9 p.m. Sunday on Lifetime
Bottom line: Leon scores big with Southern weepie.
If you remember “Steel Magnolias,” you may remember that headstrong diabetic daughter Shelby has a thing for pink. Shelby, played by Julia Roberts in the 1989 film based on the Robert Harling play, pertly announces to the women of Truvvy’s beauty parlor that her wedding colors are “blush and bashful.”
In director Kenny Leon’s new made-for-television telling of the beloved tearjerker, which airs Sunday on Lifetime, Shelby gets texts from her boyfriend on a cellphone in a bejeweled pink case, and there are references to “the war in Iraq,” Beyonce and Michelle Obama.
But Leon, the Broadway director and the name behind Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre, has more on his mind than up-to-the-minute period details.
With his sun-dappled, made-in-Atlanta treatment starring Queen Latifah (as Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn), Alfre Woodard (as town kook Ouiser), Phylicia Rashad (as regal matriarch Clairee) and Rashad’s real-life daughter Condola (as Shelby), Leon’s African-American ensemble makes it plain as hot-pink nail polish that Harling’s women are rich and complex. And in a time when reality TV is saturated with regional stereotypes (“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”) and shallow materialism (“The Real Housewives”), he reminds us that these strong-willed Southern divas have plenty of wise, funny things to say about matters of the heart.
Always have. Always will.
While viewers will rhapsodize over the soul-shattering 11th-hour breakdown that Queen Latifah brings to M’Lynn and marvel over the sugar-sweet veneer that Jill Scott wears over Truvvy’s inner hurt, Atlanta audiences will recognize local actors Afemo Omilami (as Shelby’s father), Tom Key (as Ouiser’s lovestruck suitor) and young Justin Martin (as one of Shelby’s brothers). In fact, if you saw the recent True Colors production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which featured Key and Phylicia Rashad, it almost feels like a reunion. Tory Kittles, who played the Sidney Poitier role in Leon’s “Dinner,” is back here as Shelby’s husband, Jackson. And this medium becomes him. He’s good — very good.
And yes, that’s Camille Russell Love, director of the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, shaking her derriere at Shelby’s wedding. Playing the small-town Louisiana mayor’s wife, Love’s character is the object of some catty and unkind comments, too.
For Harling, whose play has been updated here by screenwriter Sally Robinson, is interested in nothing so much as the contradictions of this matriarchal culture — the eye-rolling and shredding gossip, the tough love and nurturing, the laughter and the tears.
The character of Ouiser, the nutty neighbor with the magnolia tree and nerve-shattered dog, has always been choice comic material, and Woodard does not disappoint. She’s hysterical. (“I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years!”) And not to be overlooked is the wonderful Adepero Oduye, as clueless, unlucky-in-love, Bible-thumping Annelle. But the big discovery here is Condola Rashad, who gives a gorgeously realized performance as the determined Shelby.
Leon, who is slowly expanding his resume to include movie-making, delivers a stellar bookend to 2008’s TV film “A Raisin in the Sun.” We expect Emmy to remember.