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By Khadijah White | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, August 27, 2012.

I loved Sparkle, the recent remake of the 1976 Blaxploitation film. I know, you probably don’t believe me – I’m the Black feminist critical scholar who will go on incessantly about how much I loathe Tyler Perry movies and my rant will include the words “anti-feminist,” “patriarchal,” “heteronormative,” “homophobic,” “essentialist,” and “minstrelsy.” I haven’t watched a new Spike Lee film since that tragedy called “He Got Game,” I refused to see Steve Harvey (a misogynist) give screen time to Chris Brown (another misogynist) in Think Like a Man, and I am still steaming about the colorism involved in the decision to have Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic.

But I Loved Sparkle! Even with the light-skinned protagonists that were called beautiful and gifted while their dark-skin sister was sassy, smart, and never pretty. Even with the awkwardness of watching another black woman pretend to hotcomb Jordan Sparks’s weave. Even when the “bad sister” smoking cigarettes in the hallway while her sisters attended Bible Study. Even – and Lord!! – with the questionable acting skills and the sometimes underwhelming script. Even with all that, Sparkle is quite possibly my favorite movie in recent years.

The film starts with Cee-Lo belting out a soulful ballad on stage, surrounded by raucous Black bodies in a dark nightclub sweating, yelling, and whooping to the music. It’s a scene I’ve seen many times before, but the sight of a crowded Black space filled with music, fashion, and sheer exhilaration triggered a wave of nostalgia and longing so strong, it caught me by surprise.  Quickly, I was swept away and pulled into a women-centered world of dazzling costumes, breathless success, and the overpowering gaze of an ever-present spotlight.

The story opens with two fair-skinned sisters preparing to go next on stage. Jordan Sparks plays the title character Sparkle, the shy songwriter who pushes her confident and beautiful older sister, Sissy (Carmen Ejogo), to perform her songs. The opening scene, replete with archetypes donning finger waves and a performer ripping her dress to enhance its sexiness at the last second, also carried complexity. There was a just barely-there hardness in the older sister’s sultry performance and a simple brilliance in the ambition that shone on the face of her sister-lyricist. The characters were not quite as neat as they first appeared, their moves not quite so easy to predict.  The contrast of the sentimentality of the rowdy juke joint juxtaposed against the intricate bond of these two sisters sets the tone for the rest of film, which tells a surprisingly rich tale of a musical family of singers finding their way in a 1960s Detroit.

The opening juke joint scene isn’t the only one that feels instantly familiar. As the audience travels with these sisters, we run to catch the last bus home and sneak back to our rooms just to find our mother waiting in her house robe and rollers, chiding us to wrap our hair for church the next day. We go on a first date at a cheap food joint with a guy we don’t really like but might be our best hope for escape, we fall deeply into a heady, dangerous love affair, we laugh with our sisters and stand up to our overbearing parent. The scenes are almost always in intimate spaces – bedrooms, living rooms, the church sanctuary, private home balconies, record store listening booths, and dressing rooms. We are inside Detroit, but outside of its exterior spaces, away from the pain and ugliness of police brutality and Detroit’s crushing poverty. This is a film about inequality and marginality, but as reflected in the uneven contrasts of nighttime performances and hitting rock bottom while weeping in a closet in the light of day. 

Whitney Houston plays “Emma,” a single mother of three. She is a strict, bible-toting woman who sings solos in the church choir every Sunday and slips into a deep alcoholic slumber every night. Her third daughter, Dee, (played by Tika Sumpter) is an aspiring doctor who has the dark-brown skin of her father, subtly gesturing to her mother’s history of failed relationships. Her eldest daughter Sissy is living back at home after a failed marriage, trying to make ends meet on a meager department store salary. Sissy is the core of the film, not Sparkle. She is a resolute woman who refuses to unpack her bags at her mother’s home because she won’t accept that she has nowhere else to go. Throughout the movie, Sissy is always trapped – in a body that makes men want to possess her, in a society that limits her capacity to provide for herself, by her lack of education and self-esteem, by the demands and expectations of her siblings, and in the suffocating cocoon of her mother’s home. In a way, all of the sisters seem to be trapped, always yearning to be somewhere and someone else.

