In “Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding,” the mega-powerful talkshow queen rolls out a Black History Month project that’s more bluster than bite, more soap than substance. It’s a two-night miniseries that’s gorgeous to look at and mostly tedious to endure, content as it is to play like “Dynasty” in brownface.
Based on the Dorothy West novel, “The Wedding” sells the notion that upper-crust black society during the first half of the 20th century could be just as dysfunctional and backstabbing as its caucasian counterpart. It could also be nearly as racist. The issues raised in scribe Lisa Jones’ adaptation are generally compelling ones about class struggle, biracial interaction and familial commitment. But Jones’ execution never quite clicks, due in part to some weak casting.
Halle Berry is asked to carry “The Wedding” in the role of Shelby Coles, a gorgeous debutante who has bummed out her snobby Martha’s Vineyard relations in 1953 by getting engaged to a penniless, very white musician named Meade Howell (Eric Thal). Meade treks to Shelby’s family estate a few weeks before the planned nuptials and proceeds to tell her parents, Corinne and Clark Coles (Lynn Whitfield and Michael Warren, who looks here like the second coming of Morgan Freeman), that his won’t be attending.
That fact naturally drips with irony, given that it’s Shelby’s rich clan being rejected by the poor white folk as not good enough. This instantly turns the tale into something of an interracial “Titanic” on dry land, albeit one packed with cloying icebergs (human ones) at every turn.
If Shelby and Meade are already unhappy and conflicted, they’ve got plenty of company. Corinne and Clark have always been miserable, she marrying him for his stability as a doctor, he wedding her due to her light-brown skin (the preferred tone for African-Americans with any aspirations of social climbing).
Then we have Shelby’s sister Liz (Cynda Williams), who ran away to marry a doctor, Lincoln (Richard Brooks). So far, so good. Except that Lincoln’s skin was so dark that it inspired Corinne to disinvite the groom’s parents to their son’s own wedding.
Presiding over all of this misery is Gram (a strained performance from Shirley Knight), the frail, lily-white matriarch of the extended family whose chief goal in life is to make certain every generation of the family be lighter than the last. Michael Jackson, meet your soul mate.
Under helmer Charles Burnett’s earnest hand, “The Wedding” moves languidly and only somewhat laboriously through its first two hours, starting to crash early in the second installment due to an over-reliance on flashback that proves confusing. It’s likewise about that time that Carl Lumbly shows up to toss everything into chaos in his portrayal of a single black father with three young mixed-race daughters who begins pursuing Shelby with a stalker’s sense of purpose. Not only is it irritating, it’s downright icky.
Yet the exquisite photography from Fred Elmes and his team and the lush period details could overcome the sins of “The Wedding” if not for one fatal flaw: the luminous Berry and stiff Thal have all the chemistry of rotting driftwood. There’s no real passion in either of their portrayals, which dooms a relationship that we presume needs to be packed with fire to survive.Not a lot of people to root for here, either, just a collection of highly evolved victims. Somehow, it seems unlikely this is what Oprah had in mind.
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