Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 26, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Sad Oscar, Madea's Reunion, Maisie Dobbs
Great Harvest Bread Company has a new bread called "Virginia Light." It's
made with some whole wheat and some white flour, and the result is a bread
that is delicious, hearty, and yet doesn't fill you with one slice or half a roll.
I'm addicted already. Too bad that in February they only had it on Thursdays
(at least in Greensboro). I don't know the March schedule yet. But it's worth
stopping by on the day they have it!
What a sad, sad Oscar season. By and large, a bunch of movies designed to
impress jaded tastes with their "freshness," or please the politically correct with
their passionate but deceptive moral posturing.
Apparently, the Oscar nominators would have been too embarrassed to
nominate work that ordinary people might care about and believe in.
It's not that the films have "messages." Samuel Goldwyn was wrong. When
you want to send a message and have it make a difference, you don't use
Western Union, you tell a story.
The trouble is that obvious messages don't work. When the audience knows
they're being preached to, they tend to reject the message -- unless, of course,
they already believe completely in the message being preached. Then they feel
justified and fulfilled.
It's called "preaching to the choir."
But of course Hollywood sends its films out into the world at large and so feels
very brave and self-congratulatory. But this is 2006. There is nothing brave
about a movie showing a tragic love between homosexuals, played by really
handsome, soulful actors wearing jeans. It made a ton of money. Nobody's
career was put at risk. It hardly made a blip in terms of controversy.
Nor is it courageous to make a movie showing that even when terrorists
murder Israeli athletes at the Olympics, it's the terrorists who are the tragic
victims and the Israelis who are the murderers as they exact retribution from
the killers. This is simply the western intellectual party line, in which all
terrorist acts by Muslims are justified as long as they're killing Jews.
No matter what happens on Oscar night, Stephen Spielberg's Munich takes
home the Oliver Stone trophy for telling lies in a movie that purports to be true.
Doesn't Hollywood get it? The fact that these movies were nominated means
that they are, by definition, the voice of the Establishment.
It's among the movies that were virtually ignored that you'll see some defiance
of the Hollywood Establishment. Cinderella Man, for instance, which affirms
loyalty in marriage and shows children as the most important priority in a
man's life; or The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for
daring to be Christian in public.
But Narnia committed the additional sin of out-earning King Kong and War of
the Worlds, thus proving, like Passion of the Christ, that Christians will come to
the theater in droves if they are offered excellent movies that affirm their beliefs
and values. That's a message that the Hollywood establishment hates -- which
is why they have to despise the movies that demonstrate it.
And Cinderella Man had a happy ending, so it was "sappy." Heaven forbid that
we should celebrate a movie that shows a father literally fighting to hold his
family together during the Depression.
But we shouldn't really blame the Academy. Every community rewards those
who affirm their image of themselves. It's what the establishment must do.
The Oscars exist for the purpose of self-congratulation.
The weird thing is that in the midst of all this politically correct triumphalism,
they still manage to fool themselves into thinking that they are the
revolutionaries instead of what they are: The regime currently in control.
I'm still having my annual Oscar party, even if we do spend most of our time
jeering at the smarmy speeches about how brave these moviemakers are, and
groaning at the inevitable jabs at the Bush administration. After all, the food
will be good, the company excellent, and the collective intelligence higher in our
family room than in the Kodak Theater on Oscar night.
We'll have our normal ballot for outguessing the Oscar voters. But since few of
us will even care who wins, we'll have an alternate ballot -- for who should
have been nominated in a rational universe.
We will smugly congratulate ourselves on seeing through all the pretensions.
We'll out-elite the elitists. Eat your heart out, Hollywood. You're not invited to
Speaking of movies ...
We showed up for the 3:30 Saturday showing of Tyler Perry's Madea's
Family Reunion and found it was sold out. So we stuck around for the 4:00.
As the 1:30 showing let out, I asked a gentleman leaving the theater with his
family, "Is it as funny as I hope it is?"
He looked a little confused, and said, "Yeah, it's funny," but in a way that
sounded kind of half-hearted.
Uh-oh, I thought. Bad sign.
