocked it was in the same movie. She holds Sister's face in her hands and says to her "he is going to drag you into the gutter with him." Alice is mesmerizing here, and when Sister protests, she says "I've lived in Harlem all my life. I know a rat when I see one." When Sister continues to protest, Effie says "I've said my piece. Now I'm going home." It's a great scene. It must have been improvised.

Right before this scene is the first of the two scenes any renter or owner of Sparkle paid to see. Sister and the Sisters sing the most famous song from the film, Giving Him Something He Can Feel. En Vogue's remake is deliciously good--better than Aretha's version (I was never fully satisfied with her Sparkle album), but the original more than holds its own. Smith, Cara and McKee sing and harmonize well, and McKee's lead vocal gives the song a sexiness to match McKee's sultry looks. It is the high point in the film. Savor it, because the movie really gets bad after this.

Sparkle, both the movie and the character, are in awe of Sister, so when she disappears from the scene, the movie never recovers. Schumacher's script is a choppy mess that can't dramatize anything. This is supposed to be the film's big tragedy, and it's mishandled. First, Sister meets Satin. Next scene, she's addicted to cocaine. Next scene, she's all beat up. Next scene, she a stoned has-been badly singing Gladys Knight songs in a jazz club (complete with blurry fade out straight from 1944). Next scene, she's dead. The movie handles this as matter-of-factly as I've written it, which is sad because McKee deserved better. She's a talented actress, and one of the finest women on the planet.

Even more poorly handled is the fate of Delores. Effie is a maid, not exactly the most noble profession but one of the few an older Black woman could get in 1958. Delores hates that her mother is a maid, and after seducing one of Satin's men to get the drop on him in an attempt to extricate Sister from his life, she leaves home. Her speech announcing this is ridiculous. First of all, nobody talks to their Mama that way, and second, what she says doesn't make one iota of sense. She tells her mother that there's more to life than being a maid (which is true) but her speech is some White guy's idea of Black power. She says she's leaving because she's tired of taking the White man's shit. Fine, but where the fuck is she going when she leaves? It's 1958. Delores talks as if there's a brand new world out there we don't know about, one with new and improved Negro opportunities. Where is she going? Back to Africa? She turned from Mata Hari to Marcus Garvey in two scenes flat. I joke about it, but it's actually a pander that's quite offensive. After this scene, we never hear from Dolores again. I like to think she wound up working at Nabisco advertising crackers.

Sparkle's crushed, but Stix gets her to sing again. She records Mayfield's Look Into Your Heart, a very good song. Stix borrows money from some shady dealers and pays for the rights to the song. It becomes a hit and Sparkle is now a solo artist with a hit to her credit. Right after this, she's playing Carnegie Hall!!! The sign advertising this had me laughing my ass off, even as a kid. She's on the same bill as Ray Charles. Now, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit, but this is pushing it people. She's not only at Carnegie Hall, but she's with Brother Ray too. C'mon. She has one song, people!!! Sell this level of crack to Whitney.

Now we get to the scene the guy in the video store referred to--the other scene owners of Sparkle paid to see. But before I show you that dress, we have to deal with Stix saying no to his Mafia benefactors. They kidnap him the night of Sparkle's really big shew and play Russian Roulette with him, or something like that. It's maddeningly vague, as if Schumacher couldn't come up with a more credible solution to the problem he's scripted. It's totally believable that Stix would borrow shady money, but not believable at all that the Mafia would play Russian Roulette with him and then let him go afterwards, no hard feelings.

But back to Sparkle's big Carnegie Hall debut. O'Steen gives us very few shots of her entire dress, and never in close-up, so I had to pick something from far away. I'll blow it up as best I can. Sparkle comes out and sings her ass off, and Cara sells the songs and the performance. But she's wearing this hideous red dress, and it's one of the things everybody remembers about Sparkle.

Now where have I seen this dress before?


Now, I warned all of you that I wasn't going to give a movie a pass just because it's beloved by us. In fact, I have no fucking idea why Sparkle is beloved by us. It's a terrible film, despite the acting and the soundtrack. Perhaps it's the whole rising up out of the hood to be a success aspect. If so, then I counter that with the question of why does this movie take the least interesting character and give her the glory? Wouldn't you rather have seen a story like the Five Heartbeats, where the sisters relate to each other, fight and grow? I know the movie is called Sparkle, but I would rather have seen a movie called Sister. Somehow I know Cara's Sparkle would agree with me.

Your homework assignment:

Tell me why you love this movie. Educate me, because I'm as clueless as its screenplay.


odienator said...