There are some beautiful, striking moments in this film. A fiery Sunday dinner debate between a reverend, the churchgoing mother, and Sissy’s comedian fiancé strikes all the right chords, laying out well-delivered critiques about the Black church, self-involved Black entertainers, and the subjugating politics of Black respectability. Sissy enters a heady, violent romance with her fiancée, played by Mike Epps, which leads to a drug-induced spiral downwards that ends in tragedy. The chemistry between Epps and Ejogo is almost tangible, and we believe her when says she loves and hates him in the same breath. We are emboldened by the sisters’ solidarity and discover terrifying splendor in a relationship that is both destructive and relatable. Mama is both right and wrong, as mothers always are, and the young women learn this truth in their own individual ways. It is a film about romance, sisterly bonds, friendship, abuse, and the sheer beauty and terror of love, ambition, success, hope, and happiness.

Whitney Houston, in particular, stands out as “Emma”. Like in the Bodyguard, the film provides frequent and heartbreaking points of parallel to Houston’s real-world experiences, reminding us of her own struggles with love, success, loneliness, and drugs. In one scene, Sissy peers at Emma through the plexi-glass of a jailhouse window and tells her, “You look tired.” And it seems like it’s Houston, and not Emma, that resignedly answers, “I am.” 

We see Houston peek out again later when Emma tells her daughter “You believe in yourself. Takes a lot of faith to do that – some of us are still trying.” In the back of my mind, I wonder about the extent to which Houston shaped this script, how much her own highs and lows helped construct all the various plots. In Emma, I also see Whitney Houston who may-have-been, an alternative version of Houston as a diva who had never found a spotlight. Her own tragedy echoes throughout the piece, constantly troubling one’s sense of reality, shattering the illusion of a backstage that is always upfront and the impenetrable veneer of a never-ending performance. In some ways, Sparkle seems like Houston’s final apologia.

There is also the music – an En Vogue arrangement of “Something He can Feel,”an original song from the 1976 version of Sparkle. Nina Simone serenades us with “Feeling Good,” and Whitney Houston comes alive in her pivotal solo “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”  Sissy bangs out a tambourine rhythm on her hip, live full orchestras make the music swell, and large choirs harmonize while swaying in flowing robes.

Sparkle, of course, has its failings, mainly due to low production values and lazy writing. The narrative is riddled with cliché, neglects to explain various plot points, and is often unrealistic and melodramatic.  We find out that Emma’s brief musical career ended tragically, but never learn the specifics of her cautionary tale. We don’t exactly know how Dee and Sparkle earn a living or how old they are. The film is set in Detroit, but its lack of exterior shots and landmarks makes it seem placeless. While there are plenty of references to the riots happening in the city, we never see them. Romantic interests throw rocks at windows and pledge their love in the pouring rain. And it seems like they stole a scene from Love Jones as Sparkle clings tightly to her boyfriend while riding on the back of his motorcycle. Important details frequently go unexplained, convincing me that someone made the mistake of leaving out key scenes.

Still, Sparkle avoided the Perry-esque traps that seem so common nowadays. The main characters are Black women who are both bad and good. Their friendships are real and manipulative. They are together and lonely. There isn’t a single identifiable evil or one totalizing or moralizing tale. The film closes with Sparkle singing her own song, “I can’t fly with one wing,”,drawing on the words her sister had cried out while begging for drugs in an earlier scene. Even as our hero wins, she still uses her sister as muse and tool, a source of exploitation and inspiration. This tension is not only valuable, it also rings true. Ultimately, through Sparkle we get a different set of “colored girls,” each given space to strum their own chords and live their lives as we all do – in conflict, triumph, pettiness, and love. 


Khadijah White is currently a PhD candidate and Fontaine Fellow in the Annenberg School for Communication and a lecturer at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously she worked as a journalist at NOW on PBS. Her research focuses on the intersection of culture, identity, media, and politics.



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