Queen Latifah, left, Condola Rashad and Tory Kittles star in Lifetime's… (Annette Brown / Lifetime )
There is no one compelling reason to remake Robert Harling's 1989 weeper "Steel Magnolias" with an all black cast, but there are six pretty good ones.
The doomed but determined young woman plotline seems hopelessly (and medically) retro and the original tagline ("I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special") sentimentally absurd (if your doctor advises you to not get pregnant, honey, don't get pregnant).
But in a world where roles for black women are few and far between, "Steel Magnolias" does offer the chance for half a dozen of our finest actors to work together without donning maids uniforms or the native garb of the "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." (Memo to HBO: Bring back this show. Please.)
Consider the cast: Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, her daughter and Tony nominee Condola Rashad, Jill Scott (of the aforementioned "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency") and Adepero Oduye. Coming together, on Lifetime no less, for the second TV remake of the iconic sobfest.
No offense to Harling's tale, which still retains its hypnotic influence over heart and tear ducts, but surely there is a better use for this fine ensemble, each of whom could easily anchor a television series or film. It is difficult to understand a world in which, say, Zach Galifianakis has a busier career than Woodard.
But they do bring life to the remake because as in the original film, it is the group that surrounds the lovely but diabetically foolish Shelby (Condola Rashad) that provides the film's power and the glory. As M'Lynn, Shelby's devoted and occasionally controlling mother, Latifah is strong but uncharacteristically subdued, her signature sass battened down into a lifted eyebrow here, a sideways glance there, which proves mostly effective. It's difficult though not to long for a more Latifah-like reaction to the news of Shelby's ill-advised pregnancy.
M'Lynn allows herself to loosen up a bit around her old friends, who regularly gather at Truvy's salon to, well, let their hair down. Truvy (Scott, Dolly Parton's role in the original film) may have troubles of her own, including a husband increasingly depressed by employment worries, but she is the sweet-voiced, sweet-faced heart of the group, which includes Clairee (Phylicia Rashad), former wife of the mayor; Ouiser (Woodard), a cantankerous, outspoken widow, and Annelle (Oduye), a troubled young woman Truvy hires as her assistant.
All of the characters seem slightly filed down from the original cinematic versions, which is not surprising since that cast included Parton and Shirley MacLaine gleefully playing their parts as just that — Characters, with a proud and capital C. In this version, the women ring truer as people and, more important, as friends.
The easy humor and palpable love in the ensemble scenes give this "Steel Magnolias" just enough buoyancy to survive the pools of syrup over which it must traverse. If the material is not quite fine and fresh enough for its performers, it gave these six women an excuse to be in the same room together. And that is something to see.
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)