Seven years after the success of Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Hollywood studios have finally figured out that Tyler Perry might be on to something in targeting a specific African American audience with his fluff: no social commentary à la Spike Lee, no vulgar stereotypes like in Soul Plane (2004), just good old-fashioned melodrama grounded in a culture too often ignored in entertainment. Make no mistake: this remake of Sparkle (1976) doesn’t pertain to black history, the fringes of the civil rights movement, or even Motown music. It’s a blatant Tyler Perry knock-off with all the trappings, including the sassy matriarch (Whitney Houston), the buffoonish community leader (Michael Beach), the religious comeuppance, and the sibling subplots that don’t go anywhere.
Of course, none of these elements contribute to the main story about three sisters starting a girl group like the Supremes. As in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), each attaches her own understanding of happiness to the venture. Dolores (Tika Sumpter), for example, aims to pay for med school, whereas Sister (Carmen Ejogo) just wants a rich husband. The sanctimonious melodrama then piles on until the final act, when the filmmakers realise they’ve got to wrap things up and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is rewarded for never giving up on her dream, by which I mean selling her big sister out to drugs and crime in the hopes of furthering her career.
I have issues with the titular character to say the least. The movie seems to think the world owes her because she has talent (which American Idol winner Jordin Spark admittedly does, especially when she’s “composing” songs from the original). At some point, Hollywood filmmakers will have to learn that success in the arts doesn’t make someone a worthier human being, but I digress. The real problem lies in Sparkle proving too passive to work as a protagonist. Sister gets kicked out of home: Sparkle does nothing. Sister gets abused by her husband Satin (Mike Epps): Sparkle does nothing. Sister gets thrown in jail for a crime she didn’t commit: Sparkle does, you guessed it, nothing.
Come to think of it, Sister would have made a more effective protagonist, what with her making all the decisions for our would-be heroine. She’s got the best moments too, such as when their mom, Emma, rejects her engagement with Satin, sparking an argument decades in the making. As it turns out, the churchgoing matriarch routine comes across as a fair bit of hypocrisy to the girl, who remembers her teen mother subjecting the family to neglect, poverty, and abuse before finding this holier-than-thou persona. As such, she’ll go to any length to denounce it, even shacking up with Mr Wrong. This strikes me as an interesting motivation, but it’s never mentioned again.
I’m fascinated as well with Satin, a tortured comedian who’s made his fortune by demeaning his people in front of white audiences. He turns out a monstrous husband, of course, but again Sparkle hints at a deeper psychology than the plot deserves. The idea is that the man started his career thinking he could turn racism to his advantage, taking back its power the way some today hope to achieve with the dreaded N-word. However, with every bit of success comes an equal amount of self-hatred, causing him to lash out at Sister. Though I can’t say I agree with the underlying politics, the notion does make for a complex villain.
Unfortunately, Satin’s thread, like every other in Sparkle, quickly devolves into cheap theatrics. I suspect the problem lies in director Salim Akil pairing down a deceptively ambitious screenplay to its bare essentials, picking and choosing sequences in accordance with their shock value instead of their relevance to the plot. He has, for instance, the bad taste to show Sister getting whipped with a belt long after the abuse has been established but denies the woman a true confrontation with her mother, cutting the climactic scene after only two exchanges. Then again, perhaps the simplistic finger-wagging is part of the formula.
You see, most know Tyler Perry for making movies that appeal to the black community, but I find that reductive: as if African Americans from all walks of life sought the same type of entertainment. For my money, I’d say he targets churchgoers in particular, the sort who pass loving judgment on their neighbours and, of course, recognise them in his characters. Following suit, Sparkle seems to have pauses expressly designed for viewers to exclaim at the screen, “Leave him already!” or “That’s what you get!” Of course, one has to wonder what such wholesome God-loving folk will think of our heroine baring half her breasts at the end to please her audience.