L-R: Tika Sumpter, Carmen Ejogo and Jordin Sparks
“Sparkle,” the primarily black produced, written, acted and directed remake of a 1976 original, represents an entertainment crossroads. It’s a passage from one era to another that signifies reaching for the stars and falling back to earth chastened, stronger and definitely grittier.
A product of its time, the film is tied to the era of civil rights and Motown which immortalized a blues and gospel inflected beat that sounded the call for change and aspiration.
In this remake of “Sparkle,” Whitney Houston, glamorous, sophisticated, beautiful, and amazingly talented as ever, gives her last performance. The film is a cautionary tale about looking beyond the surface of things and making sure the shiny, bauble of promise in your hand is pure gold. Houston plays Emma, a mother who has felt the hard edges of life’s possibilities and finds refuge in the church. With a will of iron, she tries to impose her lessons on her three daughters, all of whom have inherited her musical talent.
Of her girls, none is more talented than the youngest, Sparkle, who can sing and write. Played by American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, Sparkle is continually sneaking out of the house with her older, sexier sister Tammy known throughout the film as Sister. Both are drawn to crowded smoky clubs, where Sister, played by Carmen Ejogo, performs Sparkle’s songs. The middle sister, played by Tika Sumpter, crops her hair into an Afro, wants to be a doctor, and sings only to make money for college. She doesn’t have the same fire that ignites Sparkle and Tammy.
What matters most is seeing Houston perform for the last time with dignity and with a praise song on her lips. From beyond the grave, she seems to sing her own requiem. Writer and co-producer Mara Brock Akil, who also created ‘Girlfriends,’ named the film’s church New Hope Baptist, the same name as the church where Houston grew up singing and was eulogized.
Both the new and the old versions of the film revisit and remix the tragic mulatto trope, dating from antebellum years, which sells the notion that blackness, even if wrapped in a talented beautiful body, is only a passport to tragedy. Old formulas, hidden under new packaging, keep the film from soaring into new times.
Actress Carmen Ejogo was born in London on New Year's Day 1974 to Elizabeth Douglas and Charles Ejogo, a couple of Scottish and Nigerian extraction, respectively. She made her U.S. film debut opposite Eddie Murphy playing Veronica "Ronnie" Tate in the 1997 comedy "Metro."
Carmen went on to star in films such as Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost;" "What's the Worst that Could Happen?" opposite Martin Lawrence; Gavin O'Connor's "Pride and Glory" with Ed Norton; and in Sam Mendes' 2009 indie hit "Away We Go."
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Dante James is an Emmy Award-winning independent filmmaker who has produced and directed critically acclaimed documentaries and dramatic films. He is also the assistant director of the African Cultural Center at North Carolina State University (NCSU). More »