Today: Kerry Washington
Take One: And the band played on
Jim McKay's Our Song (2000) was one of those New York high school coming-of-age films that often crop up from time to time. There were plenty on the late'80s/early '90s indie scene, but nowadays they're few and far between. The film follows three girl friends experiencing formative tribulations on their paths to adulthood. They navigate themselves through a summer of issues - teen pregnancy and suicide, their school's impending closure, family strife - in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, all whilst practising with The Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band in local parking lots for a Labor Day parade. It's a languorous, amiable film that, despite the surplus of social topics it raises, doesn't hammer any of them home with undue force.
Girl Power: Washington, Anna Simpson & Melissa Martinez in Our Song
Kerry Washington, in her debut movie role, is Lanisha. She spends her time talking music with her estranged doorman dad, band practice and hanging out with the girls (Melissa Martinez, Anna Simpson). It's a great role, and Washington must have been joyed so early in her career at the chance to play a part so real and unfettered by many of the usual over-explored woes attributed to troubled teens in these kinds of films.
Get on the bus: Washington as Lanisha in Our Song
Like Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. ('92) and McKay's Girl's Town ('96) before it - and Half Nelson and Raising Victor Vargas since - Our Song avoids the obvious pitfalls of the coming-of-age sub-genre. And as with - particularly - those first two films mentioned above, it should've received much more exposure than it did. It's an open-hearted - but never overly sentimental - portrait of three inner-city girls literally banding together. Washington was standout, and adroitly showed in her debut role an indication of her talents to come. With natural ease she encapsulates the hopeful, determined tone of both Lanisha's worldview and that of the film itself with a simple, "today is a good day."
Take Two: The Roommate
Who saw The Dead Girl (2006)? Anyone? People, come hither and spout forth your thoughts upon it. It rarely garners much mention or praise, when in fact it was a great deal better than many of '06's bigger indie flicks. (Perhaps its limited release over the Xmas period hampered its chances of reaching a wide audience.) But boy did it have one of the most tantalising casts, especially for us character-actor buffs: Toni Collette, Piper Laurie, James Franco, Mary Steenburgen, Josh Brolin, Marcia Gay Harden, Giovanni Ribisi, Rose Byrne, Brittany Murphy, Bruce Davison, Mary Beth Hurt and, of course, Kerry Washington. A good roll call by any standards.
Split into five segments the film follows the discovery, autopsy, possible killer, friendships and - ultimately - last moments of the titular murdered girl through five women's differing perspectives.
Washington appears in the fourth part as Rosetta, a prostitute roommate and friend of dead girl Krista (Brittany Murphy). Gay Harden, as Krista's estranged mother, comes looking for information about her daughter's life before death, and pays Rosetta to look around their shared apartment. Unkempt and twitchy on drugs, Rosetta's life is laid bare in only a handful of scenes. Washington is too good an actress to trade in usual, over-worked hooker mannerisms; she's a real, deeply troubled and life-worn woman. Rosetta breaks free of the typical Hollywood BS when it comes to depictions of prostitution on film.
In one outburst - in answer to Gay Harden's questioning - she gives it straight: "My mom's dead. She was a junkie. She got shot in the head in a parking lot. My dad: I never knew him... Now I live here and suck off assholes for cash. What do ya think about that?" We're a long way from Pretty Woman. The tears in Gay Harden's eyes, as she responds with, "I think it's sad" speak volumes; she's thinking of Krista, but also of how she could now help herself by helping Rosetta.
In under fifteen minutes of screen time Washington crafted a truthful, memorable character. It was all in her face and voice - and in the way she clearly believed in Moncrieff's script and delivered a believable and affecting contribution to the film.
Take Three: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour's... new luxury pad and happy relationship just because thou hast deranged personal issues
Grumpy cop Samuel L. Jackson has a right bee* in his bonnet over new couple Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington having moved into his neck of fire-threatened LA: he certainly doesn't plan on keeping up with the Joneses. The impending blaze has nothing on hot-tempered dudes Jackson and Wilson, at loggerheads over property rights and interracial snafus.
Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington find their Lakeview Terrace not as homely as they'd hoped
Washington's character, Lisa, is a bit of a daddy's girl, a stay-at-home homemaker keen on starting a family; Wilson's Chris is white collar management (not that you'd know it as he rarely wears any clothes in the film), drives a fancy car and mopes about a bit. I don't know about you, but usually when a smug, affluent, middle-class couple play house in a movie my first reaction is to want to smack them in the face. Here, notsamuch - but thanks only to Washington. Indeed, Jackson and Wilson flirt around a punch-up for the film's first hour when they really should've been listening to Washington's well-reasoned Lisa all along. I was glad she was at hand to attempt moderation of their macho tempers.
Washington & Regine Nehy having a much-needed girl talk in Lakeview Terrace
Washington's several scenes with Jackson's daughter (Regine Nehy) are the most carefree and affecting of the film. They create a break in all that one-upmanship and, through a moment of female bonding (a shared emotional connection - and, well, a dance to a Destiny's Child track), show that if the men had just darn well tried communicating the whole sorry business could've been cleared up in half the time. Tsk. Proof that Washington's scenes were prompts for the answers LaBute strained at seeking over the remainder of the film, I'd say. She may have started the film as The Concerned Other Half, but Washington avoided the put-upon-wife-role trap that others often fall foul of in such movies. She makes her character count.
Washington of course added solid characterful goodness to a wide range of films in between these three: as Idi Amin's youngest wife in The Last King of Scotland and Ray's wife Della Bea Robinson (I reckon she was robbed of an Oscar nod here) especially; and more recently as the adoptive baker in Mother & Child; and she fantastically played blind sculptress Alicia Masters in two Fantastic Fours (as well as appearing in Save the Last Dance, The Human Stain, Mr & Mrs Smith, Life is Hot in Cracktown and Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna and She Hate Me). Let's hope that her central role in Sundance and LAFF period drama hit Night Catches Us ushers in a plethora of future lead roles for the uber-talented Washington.
* Yes, the terrible hornet-/bee-related puns are inspired by Nic Cage screaming, "OH, NO! NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! AAAAAHHHHH! OH, THEY'RE IN MY EYES! MY EYES! AAAAHHHHH! AAAAAGGHHH" in LaBute's ever-so-watchable remake of The Wicker Man