Cramming the breadth of two lives — including aspects both personal and political — that cover more than a century each into a mere two-hour timeslot must have represented a daunting task. But those behind “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” have done a laudable job of it indeed. It’s a sweeping, winning look at a century of halting racial progress, of courage, conviction and pride, and, most of all, of the enduring affection between two sisters and best friends. Anchored by two excellent performances by Diahann Carroll and Ruby Dee, this is a solidly affecting telepic that rarely preaches or hits a false note.
The world first became enamored with the hard-won homespun wisdom of centenarians Sadie and Bessie Delany — former career women from a family of 12 whose father had been a slave, but whose children all graduated college — with the 1991 publication of a New York Times article by reporter Amy Hill Hearth.
This was followed by a 1993 bestseller on which the sisters collaborated with Hearth. This book in turn was adapted into a 1995 play by Emily Mann, who incorporates elements of each into this telefilm.
The complicated material is presented in fairly straightforward but intelligent fashion, as reporter Hearth (Amy Madigan) must negotiate a bumpy friendship with the polite and endearing 103-year-old Sadie (Carroll) and the prickly, sassy 101-year-old Bessie (Dee) in order to get their story.
Bessie, who has used her anger toward the racism she has suffered to strengthen her, is loathe to contribute to Hearth’s story. “I can’t stand white people who ask you to explain the obvious to them,” she grouses — but after decades of complementing Sadie’s every word with words of her own, she simply can’t help caving in for the project.
Copious flashbacks flesh out the sisters’ saga, nowhere more artfully than in a sequence of cross-cuts between a family dinner Sadie sits in on that is attended by early civil rights advocate Booker T. Washington (Richard Roundtree) and Bessie’s confrontation with a mob of whites after she firmly rejects the sexual advances of a drunk white man.
This scene neatly delineates both the bright hopes for the future that African-Americans had early in this century as well as the grim reality of the present they had to endure.
The Delany sisters’ story emerges as one in which the two must simply excel in order to survive — mere mediocrity would’ve been their undoing, they note; blacks must outperform whites simply to be treated as equals. Of the underachievers in Congress, Bessie sagely and irascibly notes, “If those boys were colored, they’d be washing dishes somewhere.”
One of the production’s true pleasures is watching Carroll and Dee play off each other — bickering over minutiae, finishing one another’s sentences. And while Bessie and Sadie are shown as, understandably, somewhat doddering, there’s no condescension toward, and little false ennobling of, the characters. By film’s end, the viewer feels there truly is a history between these two characters. Supporting performances are strong, with Lonette McKee a standout as the sisters’ mother.
Only one scene — in which Sadie gets the best of some young toughs — feels contrived. Pic ends, appropriately, with the sisters taking bows at the Broadway play they inspired, noting that Bessie died in 1995 at age 104, while Sadie passed onearlier this year — at 110.
Tech credits are lovingly polished, from Charles Bennett’s ambitious, century-spanning production design, to jazzman Terence Blanchard’s score, dabbling in Americana through several eras. Thankfully, the aging makeup used on Dee and Carroll doesn’t call attention to itself.