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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Livin’ ’: Black Satire on a White World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The energetic and talented Terrence (T. C.) Carson lights up “Livin’ Large!” (citywide) as an Atlanta clothes presser whose dreams of becoming a TV newscaster abruptly comes true when fate places him at the scene of a tense and deadly (but also very funny) hostage situation. In short order, he winds up not only covering the crisis for the local outlet of a national network but also talking the criminal into giving himself up--on camera, of course.

The film attempts a double-edged satire that doesn’t always mesh. Writer William Mosley-Payne is very sharp in spinning a cautionary tale about the high price of success for the black man in the white man’s world, but he is very broad in his send-up of the excesses of TV newscasting, which was done far more incisively in “Network” and “Broadcast News.” Thankfully, neither Michael Schultz’s direction nor his terrific cast ever lose steam, buoyed by Herbie Hancock’s lively score. “Livin’ Large!” offers a good time, numerous laughs and considerable substance besides.

Blanche Baker’s executive news director Kate Penndragin (who makes Faye Dunaway in the aforementioned “Network” seem like Mother Teresa), hires Carson’s eager-beaver Dexter Jackson on the spot, seeing in him fresh ammunition in the constant ratings war. Dexter is bright but naive, and before he realizes it, Kate is transforming him inside and out, subduing his hair style, polishing his speech, upgrading his wardrobe and, all the while, corrupting his homeboy values. Pretty soon, when Dexter turns on his TV he sees himself turning white before his very eyes in what is a deft borrowing from “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

“Livin’ Large!” gets into trouble when Kate starts interfering in Dexter’s long-standing romance with the beautiful Toynelle (Lisa Arrindell). Somehow she gets it in her mind that the one thing that will garner her stratospheric ratings is to get Dexter hitched to the program’s ambitious white weathercaster (Julia Campbell), going for all-out sensationalism that would result in an on-the-air wedding billed as “Gone With the Wind” meets “Superfly.” It’s hard to believe that even in 1991 a mixed marriage between members of a news team would increase ratings in the South. In any event, the film is on much firmer satiric ground when Dexter starts exploiting his old neighbors for stories.

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In his first major screen role Carson proves to be an exciting, galvanic presence, as adept at all-out physical comedy as he is in the film’s more introspective moments. Baker and Campbell clearly understand that their characters are essentially caricatures, which means they play them absolutely straight. Arrindell makes the most of her opportunity as the sexy, smart yet vulnerable Toynelle.

If “Livin’ Large!” (rated R for language) threatens to overreach in spoofing tabloid TV, it remains on target in its underlying depiction of a black man who finally reaches a point of absolute isolation, cut off from his roots yet not really belonging to the white world in which he has succeeded.


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