• U.S.

Cinema: Mother’s Day

3 minute read
Jay Cocks

BLACK GIRL

Directed by OSSIE DAVIS

Screenplay by J.E. FRANKLIN

One of the most pernicious effects of the new black movies is their reinforcement of racial stereotypes: men are studs, women tools, politics irrelevant, life-style supreme, crime—generally of an unbelievably flamboyant variety—the only means of surmounting social inequality. Perhaps the most telling of Black Girl’s numerous virtues is its assault on one of the most durable of all myths, the bedrock indomitability of the black woman as mother and source of familial strength. For the children in this story, survival is as much a matter of breaking away from mama as leaving the ghetto.

Working from her off-Broadway play, Ms. Franklin (as she is billed in the credits) has fashioned a screenplay with the kind of startling instinct for detail and idiom that makes every observation seem firsthand, every experience newly assimilated and freshly understood. Billie Jean (Peggy Pettitt), who ought still to be in high school, wants to be a dancer, despite the impatience of her mother, Mama Rosie (Louise Stubbs), and the mockery of her two older half sisters, Norma (Gloria Edwards) and Ruth Ann (Loretta Greene). She is encouraged by Netta (Leslie Uggams), daughter of the neighborhood crazy lady (Ruby Dee). Mama Rosie has unofficially adopted Netta, helped her go away to college to study law, and is eternally holding her up as an example to her own children. “I don’t see any of your graduation pictures up there.” Mama Rosie snorts to a resentful Norma and Ruth Ann. “You couldn’t keep your dresses down.”

Franklin is especially adept catching the awful, angry contempt that Mama Rosie showers not only on the children but on her mother (Claudia McNeil) and her ex-husband Earl (Brock Peters), who is greeted on one of his periodic pilgrimages home with two quick questions: “What’re you drivin’?” and “You bring me any money?” Earl, big spender and fancy dresser, has moved all the way to Detroit, but he still dances on the end of Mama Rosie’s string, all his jive a feeble and transparent defense against domination.

Franklin’s portrait of Mama Rosie—and Stubbs’ dynamic playing—is a mixture of rage and compassion, of wisdom won with visible scars. Mama Rosie is not a villain so much as a victim herself, of humiliation and desperation. Instead of wandering the streets, proud but mad like Netta’s mother, she lashes out. But her anger, like the other woman’s insanity, is itself a manifestation of helplessness, a plea and a cry of pain.

Director Davis’ care for his actors has produced flawless ensemble playing, although Leslie Uggams, physically perfect for her part, is perhaps too mousy and tentative. Black Girl possesses great emotional energy, partly diminished, however, by Davis’ disregard of any but the most elementary visual considerations. It is still as much a play as a movie, and one with a resolution that seems a little evasive and unconvincing, more wish fulfillment than reality. What ought to have been a wrenching final scene is softened. It is one of the few false moments in a fierce, clear and eloquent testament about growing up black in America.

•Jay Cocks

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