Sparkle – the Film Tyler Perry Can’t Seem to Make

January 13, 2024
6 mins read

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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