No it wasn't. Because after I saw the movie, I knew exactly why he reacted as
he did. The movie is very, very funny. But at the end, you don't come out
thinking about how funny it was. You come out moved and ennobled by it.
Speaking of movies that preach -- Tyler Perry doesn't kid around. The action
stops cold as Cicely Tyson delivers a gorgeous sermon. The messages of this
movie couldn't be clearer.
But Tyler Perry is not preaching to the choir. His Madea character (and her
whole family) have become icons of the American black community. And the
message Perry has to deliver is one that isn't always welcome to everyone in the
audience. In fact, he is clearly calling his own people to repentance -- and
wrapping the sermon in a story that is marvelously entertaining and
As with last year's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, we have a couple in a bad
relationship. In this case, it's Madea's niece (the breathtakingly beautiful
Rochelle Aytes), who has been pushed by her mother, Victoria, into getting
engaged to Carlos, a rich investment banker who is violently abusive to her.
Meanwhile, Madea is forced by a wily judge into taking in a foster daughter,
Nikki (Keke Palmer), who is hungry for love, encouragement -- and boundaries.
Madea seems a weird choice to provide discipline, but along with the (mild)
hitting she helps the girl, not by building her self-esteem, but by helping her
really learn and achieve something, so that the self-esteem she gets is earned,
Victoria, the mother, is played by Lynn Whitfield, whom I have loved since she
played Rae in Silverado back in 1985. And Blair Underwood is absolutely
believable -- and chilling -- as Carlos. Maya Angelou actually made me like
listening to one of her poems.
But the main storyline -- the one that provides us with our ending -- is about
Victoria's older daughter, whose only joy is her two children, fathered by the
kind of men she once thought were the only ones she deserved. Now trying to
live a Christian life, she has vowed to be celibate unless she marries -- and
she's not planning to marry any time soon.
Then she meets a divorced bus driver (Boris Kodjoe) with a child of his own,
who shares her values and gradually shows her what a real man is supposed to
The comedy is Shakespearean in its earthiness, while the characters are
Dickensian in their eccentricity and moral clarity. Skeptics will call them
"simplistic," but that's because they don't understand how hard it is to write
clearly defined yet believable characters.
I don't have to tell black readers about Tyler Perry -- they already know. In
fact, they know a lot more than I do. For instance, at the wedding a singer
appears whom everyone in the audience seemed to recognize and love; I had no
clue who it was, though he was very good.
But white audiences are beginning to catch on. When we saw Diary of a Mad
Black Woman, we were the only white people in the audience. At this Saturday
afternoon showing, there were several other white people. Not as many as
should have been there, though.
Tyler Perry is definitely making movies that are inside the black community,
but he does not exclude anybody. Most Americans are by now familiar enough
with black culture to feel perfectly comfortable watching this movie.
And when Cicely Tyson gives her two beautiful soliloquies -- one, a story she
tells at the kitchen table; the other a passionate sermon to her kinfolk at the
family reunion -- whites are not just onlookers. Yes, she's talking to black
men when she tells them to take their place.
But the problems she sees in black culture are all there in white culture as
well. The statistical history is clear. While black culture was first hit by the
epidemic of single motherhood and missing fathers, white culture is only about
twenty years -- a single generation -- behind black culture in this collapse of
So what Tyler Perry's movie says to blacks is a message that must also be
heard by whites. Heard and felt, because that's Perry's gift. His lesson doesn't
come out of ideology, it comes out of the experience of a community that has
been through a world of pain but still sees hope for the future.
I say "lesson," which is a dangerous word. Let me emphasize again: Perry's
talent is such that the lessons feel like part of the story. They are lessons that
believable characters are struggling to teach to people they love -- not lessons
that elitist filmmakers are trying to stuff down the throats of an ignorant
audience, like most Hollywood messages.
You come out of this movie wanting to be a better person, and admiring those
who have overcome the challenges in their life through their own courage and
persistence and hard work.
With a $30 million opening weekend, I think it's safe to say the secret is
already out. When black people want to make a movie a hit, they shell out the
money in numbers any filmmaker would wish for. But this movie transcends
racial boundaries and deserves to bring in a lot more white-people money to
Tyler Perry's coffers. Don't exclude yourself just because you're pigment-impaired.
