Judge Victor Valdivia once decided to look into his ancestry. That ended pretty quickly once it was explained to him that his parents had actually had sex.
The Roots saga continues.
Alex Haley's Queen, the 1993 TV miniseries that chronicled another side of the ancestry and heritage of the author of Roots, makes its debut on DVD. There are several scenes of great acting, writing, and directing, but an extended structure and an overabundance of stars make it only a sporadically successful sequel to the original 1977 series.
Facts of the Case
In antebellum Alabama, Queen Jackson (Halle Berry, Monster's Ball) is born the illegitimate daughter of plantation owner Col. James Jackson (Tim Daly, Wings) and slave Easter (Jasmine Guy, A Different World). As she grows up, she endures a bitter rivalry with James' wife Lizzie (Patricia Clarkson, The Green Mile) and the cold indifference of James' mother Sally (Ann-Margret, Tommy). The Civil War ends Queen's period of servitude, but life in the South during Reconstruction is cruel and dangerous, particularly for a woman who can appear white but is half-black. Queen endures hardships, horrors, and challenges as she struggles to make a life for herself and find love with freed slaves Davis (Dennis Haysbert, The Unit) and Alec Haley (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon).
Alex Haley's Queen is a very good two-part miniseries dragged out to three parts and padded with pointless characters, unfinished subplots, and repetitive scenes. There are some scenes of unflinching power, honesty, and brutality, but their effect is diminished by a meandering storyline that starts much earlier than it needs to and ends much later than it should have.
Part of the problem is that, because the miniseries was clearly intended to be an epic event like Roots, many stars jumped on board to play roles that are actually quite minor and of little importance to the main story. Martin Sheen, as Queen's white grandfather, and Paul Winfield, playing her black one, are both talented actors and play their roles with skill, but their characters are given fairly elaborate backstories that don't pay off or add to our knowledge of any of the main characters. For all their talent, their scenes could have easily been trimmed or even cut without really harming the main story at all. Similarly, talented supporting actors like Lonette McKee, Jane Krakowski, and Ossie Davis are wasted in roles that, despite their screen time, are really just plot devices: the person who tells Queen that things are going to be hard, the person who tells Queen that she shouldn't dream too ambitiously, the person who teaches Queen about how ugly racism can be, and so on. These scenes could have been handled quickly and efficiently, but are instead drawn out needlessly to show off the cast to full advantage and wind up becoming a chore to watch.
Another problem is that after a certain point, the miniseries just winds up piling on hardship after hardship on Queen's shoulders until it starts to become almost self-parody. There has always been a controversy over how much of Queen is based on real-life, and many of Haley's biographers have found that Haley exaggerated or invented many of the story's elements, charges that Haley himself (who died just before this series aired) never denied. Unquestionably, Queen must have endured some misery, especially during Reconstruction; life for freed slaves in the South was never easy, and for a half-black/half-white woman, it must have particularly brutal. But even after she has been emancipated, Queen is shown to have endured being beaten, raped, starved, impregnated, and abandoned, have seen a gruesome murder committed practically in front of her, and her infant son threatened (twice), and have been sent to an insane asylum. Any one of these elements would have provided enough material for a series, but putting them all in is excessive. The series gradually begins to take on a repetitive structure as Queen endures terror and misery, begins to pull herself out with help from someone who seems reasonable and helpful, and is then suddenly betrayed in a horrible and traumatic fashion. One or two of these scenes would have been powerful, but too many begin to appear almost comical.
If the series begins far before it really needs to, with unnecessary detail into the history of the family that owns Queen and her mother, it ends several scenes past where it should. Well after Queen has started a family and seems to have recovered her bearings, there are a number of scenes with Queen and her husband raising their children together. It's hard to understand the point of these. The children are not particularly well-defined characters and the conflicts that emerge with them are not interesting or notable. The idea, apparently, is that the traumas Queen has suffered affect her ability to be a mother. These scenes, however, are mostly forgettable and only add a fairly contrived final crisis that seems to come out of nowhere and is resolved inexplicably. The last half-hour or so could have been cut and would have made a far better resolution.
