Tag Archives: Oprah Winfrey

Dearly Beloved

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

by Hope Madden

Before Toni Morrison was old enough to understand the F-word her mother had her washing off the sidewalk, she understood the confrontational nature and the power of words.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am benefits from the Octogenarian Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner’s characteristically mesmerizing ruminations on her life. As she sits and recounts memories, moments and, most fascinating, glimpses of her writing inspirations, the documentary blossoms.

Compared to the composed and thoughtful interview footage with the likes of Dick Cavett and others from across her career, Morrison’s interaction for Greenfield-Sanders’s camera has a playful quality.

She charms when recounting her personal history: “When I got to Howard, I was loose,” she recalls happily. “I probably overdid it. I don’t regret it.”

Her confidence when considering her life in publishing is awesome. “Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasn’t even interesting.”

And when she speaks about her writing—just, wow: “My sovereignty and my authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately with the very first book. The white world was peripheral if it existed at all.”

It comes as no surprise that someone with such breathtaking mastery of the language would be as beguiling when speaking as she is in writing, and the veteran documentarian knows when to just turn the camera toward his subject and let it roll.

Sure, some context has to be provided. We get biographical information. We see snippets of news shows, hear from famous fans (Oprah, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Moseley—Toni Morrison has impressive fans). But honestly, this is when Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary gets away from him.

Allowing the audience some background they may not have concerning Morrison’s struggle to be appreciated in her own time, or the bold and culturally imperative choices she made as an editor, or the global reaction to her novels feels necessary. It also feels superficial.

Worse still, it feels like a cheat—like these were moments that could have been spent listening to Toni Morrison tell us something. Anything. This is particularly stinging when we’re finally allowed a sentence or two about how Beloved was inspired. Morrison tells of a vision that suggests there is something genuinely magical, something otherworldly, about her process.

It’s a hint, but it’s impossible not to want more, not to feel as though we could have chucked all that gushing from fans, all those archival interviews, all those photos from Howard and just listen to Toni Morrison tell us a story.

Believing Takes Practice

A Wrinkle in Time

by Hope Madden

It was a dark and stormy night.

With this cheeky line, Madeleine L’Engle began an odyssey that entertained and emboldened, taught us to take responsibility for our own choices, highlighted the drawbacks of conformity and showed us how to be warriors for the light.

L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time, though massively popular and never out of print since its 1970 publication, had its critics. Not Christian enough to be Christian, too Christian not to be, it was also among the first SciFi novels with a female point of view. This wasn’t taken super well by adults in 1970, but it was immediately and forever beloved by its intended audience.

A Wrinkle in Time was smart and groundbreaking, which, of course, makes it the ideal tale for Ava DuVernay.

Can the filmmaker who landed two near-perfect punches of social commentary in the last four years (Selma, 13th) bring this imaginative, vibrant, lovely classic of adolescent literature to life?

Yes and no.

With the help of scripters Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia), DuVernay remains faithful enough to L’Engle’s vision without being limited by it. But she stumbles to translate some of the more dated concepts in the book, creating a conclusion that feels a bit rushed and confused.

Her picture looks glorious, though, conjuring images and movements vibrant enough to stand up to our own imaginations.

Of course, the casting is where DuVernay, with little fanfare and no disruption in the story, breaks the most ground. Storm Reid (Sleight) turns out to be the best choice the director makes, offering the perfect mix of adolescent self-loathing and smarts as our reluctant hero, Meg.

On the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of her NASA scientist father, Meg is called on a mission across time and space to find him. She’s joined by her genius little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, perfectly precocious and/or creepy, depending on need), a cute (and, let’s be honest, needless) boy from school (Levi Miller) and three unusual women (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling).

Their adventure is colorful and beautiful. It’s also full of lessons that feel less like a sledgehammer than reasonable nudging. (“You can do this. You’re choosing not to.”)

The supporting cast—Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw—balance the fantastical with the heartfelt. Galifianakis is particularly impressive.

Yes, there are more than a few corny, too-precious moments, but it is a kids’ movie. DuVernay can be credited with keeping that audience in mind to create a lovely film unabashed enough to bear-hug L’Engle’s message of positivity.

Frothy Summer Concoction

The Hundred-Foot Journey

by Hope Madden

I did not have high hopes for this movie about a young Indian cook and his family, who open a restaurant 100 feet from a famous bastion of French cuisine.

Director Lasse Hallstrom’s output has primarily offered superficial romance, trite drama and cheesecloth since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. And the media blitz about producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg says “sledgehammer of sentimentality” to me. Plus, it’s made by Disney, who Slumdogged it up earlier this summer with the tastefully offensive Million Dollar Arm.

But there are two glimmers of hope.

Writer Steven Knight is not faultless, but when he’s on, he is brilliant. (Please see Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke. Seriously, please see them.) So there’s that.

And any script can be made better when it falls into the hands of the incomparable Helen Mirren. You saw RED, right?

And basically, The Hundred-Foot Journey is an exact sum of its parts. The frothy concoction offers seductive visuals, feel-good cultural blending, trite drama, a script that sneaks in some subtle but bright jabs at France’s recent history of violent racism as well as the high octane competition of haute cuisine, and a gem of a performance by Mirren.

Watching young Hassan (Manish Dayal) struggle with his natural cooking instincts, the culture clash his life has become, and his romantic interest in a rival sous chef pales when compared to the boisterous, enchanting battle of wills between Mirren’s Madame Mallory and Hassan’s father (Om Puri). These two acting veterans are as flavorful and tempting as any of the dishes simmering onscreen, and the film weakens whenever the story pulls away from them.

Hassan’s romantic subplot fails to deliver any heat, and when the film follows him out of town, you can’t help but feel you’re biding your time until your next visit to Pop and M. Mallory.

It’s being called Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille, which isn’t far from the mark. Adapted from Richard Morias’s charming summer read, the film is as sweet as it is harmless. For foodies and folks looking for the cinematic version of a poolside paperback, The Hundred-Foot Journey delivers. If you’re seeking something with a little artistic nutrition, you’ll need to look elsewhere.