Making the Past Sparkle

August 20, 2012
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In the remake (which should really be called a reboot, as much as I loathe the word) of the 1976 film Sparkle, notions of class mobility are important elements of the film. In fact, the sole reason for this remake seems to be outside of a cultural desire to remake this film. After all, the original film made few waves at the box office, although it has become a cult classic among a segment of the black populace (a segment to which I, along with my sister, belong). Rather, I argue the film is first and foremost concerned with rehabilitating the black mass’ mediated past. What I mean here is that the film works to reshape the ways in which mass mediated blackness is understood. The class status of the main characters is moved from three women and their single mother “living in a world of ghetto life” to being comfortably middle class and living in the relatively affluent Palmer Woods neighborhood of Detroit. This effectively inserts a black middle class into the hegemonic narrative of 1960s Black America.

The cast of the 1976 version perform "Giving Him Something He Can Feel"

By displacing the original narrative from 1950s Harlem to 1968 Detroit, the film participates in the reification of the idea that as black folks, by 1968, we “had overcome.” In 1968, the characters are four years past the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination in housing employment, schools and public spaces. Detroit was three years past the shock and awe of the death of Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit civil rights activist who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama for her role in the March on Washington. In short, 1968 is mythically a period in which the world was integrated and all of the strife associated with racial injustice had been settled. But what is left out of 1968 is the assassination of Martin Luther King in April. While the film is persistent about using King as a temporal authentication device, the civil rights leader’s death is never mentioned (unless we are to believe that the film’s action takes place within the span of a month or so).

The cast of the 2012 version perform "Giving Him Something He Can Feel"

But initially I felt the film was lacking something other than temporal specificity–it seemed so squeaky clean. What I initially understood as a lack of grit in this 2012 version was crystallized upon my second viewing of the film. In its original 1976 version, Sparkle was about the ways in which systemic racism often precluded black people from ascension into the middle class, particularly in cities outside the Rust Belt where jobs within the automotive industry were plentiful. As such, when Sister and Her Sisters sing that they are “living in a world of ghetto life [where] everyone seems so uptight,” they are in fact, living in a small tenement apartment where they need to perform themselves out of poverty. When the members of Sister and Her Sisters sing the same line in the 2012 version, it is generally met with a “Girl please, you live in a two-story house with a piano.”

The Williams' family stoop in the 1976 version

This remake of Sparkle is ultimately about being what Fredric Jameson calls a “nostalgia film.” He writes about American Graffiti that nostalgia films are concerned with “reinventing the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period… it seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects” (p. 19). As applied to Sparkle as a nostalgia film, it is about getting the costumes and sets right. By re-excavating the 1960s and how we have culturally thought about race in that period, the producers and writers of the 2012 version of Sparkle can use mise-en-scène to depict the period while flipping what we think about the period on its head. Black people in this re-imagining are solidly middle class (and in Sparkle’s Anderson family, small business owners). They have overcome.

The home of the Anderson family in the 2012 version

I am not arguing that Sparkle’s placement within the middle class is inauthentic and that a ghettoized existence for cinematic black bodies is “more black.” We have had a slew of films that reflect a black middle class that can be understood within the multiple ways we understand blackness in the 21st century (many of them produced by T. D. Jakes, who is one of the producers of Sparkle). Rather, as a film designed to remake the original version, I felt hoodwinked. Sparkle was gutted of much of the narrative thrust from the original film and all that remained was some of the character’s first names (even the family’s last name was changed for the 2012 version). Gone are tales of poverty, pimps, and hustling, and in their place are respectable ideals like middle class values, church, and education. By inserting a middle class  family (albeit a matriarchy), past notions of the 1960s black subject can be rehabilitated from their connection to “ghetto life.” These renewed tropes of respectability are not “bad” on their face. But they are representative of a black cinematic shift away from depicting a black lower class. By returning to the 1960s and reshaping the mass mediation of blackness, the makers of the 2012 Sparkle can retrofit their “middle class values” cinematic project to a bygone era most notable for the proliferation of Blaxploitation film. But in the process of rehabilitation, ultimately the filmmakers rob Sparkle of its…well, sparkle and erase the struggle of black bodies throughout the Civil Rights era.



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