I attended the Washington, D.C. advanced screening of ‘Sparkle’ on Wednesday, but I missed the chance to get a jump on other movie reviewers by waiting until the weekend to release my thoughts because I wanted to give a fair and clear critique. Being the (typically) harsh judge that I am, I wanted to let the movie marinate, watch the original, 1976 version of ‘Sparkle,’ and gain some perspective. Well, I’ve done that now, and I’ve concluded, as the title denotes: This is NOT your mother’s ‘Sparkle.’
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of this family musical drama, the story follows three sisters, Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), and Dee Dee (Tika Sumpter) as they form a Supremes-like singing group, which brings drama and death to the doorstep of the family. And that’s where the similarities between the original and the remake end.
Without giving away any spoilers, I will say that screenwriter Mara Brock Akil’s script cements and steamrolls over many of the plotholes in the first film. The original, set in 1950s Harlem, has the girls living in poverty with their mother, a housemaid for a rich White family, who is very supportive of their dream to sing. The remake is set in Detroit in the late 1960s, which allows the original, Motown-y songs to actually make sense with the time period the film is set in. The remake also stars Whitney Houston, an (inexplicably) successful dress shop owner, failed singer and single mother who wishes to shield her three daughters from the devastating impact the music industry can have. (In fact, it is quite eerie how much Whitney’s real life and death are paralleled in this remake and in the original.)
Where the original beats you over the head with its definition of who is “good” and who is “bad,” the remake will have you praying for the “bad” guy to live. Where the 1976 version of Sister’s kryptonite, Satin Struthers, goes from zero to ‘beating your tail’ — without provocation — in the blink of an eye, the remade Satin (played seriously by the usually funnyman Mike Epps) has well-defined demons that give him depth — allowing the audience to get him, even if we don’t like his actions. Akil writes the new Satin as a real person, and Mike plays him real, giving a surprising performance unlike any he’s done thus far.
The adorable Tika Sumpter’s character, Dee, and Dee’s “Black is Beautiful” soul finally make sense in the remake’s late 1960s Detroit setting. Just as Dee knows she is not just “the other sister” but “the other other sister,” Tika fights to make her presence known on screen. Where Tika could easily shrink and disappear into the background, she instead adds fire and flash to Dee that makes her both vulnerable and exciting to watch. Unlike the strange way Dee abandons her family in the 1976 version, the new Dee is a fierce protector of both her ambitions and her family, and when Dee takes action, the audience pays attention.
The character Levi, Sister’s boyfriend, is another one who gets new life in this film, providing a real contrast in men for Sister to choose from. In the original, Levi quits the singing group in order to be a low-level dealer for Satin Struthers. Sister then has to pick whether she’s going to go with the low-level dealer or the kingpin. Decisions, decisions. In the remake, however, Levi (played brilliantly by Omari Hardwick) is a straight, genuinely good dude, with strong ambitions that don’t yet match his bank account. He has a demanding presence and self-assuredness that carries him through disappointments and insecurities and provides a classy alternative to Satin for Sister. We get a chance to see him come full circle in a way that we never do in the original, which Akil deserves applause for. Omari also brings an energy to the screen that is notably absent when he is off of it, which warrants praise, as well.
And now for the missteps.
Jordin Sparks is not yet a movie star, no matter what the commercials say. For her first role, she did a great job and the girl gives great face! But, she does not yet have the presence and command of a movie star. However, there is no other young established, Black singer that could’ve mastered the (two) songs like Jordin did as well as tackled the acting. (Maybe Keyshia Cole? Nah… Leona Lewis?? Jazmine Sullivan??) Jordin is in great hands and will only get better with time and meatier roles. I’m excited to see how she develops as an actress.
And in fairness to Jordin, the character ‘Sparkle,’ wasn’t really written to command anybody’s attention, anyway — in the original or the remake. At best, Jordin’s Sparkle goes from mousy to Mighty Mouse(y). Though she is a likeable character, she’s not quite real enough for me to care. It’s clear that her insecurities come from her mother and from being in the shadow of her idol, ‘Sister,’ and it’s clear that her new-found confidence stems from the fact that both women are out of her way. But every time Jordin sang, my thoughts were, “O.k. THIS must be the part where Sister bursts through the doors and starts singing, Speak, Lord! Shug Avery-style.” Basically, when Sister isn’t on screen, I’m like a 15-year-old boy in a new relationship: “I wonder what she’s doing. What’s she thinking ’bout? Where is she?!?!”
I am genuinely puzzled as to why this movie isn’t called “Sister,” in the first place. Or at least, why Sparkle isn’t named Sister and Sister named Sparkle. Even in the original, Sister is the star. In the remake, her complexities are intriguing and her struggle is deeply rooted. We are given her full back-story — the oldest daughter who raised her two younger siblings so that they could have advantages she didn’t have while their mother was at work — and so we understand why she chooses to go wild once her sisters are grown up and can take care of themselves. We understand her draw to the darkside as a means to escape her under-privileged life, since she does not have the education to fall back on that her sisters were able to get as a result of her sacrifice. Her bitterness towards her mother is equally balanced with her love for her mother and we see her struggle with that. Her love and protectiveness towards her sisters is balanced with a need to break free and be her own person and she constantly volleys between those two worlds. Sister is a complete character played to the nines by British-Nigerian actress Carmen Ejogo and Carmen is without doubt the star of this film.
Derek Luke is a good actor. Was he giving me ‘Diddy’ from ‘Notorious’ in this movie? A lil bit. But for a character with no backstory, no clear understanding of his motivations, and not the slightest explanation for why he loves ‘Sparkle,’ I think Derek did the best he could with what he was given to work with.
Another misstep is in the advertising of the film. When they aren’t pretending Jordin Sparks is the star, they are completely focused on Whitney and “Celebrat[ing] the Legend.” This, to me, screams THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE IN THIS MOVIE OTHER THAN WHITNEY, SO PLEASE COME FOR WHITNEY’S SAKE! This is misguided marketing because there is actually a lot more to see than Whitney’s final (and relatively small role) in the film (though admittedly, her presence is felt throughout the film like no other’s! But that is mostly due to the context of her death). Yes, even the most hardcore of people will bury their inner-thug six feet under when Whitney’s weathered-yet-sturdy voice belts out “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and she lifts her head and arms to Heaven as if she knows what will happen to her just three short months after she films this scene. It is devastating. It will devastate you. And it is worth experiencing. But there is, indeed, more to see.
Did I laugh in places that, in retrospect, were supposed to be serious? I did (but who can keep a straight face when you see someone beating a grown woman with a belt in slow-motion?) Is the dialogue perfect? No, but there are some truly endearing moments (like when Levi (Hardwick) proposes to Sister using a picture of a ring inside of a box — a very sweet twist on an old idea). Did the cameraman catch the Holy Ghost when Whitney was singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow?” I don’t know, but something was happening to make that camera shake all over the place in that scene and others. Is the singing like in “Dream Girls”? No. There is no “And I Am Telling You” moment. But Jordin’s “One Wing” is certainly enjoyable, as are all the songs Carmen leads. Does Jordin’s big, sold-out finale make any conceivable sense? Absolutely not; it’s a major plot hole. But is the movie as a whole entertaining and worth seeing? I’d definitely say so.
This is more than Whitney’s last film. With ‘Sparkle,’ we get a very rare opportunity to support a screenwriter who is expanding the width and depth of Black characters on screen. ‘Sparkle,’ represents progress and hope for Black actors as well as for the future of Black cinema. That is something worth supporting.
Have you seen ‘Sparkle’? What did you think?