World & Nation
AP The Wire
Comics & Games
Home & Garden
Advertise with the Times
Both sides of romance
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2000
PASADENA, Calif. -- Wesley Snipes hears the question and laughs, a light, sensual snicker that charms the small group of reporters gathered at the Ritz Carlton Hotel to quiz him on his latest project.
When asked whether he got into fights over gender issues while making the HBO movie Disappearing Acts -- adapted from a book written by a champion of African-American women and directed by Love and Basketball's Gina Prince-Bythewood -- Snipes cackles as if he's been asked whether children like chocolate.
"It's a Terry McMillan novel about black men and black women made by Hollywood. . . . You figure it out," he says of his HBO adaptation of McMillan's breakthrough book. Decked out in a spotless, high-collared white suit, cool-school shades and an oversize necklace bearing an Egyptian ankh, he is at once striking and a little inscrutable.
"I made sure this movie reflected the sensibilities of (my company), Amen Ra Films," adds Snipes, who also served as executive producer. "This is for all the males out there who are going to be worried. . . . It's not going to be one of those "We hate the brothers, and they're the source of all our problems' kind of movies. This is going to be much more."
That's a controversy that dogs every McMillan work these days, thanks to the success of her third book, Waiting to Exhale, and the follow-up, How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Many people, especially black women, have responded to the themes of independence and self-empowerment running through McMillan's work, which often features African-American women who free themselves from the destructive influence of horrible mates.
Critics say her novels too often deliver that freedom at the expense of black men, who are demonized as selfish, shiftless, ineffectual or all three.
But Disappearing Acts, written before Exhale and Stella, avoided such pitfalls by dramatizing a passionate, sometimes bruising relationship through the eyes of both the man and the woman involved.
"The thing I love most about the book . . . it was the first time I thought I understood the man's point of view and how different their thought process was," says Prince-Bythewood, an up-and-coming auteur who is the first woman to direct a movie from a Terry McMillan novel.
"It really showed both sides," she says. "Two flawed people, (showing) how outside forces can affect a relationship."
In HBO's film, Snipes plays Franklin Swift, a 34-year-old high school dropout who finds sporadic work with a contractor rehabilitating Brooklyn brownstones. Love and Basketball's Sanaa Lathan is 29-year-old Zora Banks, a teacher and aspiring singer who meets Swift while moving into a new apartment.
Before long, their romance begins and problems surface. Franklin, who is in and out of work, drinks too much and has two children from a previous marriage.
Zora, college-educated and surrounded by upwardly mobile girlfriends, finds herself constantly defending her relationship and dealing with Franklin's bursts of self-doubt.
Money becomes a serious problem when Franklin hits a long spell of unemployment and Zora has a child, jeopardizing her work with an important record producer. In the end, something has to give.
Author McMillan says that, for all its intrigue and drama, the book's focus is simple.
"It's about the struggle," she says. "The power that economics has on love . . . (and) how you can be valued or devalued based on your lack of education, income or the poor decisions you make. That was the whole story for me . . . how humiliating it can feel when you know you've made bad choices."
And she has a strong rebuke ready for those who accuse her of being too tough on black men.
"I don't know why black men keep thinking everybody is picking on them," says McMillan, arms waving as she warms to her point. "That's the thing that's annoying as hell to me. People don't understand . . . fiction is about conflict, problems and issues. I'm not trying to be fair to all black men, because I'm not writing about all black men. I'm writing about a few very specific men, who may not be (treated) fairly in the story."
Mercurial and demanding, McMillan admits she has a reputation as a control freak (after reading an unacceptable adaptation of Exhale, she co-wrote the script for that film and Stella).
But she didn't bother writing the Disappearing Acts movie, inking a deal that contractually barred her from even reading the script until the movie started production.
"I was sick of . . . having everybody tell me what works and what doesn't . . . 18 different people telling you 15 different things and each of them conflicting," says McMillan, who adds that she asked producers only to try to find a black woman to direct the project. "Writing a novel, I don't have to please anybody."
Snipes and McMillan first kicked around the idea of a Disappearing Acts movie in 1995, when he worked on Exhale. Originally dreamed up as a feature film project for Snipes and Stella star Angela Bassett, Acts eventually wound up on HBO's doorstep with a slightly scaled-down vision.
"Part of our company's agenda is to bridge the gap between those who are more experienced and those fresh voices that have the creative juices," says Snipes, whose company Amen Ra, named for an Egyptian god, also serves as an acronym meaning "African Minds Engaged in Royal Affairs."
"Those who have the cash need to start putting it behind those who have the creativity," he says. "Because if you don't control the purse strings, you don't control the project."
As it turns out, director Prince-Bythewood brings a touch of romance and downtown hipness to Acts, tapping Melky Jean, sister of Fugees star Wyclef Jean, to serve as Zora's voice; former A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip plays Zora's producer.
A gentrified Brooklyn serves as the director's gentle backdrop, providing a classy environment for the couple's steamy love scenes and incendiary fights.
Fans of the book will note that some key passages didn't make the cut, including a pivotal moment when Zora meets Franklin's working class parents for the first time at Thanksgiving dinner.
In the novel, it's a tension-filled encounter, fueled by Franklin's mother, a bully who grows so angry at Zora's tipsy, educated conversation that she heaves a fistful of mashed potatoes into her face.
HBO's version cuts the dinner scene so short that you wonder why producers bothered hiring heavyweights John Amos (Good Times, The West Wing) and CCH Pounder (ER, Cora Unashamed) as Franklin's parents.
Also missing: the rich internal dialogues that make Disappearing Acts such an evenhanded effort. Too often in the movie, we see Zora struggling to trust a man who is overcommitted, unemployed and undereducated.
It's a credit to Snipes' performance that viewers still wind up liking Franklin, a good man who redeems himself by the movie's end.
"A lot of things that Franklin goes through, I've been through," he says. "I married young, I had a son young, I was broke, I had dreams of being successful and starting my own businesses . . . (facing) having those dreams derailed or interrupted.
"Life is probably the greatest classroom we'll ever have. But few of us have the right teachers."
Ask Snipes about his own life teachers, and he mentions stars he has worked with, including Sylvester Stallone, Sidney Poitier and Sean Connery.
"The coolest things Sean told me: Always keep $1,000 in your pocket . . . I dug that. . . . and when you're doing scenes in a car, you can take your pants off," Snipes says, laughing loud. "The camera never sees below the steering wheel anyway . . . so you can be cool in your slippers and have a tux on top."
He chuckles some more, considering the sight of James Bond negotiating hairpin turns from the waist up while chilling out in less, um, restrictive wear from the hips down.
"If you ever see him sitting in a car for a long time, he's probably in his shorts or his underwear," Snipes says. "Kind of adds a whole new meaning."
AT A GLANCE: Disappearing Acts airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO. Grade: A-. Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.