Two Made-for-TV Biopics about African-American Women: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Moving on with my films-seen-on-YouTube theme, it can be a great resource for television movies, given many of them never received “proper” releases. Two that I saw in close succession were fair-to-middling biopics about prominent Black women of the mid-20th century, albeit covering quite different stories in some ways. It may be telling that while one was itself directed by an African-American woman (Julie Dash! a great director at that), the other was directed by a white woman; however, the production history and writing credits suggest it’s not quite so straightforward. In any case, the film about Dandridge certainly dwells more on the more negative aspects of her life, although it’s covering a whole career rather than just a single defining time in civil rights history. It’s probably worth looking into the comparison between the two more closely, except that neither is a particularly memorable film in the end, though both are successful in their own ways.


Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

I do like a good, glamorous made-for-cable-TV biopic of a glorious and complicated life, and Dorothy Dandridge — for a while, at least — seemed to have both qualities. I am reminded of Bessie (2015, another made-for-TV biopic) in that respect, a film which on the whole I think I liked more, if only because it seemed to take more risks. There’s some nice stuff in this one about Dandridge: Halle Berry certainly looks the part and sparkles when necessary, and the production design seems pretty solid. It just never really seems to lift off, but hits all the expected highlights (and of course lowlights) of her short life.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge film posterCREDITS
Director Martha Coolidge; Writers Shonda Rhimes and Scott Abbott (based on the biography Dorothy Dandridge: An Intimate Portrait of Hollywood’s First Major Black Film Star by Earl Mills); Cinematographer Robbie Greenberg; Starring Halle Berry, Brent Spiner, Klaus Maria Brandauer; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 31 May 2018.


The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

It is of course appalling how little work Julie Dash got after her 1991 masterpiece Daughters of the Dust (not to mention her earlier short films), and this made-for-TV biopic probably doesn’t showcase her talents as well as another cinematic project might have. A lot of the exposition is somewhat clunky, with big swelling orchestral moments that, if not unearned, at least feel like they are more of a generic touch than an artistic choice. However, there’s a lot here that’s good, whether the understated filmmaking, or the fine performances, especially from Angela Bassett in the lead role. It may not be the best film one could have hoped for, but it’s still a perfectly good biopic of an unfortunate period of American history, one that was never easily resolved (as this film in many ways is not), if it indeed ever has been.

The Rosa Parks Story DVD coverCREDITS
Director Julie Dash; Writer Paris Qualles; Cinematographer David Claessen; Starring Angela Bassett, Cicely Tyson, Peter Francis James; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Saturday 5 May 2018.

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