Black Film’s “Magnificent Seven”

13 11 2008

While this year has been mediocre at best regarding the quality of major studio releases, African-American film releases are enjoying a record-breaking year. With a diverse collection of work, this year’s Black Reel Awards promises to be one of the most competitive of it’s nine-year history.

Founded in 2000, The Black Reel Awards have been an annual barometer tracking the progress and advancement of the artistry of Black filmmakers and performers. The nominations for this year’s awards will be announced on Monday, December 17. While we are still waiting on next month’s musical biopic, “Cadillac Records” and Will Smith’s dramatic “Seven Pounds,” we take a look at the “Magnificent Seven,” films that are under close consideration.

The Secret Life of Bees
Director Gina Price-Bythewood’s adaption of author Sue Monk Kidd’s novel tells the powerful tender story of a young girl, Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and her help mate, Rosalee (Jennifer Hudson) who land at the home of the Boatwright sisters, August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo) in the midst of a tumultuous time of change in 1964. While each of the film’s major stars began their careers in the music business, Latifah, Keys and Hudson not only give incredible performances but inhabit the characters in a way that gives the film an intimacy and spirituality that wraps around you like a familiar blanket. While the big three and Fanning get all of the attention, it is Okenedo’s performance that brought us to tears as the ultra-sensitive surviving twin sister who carries the weight of the world on her emotional shoulders.

Miracle at St. Anna
After publicly sparring with director Clint Eastwood in the press over the absence of role of Black soldiers in a pair of earlier films, Spike Lee attempts to set the record straight with World War II tale of four serviceman caught behind enemy lines in 1944 Italy. Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonzo and Omar Benson Miller try to protect a village and meet a group of special people in this violent, yet thoughtful story. Since the portrayal of African-American soldiers has been so sparse in cinema, Lee jams ten pounds of history and images into a five pound bag. While we had issues with the film’s storytelling mechanism, we would never question Lee’s unbending and single-minded focus to finally put a cinematic face on the Black war experience.

The Family That Preys
Between prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry’s two 2008 films, this early fall release packed a more solid emotional punch. The story of two families, one White and the other Black continues Perry’s journey as competent voice on the cinematic landscape. For the first time Perry successfully interweaves multiple story lines, without the story skidding off a steep cliff. When a young couple, Sanaa Lathan and Rockmond Dunbar take jobs with her close childhood friend’s company, their paths diverge in unconventional ways. Meanwhile family matriarchs, Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates discover the true meaning of friendship as one of them work on their “bucket list.” Perry’s forte is always featuring strong Black women and Lathan’s passionate yet heartless portrayal of a self-hating, deceptive wife may be a little over-exaggerated but is quite effective. Most surprisingly, Robin Givens actually acquits herself well in a role that may revive her film career.

Soul Men
Samuel L. Jackson shares the screen with the late Bernie Mac in a tribute to the Memphis soul scene in the enjoyably funny, “Soul Men.” The two sing, dance, fight and reconnect on a cross-country road trip to honor a fallen colleague played by John Legend. Late soul icon Issac Hayes also briefly appears in an ironic twist that brings together many of his Stax Records comrades for what will be their final appearance together on film. Kudos to director Malcolm Lee for an extended touching set of end credits that salute both Mac and Hayes and remind us all once again just how much we will feel the significant loss of these two entertainment giants.

Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle starred and co-produced this story of an American operative of African birth who may (or may not) be a terrorist operative. Much like Derek Luke’s physical similarities in “Catch a Fire,” Cheadle captures the essence of an American soldier in deep cover in the process of terminating a terrorist cell. Very timely because of the real threat that America faces abroad and on these shores, Cheadle places an African-American face on the discrimination and obscurity that many Arab-Americans endure daily in this country. While not critically acclaimed, Cheadle hoists this intense story on his back and it ultimately suceeds because of his tenacious tenacity.

The Longshots
With a series of forgettable current films under his belt the prospects of Ice Cube’s latest film, “The Longshots” appeared bleak. Thankfully, the finished product was superior to the film’s trailer. This film based on a true story tells the story of a washed up former football player who channels his athletics desires into his disconnected niece, Keke Palmer, who becomes the quarterback of the town’s football team. The film feels like the sport’s version of “Akeelah and the Bee,” which is not a bad idea. The story ultimately works because of the winning chemistry between Cube and the precocious Palmer, who continues to evolve as a young actress.

Big Will Smith has fought aliens in “Independence Day,” kicked a– in the “Wild Wild West” and played “the baddest man in world” in the biopic, “Ali.” With a slew of comic superhero films in the works, Smith threw his cape into the ring as the foul-mouth, alcoholic brother from another planet in the summer comedy hit, “Hancock.” Playing against his squeaky clean persona, Smith takes the audience, up, up and away in this light tale with a dark twist that just begs for a sequel/prequel. While many critics (and audiences) didn’t like the film’s darker second half, the film’s $200-plus gross still prove that damn the haters, Big Willie is a cinematic force!



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