Sabrina (Paula Patton) is from a wealthy, upper-class family with a mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. Jason (Laz Alonso) is from a blue-collar family in Brooklyn. They fall in love, he proposes, and there’s just one obstacle to their happily ever after ending — bringing those two families together for the wedding. When Shakespeare said that the course of true love never did run smooth, it might very well have been the culture clash that accompanies any joining of two families he was thinking of.
We meet Sabrina as she realizes she is about to take the walk of shame. It is the morning after what she thought of as a promising relationship but he thought of as a one-night stand. She decides to make a major change. If God will send her a true love, she will honor herself and that relationship by not having sex until they are married. And then she literally runs into Jason. They have to make a decision about their future together very quickly when she is transferred to China. He proposes, she accepts, and their perfect little bubble of love is intruded on by just about everyone. It’s hard to say which is worse, the family members who are trying to hide their feelings or the ones who are over-sharing.
Sabrina’s parents (Angela Bassett and Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell) are barely speaking to each other. She thinks he is having an affair and is hurt and angry. Jason’s mother (Loretta Devine) feels neglected and intimidated. As often happens at weddings, the happy couple reflects the strains of their family conflicts and has some of their own, as the “ever after” part of the deal sparks some panic. And, as often happens at weddings, a lot of the attendees are looking for love or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Patton and Alonso are in every way the heart of the film. Patton is as effervescent and refreshing as a chilled glass of champagne and Alonso is endearingly open-hearted and gallant. While the script requires them to behave so inconsistently and immaturely at times that even by wedding craziness standards it is hard to reconcile, they are performers of such immeasurable grace and charm that we keep rooting for them. The script also throws a seasons worth of soapy complications their way, but director Salim Akil is skillful in balancing the drama and melodrama along with some romance and comedy as well. The situations and dialogue may be overdone but the characters always feel real, their poor behavior coming believably from fear and pain and not just the need for another confrontation. He stays well on the safe side of caricature but is not afraid to weigh into tough questions of race, class, faith, money, and identity — and to allow every side some dignity and grace.
In 1971, a documentary film-maker named Craig Gilbert approached Pat Loud, a California mother of five, to ask her to allow him to observe her family the way anthropologist Margaret Mead observed the Samoans — and to do it on film, to be broadcast on public television. 300 hours of footage were edited down into twelve episodes, shown in 1973, and it became a sensation. Part of it was the fascination of the unprecedented format. This was the show that invented reality television, the idea of taking cameras (and camera operators) into the most personal moments of family life. And part of it was what was on the screen. The oldest son, Lance, came out publicly on camera, considered shocking in that era. The Louds thought that they would be presenting the American dream, but it turned into the American nightmare when after months of filming, Pat told her husband, on camera, that she wanted a divorce. They ended up on the cover of Newsweek as examples of the family break-ups of the era of self-actualization, open marriages, and what would later be called “The Me Decade.” Nora Ephron wrote about Pat Loud’s post-series book, “It is impossible to read this book and not suspect that Craig Gilbert knew exactly what he was doing when he picked the Louds, knew after ten minutes with them and the clinking ice in their drinks that he had found the perfect family to show exactly what he must have intended to show all along — the emptiness of American family life.”
Nearly three decades later, the series is notable for its influence on shows from “The Real World” to “The Hills,” “Jersey Shore,” and all the Kardashians and Housewives — and YouTube — and for the bigger and still-unresolved issues about how “real” reality television can be, especially when filmed over such a long period of time that not just the cameras but the crew become a part of the story. Now the Loud experience has come full circle and been turned back into an excellent feature film on HBO with Diane Lane as Pat Loud and James Gandolfini as Craig Gilbert. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who sensitively portrayed another real-life character with a sometimes-distorted media biography in “American Splendor,” have produced a thoughtful story about the Louds and what they represented.
Movies have some magical moments, but some things only happen when everyone is really in the room together. There were both the night I saw “Jumping the Broom” with an audience mostly made up of students from DC’s Howard University. The movie, from Reverend T.D. Jakes, is about the wedding of a lawyer from a wealthy family and an investment banker from a working class family, raises universal questions, with clashes on race, class, and money, insecurity, doubt, betrayal, and lies — but also faith, romance, forgiveness, commitment, honor, and love. When stars Paula Patton and Laz Alonso (a Howard University alum and DC hometown hero) greeted the crowd, the excitement level exploded. Even after they left, the audience’s appreciation of the film was palpable — this is a movie you want to see with other people to enjoy its masterful mix of comedy, drama, and the resilience of families both well-established and just beginning.
The next morning, they sat down with four critics to talk about the film, starting with what initially drew them to the project. A script is always a work in progress, but if the blueprint is good then you’ve got something,” said Patton. She liked the concept of the families from two worlds and playing a character who is flawed and learns to change her ways. “These movies are not rocket science. They’re meant to be feel-good and funny and make you happy, and I think it did a wonderful job of that.”
Alonso said he could tell right away the script had the bones of a really good story. “And then as actors, it is our job to put the meat on the bones.” He talked about what he learned from the other actors. “Paula has a work ethic that surpasses even my workaholic work ethic. And Loretta Devine [who plays his outspoken mother] is a method actress who would yell at me when she would see me in town if I would dare have breakfast and not include my mother. To this day, I still have to call my mom! And then you have someone like [director] Salim Akil, who I actually modeled my character after. He directed “The Game,” “Girlfriends,” “Soul Food,” back in the day. He is such a classy, strong man. He is not going to let this film be anything but a classic depiction of these two families, especially my [character’s] family. He took my family as his personal responsibility, to show that just because you may not necessarily be wealthy doesn’t mean that you don’t have dignity and you don’t have class. He didn’t play the stereotypes.”
In the first scene of the movie, Patton’s character realizes that she has not been honoring herself in her relationships with men. She makes a promise that if God will help her find a good man she will not have sex before marriage. She and Alonso spoke to us about what that brought to the story. “For my character, some of the backstory that might not have shown up in the final version of the movie is that he did not grow up very traditional, going to church, but because he fell in love with Sabrina, and she was going to try this approach, he realized that love was more important than any previous beliefs that he had and he was going to put her first,’ said Alonso. “A lot of times we see very sexualized images with sex coming before romance. This is kind of a throwback, with romance coming first.”
Patton talked about how her own parents’ marriage brought two very different families together. “There’s so much drama that goes into bringing two families together. My mom and dad could not have come from more different families. My dad was from Mississippi, his parents were sharecroppers; my mom was from Connecticut and her father was an executive at GE. So I definitely understand two different families coming together and all the drama that ensues — and all the love, and getting past all those things, and realizing your likenesses and through all the struggle that you are family, that you will support each other and count on each other and be this bond in front of God and everyone that you’re going to be together for the rest of your lives, hopefully.”
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has a new media initiative called “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen.” Every year, more than 1 million students drop out of high school. If that trend continues, over the next 10 years, it will cost the nation
more than $3 trillion in lost wages, productivity and taxes. Public television has done a great deal for preschoolers and early readers. Now it will try to serve middle and high schoolers. CPB has made a $.4 million grant to 20 public television stations in community “hubs” with the worst records for school dropouts, to raise awareness, coordinate action with community partners, and work directly with students, parents, teachers, mentors, volunteers and leaders to encourage teens to stay in school. As many as 40 more markets will receive grants through the National Center for Media Engagement. And The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, through support to CPB’s Teacher Town Halls and the StoryCorps National Teachers Initiative, will give teachers a way to share their perspectives and experiences with helping all students graduate high school prepared for college and careers. Stay tuned for more information.