What Bothers Me About the All-Black Remake of "Steel Magnolias"

posted Apr 4, 2012, 8:57 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Apr 4, 2012, 11:18 AM ]
In October, Deadline reported that an all-black remake of the 1990 classic Steel Magnolias was being produced for Lifetime Television. I don’t like remakes and I don’t like all-black versions of things that didn’t have black people in it in the first place -- especially considering there are so many “black” stories in the ethers that could be told instead.

So I didn’t pay much attention to the project until Deadline announced a couple of weeks ago that it had been cast. Despite the pedigree of talent attached, it is the latest in a long line of reminders about the lack of Streepian roles for these and other great actresses.

An untouchable film such as Steel Magnolias should not be remade in the first place. Why re-tell what’s already been told rather perfectly as is? I wonder about this every time I hear about the production of a remake, update, reboot or sequel. The only answer that anyone falls back on is a perceived built-in audience, which to small-minded programming executives means more potential money than something that is new, interesting and heaven forbid, risky.

Everyone understands that this problem exists but no one wants to be the first to take any steps toward solving it – certainly not bottom-lining network executives out of place in a CREATIVE business. How updating an iconic piece of film with a black cast is less risky than a black family drama or a political thriller with a black candidate or the inner workings of a black-owned corporation is beyond me.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a network that was once the bastion of ubiquitous reruns of The Golden Girls and the current home of Drop Dead Diva and Army Wives. After all, the former top-rated cable network is now garnering more attention for the groan-inducing Dance Moms and its forthcoming spinoff Dance Moms: Miami than for anything else on its schedule.

Lifetime can bank on some level of built-in viewership from longtime fans of the original movie, fans of the actresses cast in this new incarnation and general curiosity as to how it will all pan out. Still, no matter how well this version of Steel Magnolias is produced and acted, it will inevitably be compared to the original version. Every deviation from the original will be scrutinized. Every choice the actresses make in their interpretation of their respective roles will either be seen as derivative or an obvious attempt to bring something different for the sake of not seeming derivative.

It’s unfair to the faces of this production – especially these faces. No matter what they do, the shadow of the 22-year-old film classic will linger over this new and unnecessary version. 

The main cast of Steel Magnolias 2012 is Queen Latifah as M’Lynn, Alfre Woodard as Ouiser, Phylicia Rashad as Clairee (ironically), Jill Scott as Truvy, Adepero Oduye (of the 2011 breakout independent film Pariah) as Annelle and Condola Rashad (of NBC’s Smash) as Shelby. 

Sidebar: I had to raise an eyebrow for Latifah as M’Lynn. With Phylicia Rashad’s daughter in as Shelby, it would make more sense to me that she play M’Lynn (although she could easily pull it off with anyone cast as Shelby). Perhaps that casting was too obvious. While only in her very early 40s, Latifah has the matronly look to pull off Clairee, whether they age her up or not. I’m just not sure she has the gravitas or “motherness” to pull off M’Lynn. Still, if she’s going to continue to stretch herself as an actress, it may as well be in something she’s producing. After all, Latifah is an Academy Award-nominated actress. She could surprise us all again.

The casting of these six award-winning actresses (including 4-time Emmy winner Woodard and Tony Award winner Rashad) immediately led me to question whether they were drawn to the project itself or just taking advantage of increasingly rare acting opportunities presented to them as women of a certain age, women of a certain look and women of a certain color despite their pedigree as actresses.

Regardless, I certainly would never fault either of them for signing onto this or anything else that pays – particularly Latifiah, who is also producing. I understand the concept of “work is work”. I also understand that such great actresses deserve better than a remake on Lifetime Television.

My problem isn’t with the film itself as much as it is the system as described above that led to it. I have to wonder why Alfre Woodard, with those four Emmys, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Golden Globe and the respect and admiration of many in her field doesn’t seem to have great movies built around her or written specifically with her in mind. I have to wonder why Phylicia Rashad, whose talents have added dignity and grounding to any production of which she has been a part since her days on the legendary The Cosby Show, doesn’t seem to be in much higher demand – particularly after her stellar performance in 2008’s A Raisin in the Sun (which does not count as a remake).

Woodard and Rashad are not the only actresses of a certain age, of a certain look and of a certain color who don’t seem to have access to meaty leading roles on film or television. While Meryl Streep’s career is very much an anomaly when compared to that of typical actresses, it is one that many wish to have in terms of the opportunities being presented to them. Therefore, her career is serving as the basis for comparison.

When I think of underrated and underserved actresses of a certain age and of a certain color whose talents and accomplishments should long since have granted them access to such Streepian roles, the following come to mind:

Angela Bassett is best known for her fantastic and fiery Oscar-nominated performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? almost twenty years ago. While certainly not a bad role to be somewhat synonymous with, it definitely should have catapulted her into the stratosphere of Streepian success. With the power she brings every role, it is inexplicable to me why she hasn’t (outside of what many consider to be the obvious reason).

Later highlights include leading roles in 1995’s Waiting to Exhale, 1998’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the 2002 Made-for-TV movie The Rosa Parks Story, the independent feature Sunshine State (also in 2002) and Akeelah and the Bee in 2006.

Outside of a regular role on the final season of NBC’s ER, has she fallen off the radar of producers and casting directors or is she being rightfully selective in her choice of projects knowing what she can bring to the table and holding out for roles commensurate with that?

