Strictly from a commercial standpoint, redoing “Steel Magnolias” with a predominantly African-American cast feels like an idea whose time has come, and — smart enough not to tamper with success — producer-star Queen Latifah and her collaborators have essentially provided a shot-for-shot remake of the 1990 movie, cast to the hilt with topnotch talent. A three-hankie affair if there ever was one, the only mystery is why “Hallmark Hall of Fame” didn’t come up with this revival first. As is, the abundant Southern-fried melodrama should be a couple hours of something wonderful for Lifetime.
Adapting Robert Harling’s play and screenplay, writer Sally Robinson and director Kenny Leon have incorporated a few contemporary references (to, say, Michelle Obama), but the bones of the story remain almost entirely unchanged. (A producer of the original filed suit this week over rights to the remake.)
“Magnolias” centers on Shelby (Condola Rashad, co-star Phylicia Rashad’s daughter), who is introduced on the eve of her wedding. Told she cannot withstand bearing children because of complications related to diabetes, she snaps at her fiance (Tory Kittles), and squabbles with her protective mother, M’Lynn (Latifah).
Mostly, the movie focuses on the unique qualities of female friendship among Southern women, as witnessed through the hair salon where M’Lynn assembles with her friends. For fans of the original movie, there’s some fun in connecting these fine actresses to their predecessors, with Alfre Woodard as the rich but cranky Ouiser; Phylicia Rashad (reunited with “A Raisin in the Sun” director Leon) as her teasing friend Clairee; Jill Scott as the salon owner; and Adepero Oduye as the young woman she takes in, whose turn toward evangelism proves a point of contention.
As with the earlier film, the men are virtually an afterthought, but the women shine — particularly Latifah, once the concerned M’Lynn relents about opposing Shelby’s pregnancy and donates a kidney to her daughter, who famously insists she’d rather have “30 minutes of something wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
For those who recognize him, there’s a somewhat distracting cameo by former basketball star Julius Erving at a key moment, but other than that, this version of “Steel Magnolias” — produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who worked with Latifah on “Chicago” — makes few missteps. It’s also hard to think of many stories with more perfect-for-Lifetime emotion in zeroing in on the mother-daughter bond.
CBS actually commissioned a pilot version shortly after the first movie, and who knows, it might be time to try it again. Because as Lifetime discovered with “The Client List,” when a TV movie plants the seed deep enough, you can never tell exactly where something like “Magnolias” is apt to grow.