Monday, January 26, 2015

With This Ring (Sony Pictures Television/Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Lifetime movie called With This Ring, essentially a modern-day equivalent of a “race” movie from the 1930’s and 1940’s in that the character leads are all Black and they seem to move in a hermetically sealed world where they’re able to socialize exclusively with other Black people and almost never encounter anyone white. Lifetime promoted this one heavily on the basis of the gimmick that the three female leads — talent agent Trista (Regina Hall), gossip columnist Viviane (Jill Scott — the great soul singer, probably the best “belter” between Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, is used in a role that doesn’t allow her to sing!) and aspiring actress Amaya (played by someone billed on only as “Eve”) — make a pact on the New Year’s Eve their friend Elise (Brooklyn Sudano) is being married and decide that within the year all three of them will tie the knot, either to someone they’ve met during that time or, if they can’t find a suitable man, to the not particularly exciting but good-enough men they’re dating. At the start of the film Trista is having a sexual quickie with Damon (Brian White), whom she’s broken up with but still gets together with for hot times even though she doesn’t consider him marriage material. Viviane has a troubled relationship with Sean (Jason George) — they’re not a couple anymore but they’re stuck with each other because they have a son and are at least trying to be responsible parents and both take an interest in the boy’s life — and Amaya is dating a married man named Keith and trying to get him to leave his wife for her. Alas, writer-director Nzingha Stewart (bearing one of those oddball first names that’s either genuinely African or a jumble of letters either she or her parents concocted to sound African) doesn’t do as much with this story as she could have, veering between light-hearted romantic comedy and drama and not doing either particularly well. It’s a film of moments rather than a totality, and most of the best moments involve Amaya: she makes an appearance dressed as a catfish (for a commercial advertising a Black-oriented fast-food outlet; the shoot required her to do 10 takes in which she bit into a foul-tasting catfish sandwich and had to pretend this was the best-tasting fare in the world) and later she crashes a party Keith is giving and is thrown out, but not before she catches Keith’s wife making out with another guy and she thinks she has them dead to rights until the woman (who’s considerably sexier than Amaya is!) explains that she and Keith both have an open relationship but keep it on the Q.T. because he’s a bigshot executive at some corporation or another and the news that he and his wife were not sexually exclusive with each other could derail his career. (Nonetheless, Amaya gets a smartphone photo of Keith’s wife and her boyfriend together and leaks it to Viviane in hopes she’ll put it on her Web site and screw up Keith’s marriage.)

After a series of complications neither as funny nor as moving as Stewart thought they were, eventually Viviane decides to marry Sean; Amaya gets lost in the shuffle but seems to have succeeded in landing Keith after his divorce (not that he seems like such a prize package); and Trista has been through the romantic as well as the career wringer. She landed a role in a coveted independent film for Black superstar Terrence Robb (not identified on the page) and thought he would be the great love of her life — only she went to his house to break the news to him and found him in the middle of a party complete with bowls of pills and scantily clad people of both genders ministering to the great man’s physical needs, including a queeny masseur named Mikiko (Jason Rogel) indiscriminately spraying Terrence and his guests with massage oil. Trista fainted at the sight of these goings-on and Terrence had her fired by her agency (the supercilious guy she was working for is the only significant white character in the film), but not to worry: like the leads of Hot Rhythm, she and Nate (Stephen Bishop) literally run into each other in the agency’s hallway and end up setting up a talent management business which lands Amaya a supporting role in Terrence’s movie after Viviane obtains photos of that wild party (courtesy of Mikiko) and threatens to publish them if Amaya doesn’t get the part. At the end Trista resigns herself to marry Damon, only Nate shows up at the wedding and Trista gets cold feet, though in the end she doesn’t hook up with Nate either but decides to remain single and not define herself by a relationship with a man. (A pity; Stephen Bishop is hardly as sexy as Brian White but he’s playing a far more grounded character and it’s clear Nzingha Stewart thinks he and Trista do belong together.) With This Ring seems in part to be a propaganda piece aimed at encouraging upper-middle-class Black women to look for upper-middle-class Black men instead of dating white guys — they do exist, Stewart seems to be telling her sisters — and it’s also one of those how-far-we’ve-come films in that it shows that African-American actors definitely have equal access to the same screenwriters’ cliché bank as white ones, but it’s not a great movie and it’s hardly the good clean dirty fun it could have been!