I wrote that Joel Schumacher piece before I saw Sparkle again, so I must run a slight retraction. In the Schumacher piece, I said that his characterizations weren't offensive. I had conveniently forgotten about the Dolores character in this film. Sometimes my own memory gets the better of me, as I was operation on a 20-year old recollection of his work. Either that, or I had blocked her out until two nights ago when I watched Sparkle.

odienator said...

Make that "I was OPERATING on a 20-year old recollection" above. Cut me some slack. I'm working with a serious case of bacterial pneumonia here.

Steven Boone said...

Odie, I'm forwarding this article to every sister I know. That's basically putting a hit out on you.

You are doing brilliant, backbreaking work, but, um, after Sparkle, you ain't gonna make it out alive without also including Mahogany. And you better say nice things.

Hey, certain beloved '70s black "classics" (cough, scratch) were just stale crumbs thrown to a starving crowd. As Eddie Murphy said of sex long delayed, "What is this, Ritz? This ain't no regula cracka."

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Yeah, I have to think this movie was/is beloved because of the water-in-the-desert phenomenon. It wasn't until the '90s, with "The Bodyguard," that audiences got to see a black female pop star at the absolute center of a movie - and there Whitney was sharing screen time, and loving closeups, with Kevin Costner, and didn't have much of a part to play beyond "haughty bitch learns to lighten up."

It's really unfortunate that so many films from that era targeted at identification-starved people of color don't really stand on their own two feet as entertainment, minus the cultural context. Of course the phenomenon isn't just confined to black films/black audiences. The redneck genre, which ran contemporaneously with blaxploitation and was sort of the white southern conservative flipside of the black urban revolution pictures, mostly sucked, too.

The problem with films shot on very low budgets and aimed at niche audiences is that the execution often doesn't match the vision, if there's vision to begin with.

odienator said...

Boone, I dragged my sorry ass to Target to get some more Vicks for my humidifier, and there was this sistah who kept looking at me as if I was her ex-husband or something. Now I know why. I can see it now: I'm being chased down the street by angry Black women chanting "We're gonna give him something he can feel, all right!"

As for Mahogany, it's my reward for all this hard work. And while I'd have nice things to say about Miss Ross in Lady Sings the Blues or Out of Darkness (where she is absolutely brilliant as a schizophrenic), I'm lettin' her have it for Mahogany. I'm sure every sistah and drag queen will be after me for that. I'm ready. My only fear is that I might run into Miss Ross on the street. She'll have Vaseline on her face and her shoes will be off, and she'll yank out her weave before saying "Do you know where you're going to? The hospital, bitch!"

You a instigator, Steven Boone.

Matt, I think Sparkle could have been a compelling 40's women's picture if somebody had taken the time to get a screenwriter with one iota of knowledge about storytelling, Black culture, and women's weepie pictures. A low budget really isn't an excuse. Cooley High is a low budget movie, and it's fantastic.

As for the redneck genre, I was always partial to White Line Fever and Breaker! Breaker!

Steven Boone said...

Ahh, the white trash flicks. I never thought of them as a distinct genre, but y'all are right. One of my all-time favorite movies that the world despises is Sam Peckinpah's more uspcale Convoy, which takes damn near the entire counterculture-- blaxploit-revolutionaries like Spider Mike and outlaw rednecks like Rubber Duck-- and puts it on 18 wheels. (<--Wait, did I steal a blurb from somewhere? Deja vu.)

The thing that virtually all '70s counterculture flicks have over the Tarantino era do-overs is that political edge, and an audience that really was all ears, flaps open.

Odie, after your Conjunction Junction and Mahogany remixes, I might need breathing assistance myself. Constant laughter is not healthy.

Gareth said...

I've been trawling through West African newspapers for a grad school project, and looking especially at what kinds of movies people got to see. Just after independence in several countries, there's a profusion of really poor Hollywood and British "adventure" movies with the worst of stereotypes about Africa, and I suspect that it's also part of the water-in-the-desert phenomenon, where people were desperate to see any images of themselves, even pretty shoddy images where Africans were at best peripheral to the films' main purpose.

Another comparison might be with the Australian success of films like "Alvin Purple" or "The Adventures of Barry McKenzie" in the early 1970s; neither is a great film but they were still huge successes because at the time Australian audiences had no films that were aimed at them.

Comb & Razor said...

wish i could tell you why i love this movie, but i don't.

(the soundtrack is pretty cool, though)

personally, i'm still trying to understand Armond's appraisal of Sparkle as a vastly superior film to Dreamgirls.