Tag Archives: Taraji P. Henson

One Heart

The Color Purple

by George Wolf

No matter how familiar you are with Alice Walker’s original novel, or Spielberg’s 1985 film, director Blitz Bazawule’s adaptation of The Color Purple Broadway musical comes to the big screen as a heartfelt and joyous experience.

Yes, it is the same, often heartbreaking story. Young sisters Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and Nettie (Halle Bailey) are separated in early 1900s Georgia, and adult Celie (an Oscar-worthy Fantasia Barrino, reprising her Broadway role) endures decades of heartache and abuse before proudly reclaiming her dignity.

Memorable characters and story beats surround Celie in the first two acts. Celie’s abusive husband Mister (Colman Domingo) pines for the famous singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), while son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) opens a juke joint and Harpo’s proud and defiant wife Sofia (Danielle Brooks, reprising her role from the 2015 Broadway revival) suffers repercussions from standing up to a white mayor and his condescending wife.

Through all the engaging drama and jubilant musical set pieces, Miss Celie bides her time, slowly inching closer to when both character and star step into the stoplight.

And when that third act hits, it is a glorious exhibition of pride, music and love. With Fantasia’s show-stopping rendition of “I’m Here,” Miss Celie begins to stand on her own as a successful business woman, and the film delivers her some well-earned flowers.

Have those tissues handy, but rest assured they will all be tears of joy. Because as much suffering as Miss Celie and her family endure, that pain is not what drives this vision. Bazawule, Barrino and a top flight ensemble make this The Color Purple an uplifting celebration of heritage and family, and an exhilarating film experience.

Necessary Evils

The Best of Enemies

by George Wolf

At the risk of opening recent wounds, it’s hard not to view The Best of Enemies through the lens of last year’s Oscar race debate. It’s a based-on-true-events historical drama draped in racial healing and also, the KKK.

So, is this more BlackKkKlansman, then? Or Green Book?

While it’s nowhere near the rarified air of the former, it does a better job than the latter of veering from the white pandering playbook.

For his debut feature, writer/director Robin Bissell adapts the tale of an unlikely friendship between a black community leader and the president of the local Klan chapter. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) were on vastly opposing sides over school segregation in 1971 North Carolina when an arbitration exercise called a charrette forced them to hear each other out.

So you know where it’s going, but too often the trick is getting to that moment of average white awakening without making it the black character’s reward for being exceptional, or the white audience’s reward for being in the theater. Yes, Ellis has the biggest character arc, but Atwater changes, too, and thankfully isn’t here just to help him grow.

So Bissell is wise to put Atwater and Ellis on nearly equal footing, and fortunate to have leads this good. Henson mines powerful emotions as the defiant “Roughhouse Annie,” while Rockwell refuses to make Ellis a caricature villain. Together they find a combative chemistry that is raw and often effectively human.

Bissell is clearly a student of the Scorsese School of Pop Song Insertion, and an early sequence set to Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” is indeed striking. But while the film’s overall structure is workmanlike, a few clunky, pause-for-dramatic-effect moments seem to exist more from indecision than confidence.

The Best of Enemies tells a good story and does plenty right while doing it, but is held back by missed opportunities.

As both factions in a divided community state their cases, the arguments are shockingly current, but Bissell can’t find the tone that clearly connects this past to our present. Just when he’s close (like the rundown of different challenges the black parents faced), some Mayberry-esque comedy re-sets the mood, leaving a worthy but not quite memorable history lesson on the value of reaching across the battle lines.




What Men Want

by George Wolf

There are a few moments in What Men Want – too few – when the forced caricature of Taraji P. Henson’s character takes a break and some actual acting is allowed up for air. These are nice reminders of how good Henson can be when given the chance.

Her latest, a reimagining of the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt fantasy from nearly 20 years ago, badly needs the confidence in its actors that elevated the original film. What Women Want was shallow, sure, but it had sense enough to trust what its leads could do with the material.

