Much like the rest of America, Hollywood has got race on its mind at the moment. Contemporary black vs white tensions underlie both Trouble the Water and Lakeview Terrace (see Jonathan Romney's review), while two more of this week's films look back at the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s. But maybe "struggles" is putting it too strongly. The Express and The Secret Life of Bees make it all seem so effortless that you'll wonder why that Obama chap is worth making such a fuss about.
First, there's The Express, which has nothing to do with a right-wing British tabloid. It's a biopic of Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), who became the first black student to win a prestigious nationwide college sports trophy in 1962. When we meet him, as a boy, he's discovering his athletic talents by outrunning bullies, and he's conquering his stammer by reading aloud from the Bible. Both scenes are just a John C Reilly cameo away from being in a delicious parody of sports movie clichés, and the same goes for everything else in the film, right down to the locker-room speeches from the coach, played by the inevitable Dennis Quaid. Its finest moment is a glaringly irrelevant lacrosse scene featuring the immortal lines: "Lacrosse isn't just a sport. The Indians used it to settle their conflicts and heal the sick." Wow. Imagine what they would have done with volleyball.
However, for all of its stirring music and last-minute touchdowns, The Express never establishes Davis as an especially heroic individual. His achievements come as easily to him as sprinting across the football field. He's so gifted that universities vie with each other to give him a scholarship, and when he plumps for Syracuse, the sum of the racism he encounters there is one hostile teammate who's soon placated by his footballing genius. There's a whiff of potential discord when he eyes up a white girl, and the coach warns him that he'd be better off keeping to his own race. But then, 30 seconds later, a pretty Michelle Obama-lookalike strolls into view. Problem solved! In real life, there must have been more to Davis's story, but in this bland telling, his heroism amounts to his quiet acceptance that some universities will ease off on prejudice if it means winning championships.
The Secret Life of Bees is just as soft and fuzzy. Adapted from Sue Monk Kidd's novel, it's as soft and fuzzy, in fact, as the peaches on the farm where Dakota Fanning lives with her cruel father, Paul Bettany. One day her maid, Jennifer Hudson, is beaten up by rednecks when she tries to register to vote, so she and Fanning run away.
It might look as if we're in for some harsh truths about intolerance, but The Secret Life of Bees is set in a twee, sun-drenched neverland. After a few miles' travel through the Deep South, Fanning and Hudson are taken in by three African-American sisters who sell honey, and live together in a pink house. Their brand of honey has a black Jesus and Mary on the label, but it tastes so gosh-darned sweet that the local racists don't mind. The head of the household, Queen Latifah, dollops out spoonfuls of sugary wisdom. "Every lil' thing wants to be loved," she says, which may not be true, but sounds good when she says it.
The other sisters are Alicia Keys, who gets over her suspicion of Fanning as swiftly as Rob Brown's teammates did, and Sophie Okonedo, who is mentally disabled, but only in a very picturesque way. In the midst of all this sermonising and sisterly bonding, Fanning doesn't actually do very much. Her character, much like Rob Brown, just waits for social progress to happen around her.
Also showing 07/12/2008
The Girl in the Park (109 mins, 15)
Sigourney Weaver stars as a singer who turns her back on her three-year-old daughter in a playground for a few seconds, and never sees her again. Sixteen years on, when Kate Bosworth drifts into her life, Weaver treats her as a surrogate daughter. An intriguing drama, elevated by a nuanced central performance.
Julia (144 mins, 15)
Tilda Swinton sets the screen alight with an astonishing portrayal of an alcoholic party girl who lies and cheats her way around LA. But she's better than this overlong, Tarantinoesque kidnapping farce deserves.
Transporter 3 (105 mins, 15)
The frequently shirtless Jason Statham delivers yet more violence in an alternately dull and ludicrous sub-Bourne threequel co-written and produced by Luc Besson.
The Children (92 mins)
A festive family get-together goes awry when the children turn into homicidal maniacs. This gory Brit-horror is never spooky enough to overcome the innate comedy of a bunch of grown-ups screaming at the approach of moppets half their size.
Rivals (107 mins, 15)
It's 'Heat' meets 'Life on Mars' in this Seventies-set French crime drama about two brothers, one a policeman, the other a reformed – but not very reformed – criminal. Above average.