The sloppy and repetitive structure means that Queen herself is never really defined consistently. As played by Berry, Queen doesn't seem to have a consistent personality. Sometimes she's childlike and inexperienced, sometimes hostile and abrasive. There are some scenes where Queen is apparently meant to be defiant but winds up coming off as petulant. Maybe the intent is for her to be like a spoiled child, but the scenes are written so uncertainly that it's hard to tell. Since these scenes are of little importance to the story, they could have been excised and would have benefited the character as a whole. Instead, the inconsistency means that the character is confusing. Queen comes off as hopelessly innocent in scenes where she is far beyond having learned just how cruel and hateful people can be, and then she suddenly turns angry and surly on a whim.
Where Queen does go right is in the performances and dialogue. Though Berry's performance is uneven (and is hindered, unfortunately, by a less-than-convincing makeup job that sometimes makes her look like a geisha), she does get some great moments, particularly in the earlier scenes when Queen is still on the plantation. Berry does an excellent job of characterizing just how naïve Queen is in believing that her white slave-owning father would simply recognize her and save her. Clarkson is superb, taking a character who in other hands would have been a one-dimensional villain and making her a poignant and tragic figure whose resentment towards Queen becomes understandable. Though Daly is best known as a sitcom actor, he gives arguably the best performance. James Jackson is a complex and fascinating character, a man who is strong enough to treat his slaves with far more respect than most slave-owners would and to go off fearlessly to fight in the Civil War, and yet is far too weak to acknowledge his feelings for Easter or to recognize Queen as his daughter; in other words, to fundamentally challenge the very assumptions at the heart of slavery and his way of life. Ann-Margret is better known as a campy pop-culture icon than an actress, but she gives a very good performance and delivers the best speech in the film. In a scene set just as the Civil War begins, Sally gathers her family and her slaves and launches into a monologue in which she justifies the war because slavery serves not only whites but blacks as well. It's a bone-chilling diatribe of utter hypocrisy and selfishness that she delivers with full conviction and it's one of the best scenes in the series.
Queen is full of such great moments. The series shows a real flair for dialogue, particularly in scenes where upper-class white characters couch their racism in careful euphemistic terms. Characters express sentiments that sound appalling today, but would have been perfectly natural even by the most enlightened progressives of the era. And though Queen sometimes lays on the suffering rather thick, it does contain a few scenes of shocking power. One particularly barbaric murder is shown with unflinching explicitness, and is quite graphic for a TV movie. The moments of tenderness that Queen enjoys, first with Davis and later with Alec Haley, are also depicted realistically. Though she savors and treasures them, she also knows that in the world she inhabits, there really isn't much chance for anything more than modest dreams and ambitions.
In these scenes, and because of the strength of some performances and lines of dialogue, Queen lives up its ambitions. It's just too bad that some judicious editing and trimming wasn't applied here. Had the series' producers cut Queen by about one-third, eliminating some redundant scenes and unnecessary characters, this series would really have been a complete powerhouse from beginning to end. Instead, it's an intermittent and uneven one that has enough good parts to be worth watching but not enough to recommend wholeheartedly.
Queen is presented in its original full-screen format. The transfer is adequate, with some grain and fading present in a few scenes, especially at night. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is good. There are no extras.
Queen is a lavish, epic production, and the producers clearly spared no effort in bringing it to the screen. If they had just applied that effort to shaping and editing the finished product, it would be easier to recommend it to anyone apart from fans of Berry or Haley. As it stands now, it's worth watching for anyone curious about the era, but it's not the landmark that it could have been, the way Roots was.
Though mitigating circumstances were taken into account, Alex Haley's Queen is convicted and sentenced to remember that sometimes, less really is more.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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