This time, a woman is blessed/cursed with the power to hear the inner thoughts of men. Sports agent Ali (Henson) gets that power after an unexpected visit with a strange psychic (Erykah Badu in a weirdly effective cameo), only the first of many convoluted and hastily-assembled situations the film trots out ad nauseum.

Director Adam Shankman can find none of the authentic energy that infused his effervescent take on Hairspray, settling instead for a laziness that has little regard for continuity, logic or organic humor.

Ali’s father (Richard Roundtree, nice to see you) comments on scenes he wasn’t part of, one-sided phone conversations appear just slightly more authentic than holding a thumb and pinky up to your face, and what could have been fertile comic ground musters only big-eyebrowed mugging and histrionics.

Ali’s thought-reading could be a vehicle for edgy takes on sexual politics, boys club boardrooms and any number of sexist double standards. But the inner thoughts Ali hears offer more boredom than bite, with the team of screenwriters racing past any possibilities for an effective character arc on their way to the next used condom gag.

A scene-stealing Tracy Morgan and a surprising Brian Bosworth improve a supporting ensemble that sports plenty of weak spots surrounding Taraji P. She over-compensates with desperate attempts to pull everyone to the finish line, which doesn’t come quite soon enough.

She Said She Said

Tyler Perry’s Acrimony

by George Wolf

Acrimony begins with an on-screen definition of the word “acrimony.” That’s how much credit writer/director/producer Tyler Perry gives his audience.

He doesn’t treat his lead much better, again creating a strong female character who must receive her comeuppance.

She is Melinda (Taraji P. Henson), who’s under court-ordered anger management after harassing her ex-husband Robert (Lyriq Bent) and his new fiancee (Crystie Stewart). As Melinda tells her therapist why her anger is justified, she tells us, too, and just keeps on telling.

Flashbacks give us the Melinda and Robert story, while constant voiceovers spoon-feed us enough information to qualify as an audiobook. The organic dialogue offers no more nuance (cell phone rings once: “He isn’t picking up!”)

It’s contrived and obvious at nearly every turn, and though Henson delivers her usual spunk, Perry’s penchant for demonizing women who don’t stand by their men is on display. The hand he plays for the film’s finale smacks of a cop out, a “get out of jail free card” for how he’s written Melinda’s character.

That card gets trumped, and the final showdown fizzles into borderline camp. It’s a fitting end to a mess of a movie.


Calculating Ladies

Hidden Figures

by George Wolf

When you learn whose story is being told by Hidden Figures -three African American women who were instrumental to the success of America’s space program – no one could blame you for fearing the “white savior.”

Thankfully, director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) avoids that pitfall…for the most part, anyway.

In the 1960s, mathematicians Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) were working in segregated areas of Langley Research Center in Virginia. As pressure mounted for the U.S. to catch up in the “space race,” Johnson (a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient in 2015) was promoted to calculating launch and flight data for Project Mercury, while Vaughan and Jackson blazed similar trails in computer programming and engineering, respectively.

It is an inspiring piece of history, one that is overdue for a big screen tribute, and Melfi -who also helped adapt the script from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book-gives it as much respect as he can without fully committing to the heroines themselves.

That’s not to say this is patronizing fodder on the order of The Blind Side or even The Help, far from it. But some moments of achievement from these African American women are framed as if the credit should go to the white people (mostly men) for realizing the ills of segregation and courageously allowing these geniuses to contribute.

When NASA director Al Harrison (a fictional composite played by Kevin Costner) reverses Langley’s segregated restroom policy, he does it in the most grandstanding, heroic way possible as the music swells to self-congratulatory crescendos. Dramatic? Oh yes. Pandering? You bet, and unnecessary.

A late exchange between Vaughan and a supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) has the subtle bite that shows Melfi content to merely knock on a door that needed opening.

The three principal actors are terrific, Costner, Dunst and the rest of the ensemble (including Mahershala Ali and Jim Parsons) provide fine support, the film is competently written and judiciously paced.

Hidden Figures has all the parts for what could have been a more meaningful sum, if it was a bit less concerned with playing it safe. And considering the subject matter, that’s ironic.

You might even call it a miscalculation.