Oscar's Charm City connections

'Precious,' 'The Blind Side' and a documentary short all earn Academy Award nominations

February 02, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Sun Movie Critic

Charm City connections worked like shamrocks at the Oscar nominations this year. "The Blind Side," recounting the rise of Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher from the Memphis projects, and "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," featuring Baltimore native Mo'Nique, won best picture nominations.

"The Blind Side" also earned a best actress nomination for Sandra Bullock, as the wealthy Memphis mother who welcomes Oher into her family. "Precious" garnered five other nominations, including one for Mo'Nique's supporting performance as a monstrously abusive mother.

But the Baltimore presence doesn't stop there. Patrick Wright, the head of MICA's video and film arts department, co-produced "Music by Prudence," a nominee for best documentary short. To help him tell the story of Liyana, a Zimbabwe Afro-fusion band made up of eight physically disabled musicians, Wright enlisted several students as interns, and hired Errol Webber, a 2008 MICA grad, as a cinematographer.

Wright is overjoyed that "Music by Prudence," a film that he says started out as "a labor of love," has gone on to win an Oscar nomination. Indeed, all these films were labors of love that became success stories. John Lee Hancock's "The Blind Side" made studios nervous because of its school-sports background and its unconventional comedy-drama about a hard-to-reach youth and a maternal force from opposite sides of the tracks. And it took all the gumption and talent of a maverick producer-director, Lee Daniels, to launch "Precious," an unblinking look at the lower depths of inner-city family life that rarely loses sight of its battered heroine's potential for grace.

But an enormous viewership has embraced the humor and energy of "The Blind Side" - and its argument for the healing powers of a nurturing environment.

And thanks to Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the title role, audiences for "Precious" see a moving testament to youthful resilience as well as a hair-raising, heartbreaking depiction of incest and teen pregnancy. Mo'Nique sweeps through the movie like an emotional tsunami. In an interview with NBC's "Today Show," the comedian-turned-actor - calling "Precious," yes, a "labor of love" - said she is "celebrating this moment with Hattie McDaniel," the first African-American to win an Academy Award (for "Gone With the Wind").

When "Music By Prudence" reaches audiences later this year, on HBO, it may achieve the emotional clout of these two features. Several years ago, Wright's sometime collaborator, journalist and professor Elinor Burkett, saw Liyana perform and met its members; she thought their stories cried out to be filmed. Lead singer Prudence Mabhena, says Wright, "is a beautiful woman who can sing like Aretha Franklin." Put in a wheelchair by the congenital joint disease arthrogryposis, she courageously maneuvers the potholed roads of a derelict countryside. Wright calls her "a flower in the crack of a decaying sidewalk."

Wright stayed state-side, cutting trailers, raising money and teaching interns how to log the footage. Director Roger Ross Williams braved Zimbabwe's volatile politics, but resisted the urge to create a social allegory. "We did this because we love the band, Liyana," says Wright. "We didn't think it was the kind of film you get famous on. ...We never thought we'd be up for an Oscar."

Seven weeks ago, another Baltimore production, "The Response," a riveting live action short about legal practices at Guantanamo Bay, filmed at the University of Maryland School of Law, became an Oscar semifinalist. It didn't make the final five. But Baltimore native and law school grad Sig Libowitz, who wrote and acted in the film, says that even this Academy Award attention brought heat to a film that sheds light on a crucial debate.

Libowitz told the Sun, "Being shortlisted meant excitement and this wonderful spirit of possibility. [We] got right to the edge of the Oscars and continue to make an impact on the Guantanamo conversation..."

And how does he characterize "The Response" overall? He calls it, "this little labor of love."

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