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
Omar P.L. Moore/January
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
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
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
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
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.
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