Lynn Whitfield. If Bassett brings the power, Whitfield brings the fierce. Whereas Bassett delivers that power through her voice, Whitfield delivers the fierce in her eyes and in her delivery. Her three best known roles are in the 1989 miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, the 1991 Made-for-TV Movie The Josephine Baker Story (for which she won an Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or TV-Movie) and the 1997 film Eve’s Bayou.

But many of her credits since have been in guest-starring roles on TV and supporting roles in film. While she brings the appropriate level of fierce to any role, I have to wonder where her Devil Wears Prada-type role is? Where has her next Josephine Baker Story been? Where is that black family drama (in which she could play an influential older sister), political thriller (where she could play the candidate) and corporate drama (where she could play a high-ranking executive)?

Maybe it’s their choice. Maybe they all pick and choose the projects they want to be in. Maybe they opt for more theatre work where there may be greater opportunities. I don’t know. I just know that when it comes to the more visible media of film and television, they deserve access to the best scripts and the best roles that are out there.

But even those of a younger-than-certain age have difficulties breaking through.

Thandie Newton.

  • Her breakout role was in 1998’s Beloved
  • Achieved some mainstream success with 2000’s Mission: Impossible II
  • Won a BAFTA Award as Best Supporting Actress for Crash in 2006 while recurring on NBC’s ER
  • Since then, she had supporting role in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, supporting roles in 2007’s dubious Norbit (case         in point) and 2008’s W

Kimberly Elise.

  • Her breakout role was in the 1996 movie Set It Off
  • Had supporting roles in the 1997 Made-for-TV Movie The Ditchdigger’s Daughters and the 2002 movie John Q.
  • First major leading roles were in the 2000 Made-for-TV Movie The Loretta Claiborne Story and the 2004 feature Woman Thou Are Loosed!
  • Had supporting roles in the 2005-2007 CBS drama series Close to Home and the 2009 Made-for-TV movie Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story

Sanaa Lathan.

  • Had a supporting role in 1999’s The Best Man followed by a string of leading roles in 2000’s Love & Basketball, 2000’s Disappearing Acts, 2002’s Brown Sugar and 2006’s Something New (a personal favorite that also featured Woodard in a supporting role)
  • Had a supporting role in the 2008 TV Movie A Raisin in the Sun (with Phylicia Rashad) that was transferred from Broadway
  • Set herself apart from many of her contemporaries with roles as strong, successful and prosperous women who aren’t bitter about their love lives or lack thereof but we haven’t seen her in these hallmark roles as much as we had in the last decade or so

Regina King and Kerry Washington (both of the feature film Ray) are currently achieving success with leading roles on television – the former on TNT’s Southland and the latter on the new ABC drama Scandal.

The questionable saving grace for many of these actresses is Tyler Perry, who has cast them all (with the exception of King and Washington) in at least one of his movies. Alfre Woodard had a leading role in 2008’s The Family That Preys. Phylicia Rashad had supporting roles in last year’s For Colored Girls and this year’s Good Deeds. Angela Bassett (pictured left) had a leading role in 2009’s Meet the Browns. Lynn Whitfield had a supporting role in Madea’s Family Reunion. Like Rashad, Thandie Newton appeared in For Colored Girls and Good Deeds. Kimberly Elise appeared in Perry’s own breakout Diary of a Mad Black Woman in 2005 and last year’s For Colored Girls. And Sanaa Lathan had a supporting role in The Family That Preys. 

While it’s great that Perry is putting such great actresses to work, his movies have never achieved much critical favor (with the exception of The Family That Preys) despite their popularity and box office success. Regardless, these actresses deliver the same great performance they would if they were given the best scripts and the best roles Hollywood has to offer.

But is a Perry film all that’s being offered to them? If that is the case, therein lies yet another problem. If they’re choosing to be in a Perry film, what does that say about the other scripts that are being presented to them? All things being equal and fair, those Perry films should be a training ground of sorts for up-and-coming actresses (which he casts as well) to cut their teeth on before ascending to the best that Hollywood has to offer more established people.

At the same time, work is work – as exemplified by the comparatively ubiquitous Loretta DeVine, who will take on lead roles, supporting roles, guest-starring roles and bit parts in TV series, TV movies, feature films and probably even web series if asked (fingers crossed). At that same time, her continued working status never seemed to be based on seeking lead roles, but rather on seeking steady work in general.

This is not to say that DeVine doesn’t deserve more leading roles, which she’s had in the feature film This Christmas and the Perry film Madea’s Big Happy Family, but she’s firmly established herself as a go-to character actress over the last two decades. We need those types of actresses.

But we also need leading actress of a certain age, of a certain color to take on those Streepian roles. Woodard, Rashad, Newton, Elise, Lathan, King and Washington should all have access to the types of roles offered to Streep, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank.

Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis and Halle Berry have proven it can happen, but even they still haven’t been granted access to the Holy Grail of the best scripts Hollywood has to offer. It looks like my screenwriter friend Don Calvina and I have a lot of work to do in this regard.

While Goldberg is firmly settled in as a View co-host and Berry moving on to some semblance personal life with her daughter and soon-to-be husband after producing and starring in 2010’s independent feature Frankie & Alice), it is Davis who has risen to press on toward that Holy Grail.

Someone has to lead the way and it may as well be her. I just hope it means we would see a lot more of Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Lynn Whitfield, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Sanaa Lathan and so on and so on and so on…