Some secrets should never be kept.
On a Sunday morning in 1963, four little black girls lost their lives when a bomb explodes at their Birmingham, Alabama church. A FBI investigation targeted Bobby Frank Cherry and his KKK friends, believing that they orchestrated this hateful act. While some were indicted, Cherry escaped blame. He eventually settled in Texas where in 1998, his eldest son Tom found him. Tom has come to start a new life, and to help out his aging father. While building a house for him, Tom is befriended by Garrick Jones, a poor black construction worker whom he hires to help. Tom is also hounded by a retired FBI agent who knows he can shed some light on the 1963 bombing. As Tom recalls the events 35 years before, all seems idyllic and peaceful. But as memories of hatred and abuse come flooding back, Tom begins to see that his family loyalty may be misplaced. Worse yet, he may have helped a killer escape justice. With the help of Garrick, Tom searches for the key, and the courage, to uncover his father's guilt or innocence.
The story of the four little girls from Birmingham is a heartbreaking tale that exemplifies the dangerous struggle for equality that black America faced in the 1950s and '60s. So why does this true story, based on real events, feel so hollow and clichéd? Maybe it has something to do with the way the story is told. The abrupt flashback structure is so jarring, and unevenly handled that any tension or flow in the modern scenes is lost. Maybe it's in the performances. Ving Rhames, as Garrick, is a confusing cipher, with unclear motivations and schizophrenic attitudes. Tom Sizemore is fine as the older Tom Cherry, but his young counterpart in the flashbacks (Lachlan Murdock) is only capable of two expressions: wide-eyed astonishment and a goon-like grin. This renders him dramatically impotent. However, the true culprit here may be its villain. Richard Jenkins is so completely hateful as Bobby Frank Cherry (Hell, he beats his cancer-ridden wife!) that a huge impasse develops. Any sympathy we are supposed to feel for Tom's inner turmoil is completely washed away and elder Cherry's guilt is so obvious that we wonder why God hasn't simply stepped in and killed this festering, bigoted piece of filth. As in the case of Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls, this is one true story best served by a documentary. Dramatization completely derails its impact.
It's amazing that a movie made so recently could look this bad in its video transfer. Artisan has really screwed up this one. While the numerous flashback scenes look bright and crisp, the modern sequences, especially at night, are grainy, full of artifacting, and in a couple of cases, downright unwatchable. The set up is to be commended, since you can choose (prior to entry into the menu) which version of the film you want to see (full frame or widescreen). However, in both versions, the same hideous picture defects apply, and the framing is so simple that letterboxing really adds nothing. The sound is average, with no major exploitation of its potential impact except in the opening gospel number. With the addition of a couple of trailers, this is the standard package that Artisan offers, and it truly is a shame. The memory of those four innocent victims, and the struggle for equal rights mandates a better transfer, and in reality, a better movie than this one.
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Scales of Justice
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