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The Urban and Urbane

'The Visit' departs from many films about African American city life with its thought-provoking story.

April 18, 2001|ELLEN BASKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Films about the urban African American experience are practically a genre unto themselves, the trend being toward funny, fast-moving action punctuated by percussive music and equally loud bursts of violence. But that's not the case in "The Visit," which examines its characters and situation through a confined and subtle lens aimed right at the core of the black experience.

There are some raised voices in "The Visit," but most of the characters speak in softer tones. A jazz soundtrack gently but effectively underscores the goings-on. And, although it takes place almost entirely inside a prison, the damage done here is emotional, not physical.

"It's breaking the rules that say that the public would never be entertained by African Americans telling a dramatic story," says Hill Harper, one of the film's stars. "When it comes to African Americans and African American actors, Hollywood has always felt that if you can make us laugh, that's fine, but we don't need to see you do a 'Schindler's List,' where there's no jokes or music or comedic through-line."

Notes Billy Dee Williams, who plays Harper's father in "The Visit": "I've never seen black folks treated this way, with this kind of seriousness. The film tells a psychological journey, as opposed to having everyone just sitting around eating chitlins and having a good time."

Based on the play by Kosmond Russell, which was inspired by a true story, "The Visit" was adapted and directed by first-time filmmaker Jordan Walker-Pearlman, 33. The film screened at several film festivals last year and was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards. It opens Friday nationwide, the premiere distribution effort of Urbanworld Films.

"The Visit" tells the story of Alex Waters (Harper), a former drug addict serving a 25-year prison sentence for rape. Alex comes from a middle-class Los Angeles family, but he turned his back on the solid values with which he was raised. His older brother Tony (Obba Babatunde), a successful businessman, has visited Alex sporadically during the five years he's been behind bars, but his parents, Henry and Lois (Williams and Marla Gibbs) have been notably absent, by Henry's decree.

In prison, Alex meets with a psychiatrist (Phylicia Rashad) and develops a relationship with a visitor, Felicia (Rae Dawn Chong), a childhood friend who has overcome her own hardships.

Prison regulations limit Alex's physical contact with his visitors, and the strained relationships make personal connections difficult as well. But as time passes and long-unexpressed feelings begin to percolate toward the surface, Alex lets loose the dreams that will never come true through a series of fantasies in which he imagines himself dancing within the confines of his cell with the people he cares about, playing out the warmth and closeness he longs to let his family see.

It's through these scenes that we most poignantly feel the tragedy of a life wasted, capturing, according to Walker-Pearlman, "a glimpse into Alex's heart and soul. I wanted the audience to see that he was trying to reach the goodness in his heart."

The Role Is a Departure for the Iconic Williams

At first, Alex was going to be seen dancing with only his mother, but as filmmaking progressed, Walker-Pearlman's vision began to take on added layers, and Alex ended up dancing with other characters as well, including his father. "When I handed those pages to Billy Dee," Walker-Pearlman recalls with a laugh, "he looked at me and said, 'I have to dance with him? Why can't I dance with the psychiatrist or one of the women?' "

In a number of ways, the strait-laced Henry Waters represents something of a departure for Williams, whose career is most memorable for its depictions of ladies' men and larger-than-life figures.

Williams long ago achieved icon status on several popular culture fronts, his image taking on different meaning for different audiences.

To African Americans, particularly women, Williams, who turned 64 earlier this month, reigns as the first and to some still the only bona fide big-screen black sex symbol, the image dating to his breakthrough role in 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues." As recently as last year, Eddie Murphy's Mama Klump in "The Nutty Professor II" gave off a fluttery chant of "Billy Dee! Billy Dee!" to express her enthusiastic approval at the sight of a handsome man.

Middle-aged men will always remember Williams for his moving declaration, "I love Brian Piccolo," when he played football player Gale Sayers in 1970's made-for-television classic "Brian's Song."

And to those who came of cinematic age in the "Star Wars" era, he's Lando Calrissian, Han Solo's comrade in arms in "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983).

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