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Black woman rising

The world of Kimberly Elise; plus, Javier Bardem plays a quadriplegic fighting for his right to die

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In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Kimberly Elise takes the title role through seven stages of grief, past 14 Stations of the Cross, ascends through nine stages of Dantesque hell, pauses for the kind of two-handed revenge theater that William Mastrosimone gave us in Extremities, and emerges on the other side as a free woman. What's more, she's also enough of a trouper to stand by and play the straight woman whenever the film's principal jester--Tyler Perry, more on him later--steps forward for his shtick. I've been admiring the work of the beautiful and fierce Elise for some time: Her roles have included Denver, Oprah Winfrey's daughter in Jonathan Demme's Beloved; the desperate wife of Denzel Washington's hospital hijacker in John Q; and a reformed prostitute who interrupts a church service to shoot the man who stole her childhood in Woman Thou Art Loosed. Elise doesn't work in movies that often--although Demme cast her again as a good-guy undercover agent in last year's The Manchurian Candidate--and I don't know whether it's by choice or if she's victimized by the limited number of serious lead roles for black actresses. I suspect it's the latter, however. As a native Minnesotan, Elise cut her teeth in St. Paul's experimental theater scene before heading to film school and then Hollywood. "I'm not like a sex symbol," Elise told an interviewer last year. "I'm just a good actor and that's my secret weapon, and that's like the weakest weapon in Hollywood."

As always, however, the movie industry seems to have room for only one marquee black actress, and that lucky person, unfortunately, is the preening, semi-talented and bi-racial Halle Berry. Happily, however, one of the virtues of Ray, Taylor Hackford's Best Picture nominee, is the presence of several exceptional black actresses, all of whom are more deserving of Best Supporting Actress nods than, at a minimum, Natalie Portman: Regina King, as the talented and doomed singer Margie Hendricks; Aunjanue Ellis as a rival backup singer (and who also co-starred to excellent effect in Undercover Brother); and Kerry Washington, as Ray Charles' increasingly independent and disillusioned wife.

What Elise has in common with the actresses from Ray--particularly King and Ellis--is that they bring a strong, sexual physicality to their roles, a type of playing that has fallen out of fashion for white actresses. Although there are fortunate exceptions like Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet, both of whom are up for Oscars this year, other actresses like Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts and Julianne Moore have ascended to stardom by playing passive, tremulous and neurotic victims. This self-abnegation is literally and particularly manifest in the physiques of Kidman, Watts and many of their less celebrated sisters--their occasionally gasp-inducing skinniness attests to an anxious desire to please audiences and the men who produce their films. But the black actresses working (if they're lucky) these days possess the aggressive self-assurance and broad comic and melodramatic flourish that recalls an earlier era of white actresses: Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow and Bette Davis (Garbo and Bergman, on the other hand, seem to be the models for the likes of Kidman and company).

Diary of a Mad Black Woman may not make Kimberly Elise a household name in the white community, but this film does represent her second lead in as many years in films produced by and for African Americans. Last year's Woman Thou Art Loosed went largely unnoticed by the mainstream, but it was in fact a modest indie success, making about $7 million. In that film, Elise played a woman at extremes, displaying a ravaged, vengeful and unvarnished face in her prison scenes and showing a gorgeous but wounded radiance elsewhere. Like all great movie actors, Elise acts with her eyes, which at their most intense burn like coals, threatening the integrity of the celluloid itself. There's only one scene in her new film in which those eyes come out, but it's a doozy. After her character Helen dumps her paralyzed and hateful husband into a large whirlpool tub--nearly drowning the helpless man--she lights a cigarette. As the smoke curls around her face, her eyebrows invert downward and she glares at her blubbering husband. In those few seconds, she becomes as wrathful and pitiless an avenging angel as has ever been filmed.

In addition to Elise's performance, Diary of a Mad Black Woman serves as an introduction to the considerable talents of Tyler Perry, who was unknown to me prior to seeing this film. After some lean years, some of which he spent sleeping in his car, the 35-year-old Perry has become a star on the black theater circuit as an actor, director and writer with a series of gospel comedies. (This genre has long been known, memorably and pungently, as the "chitlin circuit," but the name--with its echoes of minstrelsy and Jim Crow--has understandably fallen out of favor. However, "urban theater," Tyler Perry's suggested substitute, is as dull as it is inadequate.)

