Morris Chestnut as Dave and Taraji P. Henson as Clarice in Bill Duke's drama "Not Easily Broken", which opened across the U.S. and Canada today.  (Photo: Sony Pictures/Screen Gems)

THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"Not Easily Broken"

MaNAFU:Easily Broken, But Not Beyond Repair

By Omar P.L. Moore/January 9, 2009

Bill Duke has directed some thought-provoking films in his second career after his initial one in front of the camera as a character actor.  In "Deep Cover" (1991), his best directing effort he explored the meaning of identity in an undercover narcotics officer who has gone so deep he may not be undercover after all.  And in 2007's little-seen, hardly-released, almost-straight-to-DVD film "Cover", Mr. Duke boldly explored homosexuality in the black community, a taboo in one of America's most conservative quarters, in a film that addressed the topic in a way more honest than in most American feature films, including last year's "Milk".  In "Not Easily Broken", which opened today across North America, Mr. Duke again presents interesting ideas and issues for discussion, however, cinematically he doesn't succeed in melding them together as a sustainable or viable film, and that's too bad, because there's a lot of good topics to digest.

Dave (Morris Chestnut) was a sports athlete -- tops in baseball as a younger man, until a severe knee injury ends his pro-career ambitions, with life dealing him a hand that sees him struggle to build a business as a construction company owner while coaching a little league baseball team in his hometown of Los Angeles.  Clarice (Taraji P. Henson), Dave's high school sweetheart, is the breadwinner as a real estate sales agent who shies away from wanting kids -- her career is the only baby she's occupied with.  One wants something the other doesn't.  The marriage has its rough spots.  More than a few.  No surprise.  Clarice's mother (Jennifer Lewis) meddles too much, causing further consternation in Dave's life and the marriage.  That's the landscape. 

In "Not Easily Broken" physicality is presented as iconography -- black men's muscular bodies glisten in powerfully vivid color-drained cinematography while playing basketball; an attractive Barbie-dollish physical therapist named Julie (Maeve Quinlan) is a potential temptress: either she's an angel of healing or Satan's candy confection, having previously healed an injured Clarice.  Mr. Duke plays the physical moments to highly metaphorical levels throughout, defining the entanglements and complexities of the carnal while not adequately conveying the spiritual messages presumably emanating from the Bishop's book on which the film is based, in any coherent cinematic way.  Admittedly it's not an easy feat to accomplish.  At least the director earnestly introduces a discussion on spirituality without giving it the typically negative treatment it and the larger subject of religion receives in American (especially Hollywood) films.  As an aside, the bishop in the film (played by the great Albert Hall) looks like Bishop Jakes, and that's not by accident. 

For all of Mr. Duke's well-meaning approach here, regrettably there are a lot of indigestible moments: visual cliches that don't belong.  Furthermore, there are repetitive transition time-lapse shots and sequences that look more like stylistic filler than anything signifying a means towards driving the film forward.  Plot points are introduced that flounder, meander or are only obliquely resolved.  Loose ends suddenly get tied up too easily.  A sequence contrasting two sports moments seems to emerge from left field without meaning, connection or significance; and an imbalance in treatment featuring notable lesser characters who go through an arc of growth so complete in comparatively less screen time than some larger main characters whose overall growth in the story moves all of two millimeters, thus becoming relegated to, or canonized, as stick figures or cardboard cutouts. 

Somewhere inside one gets the feeling that Mr. Duke wasn't quite sure where to go with "Not Easily Broken", adapted for the screen by Brian Bird from the Bishop's same-titled book.  Bishop Jakes has a small cameo during one of the more subtle moments in the film, which for much of its time is anything but, what with a troika of screeching, scolding black women who lambaste their men -- rightly or wrongly.  Whether by stereotype or otherwise, the screeching black sister without substance or complexity seems to be in vogue in American films, whether comedies or dramas, whether directed by blacks or whites.  Numerous actresses have played HER (that is the S.B.W.) with the notable exception of Angela Bassett, who gets little Hollywood feature film exposure these days either because she chooses to keep her personal integrity intact or because in some circles she is looked at as persona non grata for doing so.  (Note: Ms. Bassett will be seen next week in "Notorious", and one cannot wait to see what kind of mother she is to slain rapper Biggie Smalls in that film.)

Only in the latter stages of the third act, when the melodrama amps up a tad, do we witness a quiet moment for Ms. Henson, who isn't quite as good here in a lead role as she has been in smaller roles (see the bloated "Benjamin Button".)  This isn't necessarily Ms. Henson's fault as much as it is the flawed screen material she has to work with.  One feels that her character could have benefited from more detail and that the film overall shredded some of its smaller less relevant themes and dug deeper into its overarching ones (spirituality and love vs. physicality and temptation.)  Mr. Chestnut does reasonably well in a lead role ("The Game Plan" and other films have seen him in lesser ones) but his character becomes much of the cliche while the musical style is not especially a distinguishing feature of Mr. Duke's film.

"Not Easily Broken", hardly the worst film on the block despite its numerous shortcomings, contains amusing, lively, colorful characters: Dave's good friends -- Darnell (Wood Harris) a fellow baseball coach and very sensitive black man who is in touch with his feelings as his wife has made his life a misery, Brock (Eddie Cibrian), a jocular urban white man who also coaches with Dave while going through a divorce, and has eyes on Julie.  Dave's criminal-minded brother Tree (Kevin Hart) has a child and Dave hasn't quite got over that fact as much as he hasn't come to terms with his injury.  ("I would trade my scholarship and my trophies to have a child", Dave says to his brother at one point.) 

There is an early indication of the film's self-consciousness: as Dave announces that there is only one race: the human race -- not the black race or the white race -- which perhaps allows some audiences not react so viscerally to later possibilities.  This pre-emptive move however seems more like a patronizing or insulting of an audience's ability to understand that the human heart's capacity for love is universal than it is a safe harbor or self-inoculation from criticism.  Alas, there's plenty to repair here but one wonders if another two or three screen drafts of Bishop Jakes' book would have done the trick, although few will likely be waiting around for any kind of sequel.

"Not Easily Broken" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual references and thematic elements.  The film's running time is one hour and 39 minutes.

Popcorn Reel Hot Minute: PopcornReel.com YouTube Review of "Not Easily Broken"

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