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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 our party.

*

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 emotionally powerful.

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, not bestowed.

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 be like.

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 family life.

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 credits.

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 nose?

At least I'm reasonably sure that her part was not played by Tyler Perry in makeup ...

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 her.

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 somewhere.

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 clay.

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 English language.)

*

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.


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