Although the directing chores are handled by Darren Grant, Diary is Perry's project all the way. Not only did he write the script, but in a feat worthy of Orson Welles, he plays not one but three roles. He plays one part straight, as Brian, a nice guy cousin of Elise's Helen, but he also appears swathed in shamelessly bad makeup in two others. Encased in several inches of decaying latex, Perry plays Joe, a crotchety, pot-smoking and flatulent lecher. Most flamboyantly, he appears as Madea, a pistol-packing, bellowing whirlwind of an old lady.

Madea is the piledriving fool to Elise's besieged Helen. In the film's opening scenes, Helen is introduced as the wife of Charles McCarter, a fabulously rich and famous Johnnie Cochran-like defense attorney (Steve Harris). After some frankly dreadful scenes in which Charles tosses Helen out of his impossibly grand mansion in favor of his new (and white, hiss hiss) mistress, Helen returns to her family's home on the other side of town, a folksy domicile ruled by her grandmother Madea.

After the horrible early scenes, I was, frankly, ready to bolt the theater. But when Helen knocks on the front door and, against all expectations, a drag grandma appears waving a pistol, I realized that this movie was going to have some tricks up its sleeve. This feeling was gratifyingly confirmed a few moments later when Madea settles a dispute by firing her gun into her kitchen ceiling.

Once Madea--a character that Tyler reprises from his stage work--steps onto the scene, Diary of a Mad Black Woman begins to take flight. As ragged and occasionally inept as Diary is, it nonetheless becomes something very gratifying: a truly populist family film. There's something for everyone in this ramshackle narrative that ultimately recalls the silent film era, when its sensibilities were still rooted in vaudeville and Victorian melodrama. Tyler is a born showman and his film encompasses a love story, a gangster subplot, low comedy, gospel and jazz and a message of Christian charity and forgiveness. All of these disparate elements exist side by side in a movie that manages to be both escapist and eminently human. Diary of a Mad Black Woman isn't great art--at times it isn't even a good movie--but in the end, it's the kind of film that I wish were made more often.

Possibly owing to arcane Spanish film politics, Pedro Almodvar's Bad Education was bypassed for that country's Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination in favor of Alejandro Amenbar's The Sea Inside. It's also possible that the Spaniards decided to go with the better film, which The Sea Inside is. It's not a groundbreaking work, but this story of a quadriplegic fighting for his right to die is nonetheless far more compelling than Almodvar's wizened, self-referential movie-within-a-movie.

The film opens with a serene Galician ocean vista gradually coming into focus. The speaker is Gene, a woman who works for the Spanish equivalent of America's Hemlock Society, a cause devoted to helping terminally ill people secure the right to die on their own terms. Gene is speaking to Ramn Sampedro (Javier Bardem), a man who has spent 28 years entombed in his own body after a diving accident. The resulting film, The Sea Inside, is the true story of a man who achieved celebrity status in Spain for his pioneering battle against the lingering religiosity of the Spanish penal code. (In light of the vituperation American religious conservatives have directed toward the last act of a boxing movie called Million Dollar Baby, it's hard to imagine Hollywood tackling a movie like The Sea Inside.)

Bardem is best known for Before Night Falls, in which he played a gay Cuban poet who endures censorship and oppression before escaping to America, where he dies of AIDS. He received an Oscar nomination for the role, and his strenuous, powerful and almost entirely bedridden performance in The Sea Inside is also the kind that the Academy likes to reward. His Ramn was once a man's man, a sailor, swimmer and motorcycle enthusiast with many attractive girlfriends. Now, he's balding, gray and increasingly embittered. He acknowledges that other paraplegics have found reasons to continue living, but for such a virile man as he, losing the power of his arms, legs and penis is a fate akin to death. Indeed, for 28 years his thoughts have lingered on what should have been his life's last moments, when he floated face down in the water, paralyzed, with his life flashing before him. But he was rescued and sentenced to a life in bed in the care of his brother and sister-in-law.

The story concerns the last few months of Ramn's life, when he took his cause to the national media with the assistance of Gene and her organization. Also on hand for the task is Julia, a beautiful lawyer from Barcelona who has her own reasons for joining the cause: She's ill with a degenerative condition in which she suffers a series of unpredictable and devastating strokes. Another woman in the mix is Rosa, a lonely single mother, factory worker and part-time DJ who wants to revive Ramn's will to live.

The Sea Inside, with its death-obsessed theme and wounded characters, is a bit of a tough sell. Although the film contains the unavoidable special pleading of a television movie of the week, the smoothly professional Amenbar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) deserves credit for making a lovely yet unflinchingly honest film about a topic most of us can hardly bear to contemplate.

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