So few ensemble-driven African-American films make it to market—whether with familiar faces or unknowns—that the ones that do get out of the gate provoke a weird degree of scrutiny regarding what they have to say about the black experience. Who needs the pressure? Movies such as the first Barbershop succeed not because they feel important or thesis-heavy; they succeed because they bring the commercial and the sociologically astute cultural touch to a bagful of characters.
This brings us to Jumping the Broom, a picture that gave me considerable satisfaction, partly because it wears its themes of trust and belief and faith lightly and easily, while taking them seriously.
On the surface, director Salim Akil’s comedy-drama appears to have a lot in common with Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? pictures, in which a vacation gathering brings a litany of domestic and personal crises to the fore. But this is Perry with far fewer melodramatic mood swings, and it works on a more relaxed and easygoing vibe.
The setup: pure formula. Hotshot Manhattan corporate attorney Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) comes from money and from parents (Angela Bassett and Brian Stokes Mitchell) on the brink of divorce. Sabrina’s rising young broker fiancé (Laz Alonso) hails from the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s the overprotected son of a postal clerk (Loretta Devine) struggling with anger management. The high-hats meet the low-downs for the first time at the extravagant Martha’s Vineyard wedding. Devine’s character brings the ancestral marriage broom for the newlyweds to mark their new life. Bassett’s elegantly controlling hostess will not have it.
The outcome of Jumping the Broom takes the word “preordained” to new heights. By most standards this is a very churchy picture, its story hinging on the premise that after one too many dead-end one-night-stands, Sabrina makes a deal with God to lay off the intercourse until marriage if He match-makes her the right match. Producer Tracey E. Edmonds describes the project as “faith-based”; one of Edmonds’ fellow producers, T.D. Jakes, runs the Dallas mega-church known as The Potter’s House, and plays the preacher in the climactic wedding scene. This we get after all the obstacles and doubts have been shelved, and the various discreet hookups among the supporting characters have been either acted upon or quashed.
The film works because the screenwriters have a knack for juggling a dozen-plus major characters without succumbing to the obvious class-warfare gags every 90 seconds. Jumping the Broom may be too low-key to be a hit, but I hope I’m wrong. The cast, very good up and down, maximizes each scene. On the Watson side of the wedding, we’re deep into the realm of wealth and privilege that will strike much of the target audience as a fairy tale. Yet the Devine character’s response to the Vineyard (she’s offended at being picked up at the airport by a chauffeur, rather than a member of the host family) becomes part of the running joke. It’s a relatable one. While the movie is nothing special visually, and it delivers more endings than a cat has lives, the people onscreen more than compensate.