But I'm not done with Tyler Perry and this movie. Because there's some
weirdness here that I need to have explained to me.
I understand why the www.MadeasFamilyReunionMovie.com website shows
you pictures of Madea even when you're clicking on the other cast members.
Perry is trying to establish a brand name. He wants you to come to these
movies regardless of who else is in the cast -- even though he's proud of the
stature of the actors who appear in the film.
But why is the cast list so woefully -- no, shamefully -- incomplete? Both in
the Internet Movie Database listing and at the movie's own website, only some
of the cast members are listed. And the names of the characters they play are
almost completely omitted.
This is downright bizarre, to tell the truth. The only actors you can readily find
are the ones who have pictures provided; if you're trying to look up an actor by
the name of the character he or she played, you're out of luck.
And, most inexplicable of all, the most important female character in the
movie, the older daughter Vanessa, is completely omitted, as is the actress who
played her. I wanted to talk about her -- the way she became beautiful
through her passionate-yet-restrained performance, through the love she was
able to portray so vividly -- but I couldn't because I didn't know who she was.
We cry our eyes out at her performance -- and yet we can't find out who she is
unless we snuck a camera into the performance and took a picture during the
Did the actress have some kind of quarrel with Tyler Perry? Is he being spiteful
by omitting any mention of her in the official online presentation of his film's
cast? Or am I so ignorant that I'm missing something right in front of my
At least I'm reasonably sure that her part was not played by Tyler Perry in
Then my wife went to the movie's website and found the most complete cast
list, not where it says "cast," but where it says "story." Still no idea what role
each person played ... but she Googled each of the names and finally found
pictures of Lisa Arrindell Anderson on an unrelated website, and recognized
Knowing that she was the one we were looking for, I searched for her individual
listing on IMDB -- and guess how she's listed for Madea's Family Reunion? As
"actress," with no character name -- as if she were simply in a crowd scene
Her weird obscurity on Perry's website and her lack of prominence on IMDB are
puzzling. Her credentials are respectable -- she has been working in the
business since 1991, with feature film and tv credits. And since her
character's plotline is what provides closure for the whole film, and she rules
the powerful confrontation scene between her and Lynn Whitfield, it's simply
absurd that she is treated so shabbily at the movie's website.
Tyler Perry needs to be a lot more helpful in letting us learn the names of the
actors who give his films their heart and soul.
I've been listening to the Audio Renaissance recording of Jacqueline
Winspear's mystery novel Pardonable Lies. Winspear's sleuth is Maisie
Dobbs, a psychologist/investigator in England in the 1930s. Dobbs was a
nurse in France during the Great War (WWI), and was injured there; the love of
her life, Simon, was so badly crippled that he remains institutionalized in a
state somewhere between life and death.
The world of this book is strangely mystical; not only is the "science" of
psychology during this period rather more of a religion, but also Dobbs is
aware of real spiritual influences -- her dead mother, for instance, and her
half-alive lover Simon -- that watch out for her. At the same time, Dobbs is
skeptical of fraudulent mediums and shows that her characters all have feet of
The result is oddly pleasing, even for someone like me who has little patience
with new age spirituality. Winspear is true to the period, as best I can tell, and
the storylines she follows are compelling and moving, as Dobbs is hired to
reassure a father that his unloved son really was killed in battle. Dobbs
uncovers the fact that the son was a hero during the war -- but the father
remains impervious. Meanwhile, there are other mysteries to solve, and all of
them are satisfyingly resolved.
At the center of it all, however, is the fascinating character of Maisie Dobbs,
who is on a spiritual journey as well as an intellectual one. This book is about
discovery of every kind, and I have enjoyed it immensely.
In addition, the audio performance by Orlagh Cassidy is outstanding; it's a
good thing when I say that her reading is highly reminiscent of Emma
Thompson. (After all, Thompson is the best living actress working in the
I just learned that science fiction writer Octavia Butler passed away this week.
She was one of the great ones, creating fiction that is among the best of our
generation. My favorites of her books remain the Xenogenesis series and Wild
Seed, though her most popular were the Parable books. She will be missed.