Corrina, Corrina

(Jessie Nelson, USA, 1994)


Video shops were once full of odd, obscure films starring Whoopi Goldberg, such as the political musical Sarafina!  (1992), Rip Torn’s The Telephone (1988) and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Homer and Eddie (1989). Her comic sensibility – with its savage, often downbeat side – unnerringly finds its way to the most mishhapen and disconcerting projects. Into this family of oddities we add Corrina, Corrina.


Corrina, Corrina is in many respects a simple, almost banal film. It resembles a cross between a previous Whoopi Goldberg comedy vehicle, Made in America  (Richard Benjamin, 1993) co-starring Ted Danson, and a Disney-type family movie like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (Vincente Minnelli, 1963). We have a black woman (Goldberg as Corrina) and a white man (Ray Liotta as Manny) slowly, painfully negotiating their growing intimacy amidst the racially repressive era of the early ‘60s. And we also have a little girl, Manny’s daughter Molly (Tina Majorino), who has given up speaking when her mother died, and refuses to connect with her well-meaning but bumbling Daddy. However, once Corrina as the gruff but tender maid finds the way to unlock Molly’s sad heart, the kid sets on doing her level best to matchmake her two favourite adults.


Ultimately, the film is more of a social or cultural fable than an individualised family story or romance. Corrina and Manny are emblematic characters: they stand for their respective cultures and lifestyles. The film stages an insistent comparison between the world of black America and that of white America. It does this in the simplest but most effective way: by cross-cutting, at every possible opportunity, on some similar social occasion, such as how people eat dinner, or have a good time – a host of daily occupations.


Watching Boaz Yakin’s Fresh  (1994), I was never really compelled to ponder the fact that its maker is a white guy. He somehow seems to know the black ghetto world, and his portrait of it is convincing enough (to me as a complete outsider, at least). But, all the way through Corrina, Corrina, I couldn’t stop myself from musing about the identity politics of its director, Jessie Nelson, as a white woman. Nelson has testified that the film is basically her story: she was the little girl who quickly grow to love black culture. The only real reason that this fact is intriguing is because the film is so resolutely anti-white. Even though, on the surface, it’s ostensibly a liberal message movie about interracial harmony, co-operation and integration, that constant comparative intercutting between white and black worlds which I have mentioned tells an altogether different story.


Take a look at the balance sheet. White America is represented by inane advertising jingles for Mr Potato Head, stiff cocktail parties with predatory single women, TV game shows, recitations of bland musical comedy tunes like “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”, and kids in pathetic Zorro costumes. Black America, by contrast, has all the best songs, and the best moves: soul, swing, gospel, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, warm and spontaneous extended family luncheons, hearty appetites and earthy, sexy laughter. Whereas the white world is portrayed as relentlessly oppressive towards blacks, and self-repressive to boot, there is only one nominal criticism made of black culture: that it once kept back individuals like Corrina who sought a decent education. In one special scene which fairly blew my head off, we see little Molly swinging in amidst a black kids gospel choir; she throws her arms around her best friend and declares: “I’m a nigger lover!”


It’s worth saying a bit more about this dandy of a scene. The way that it plays out tells us a lot about how evasive the film finally is. The black child who is embraced does not appreciate Molly’s nigger-lovin’ compliment; she responds that it’s a mean, superior thing to say – and thus instantly disowns her best friend. This prompts a black boy behind them to immediately pour reverse racial scorn on the white girl – “You’re a honky”, stuff like that. Bear in mind, this is a scene involving a bunch of seven-year-olds! Exposed to such extreme racial aggro, the black girl immediately embraces her white companion once more: “Don’t say that to my best friend!” And everything is instantly fine again.


A great deal of Corrina, Corrina is constructed like that: a thorny problem is raised, and straight away the plot tries to quickly resolve it, or glide over it, or shove it to the side. The whole tentative love affair of Corinna and Manny – both hostages to their respective conservative communities – has an unreal, unresolved air to it. It registers more as wish fulfilment, as Utopia, than actual drama. But filmed Utopias are always interesting, particularly when they’re put across with such mixed messages as this one.


Corrina, Corrina is a slight, often sluggish movie, which relies rather too much on periodic montage segments (under yet another swinging tune from Holiday or Ellington) to boost its energy level. It’s not a film to rush to, but a curiosity worth seeking out if its terrain attracts you.

© Adrian Martin August 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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