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White Mama is a fine and well made television film starring screen legend Bette Davis, as a poor aging old woman living in a decaying apartment building in the black ghetto of the city. She is befriended by a black boy, who treats her like she was his own mother. Touching and sometimes sad, this made for TV film earned Davis an Emmy Award nomination and has good a good supporting cast including Oscar winner Eileen Heckart (Butterflies are Free), Oscar nominee Anne Ramsey (Throw Momma from the Train) as well as fine African American actors Ernie Hudson and Tony Burton. This film is sometimes hard to find, but should be viewed and recommended for touching stories and fans of Bette Davis's fine work, especially here in television which was even rare for her.
This movie would really qualify as one of Bette Davis's last good
roles. In "White Mama", she plays down-on-her-luck widow Adele Malone,
who takes in a teenage foster child to help cover her expenses. This
boy happens to be a sixteen year old, street-wise African-American boy
called B.T. Surprisingly, he is played convincingly by 28 year-old
Ernest Harden Jr, in a striking performance which should have garnered
The script avoids becoming predictable, and the relationship between Davis and Harden actually develops believably and logically, although any attempts to address racial issues seem to play a minor role in the film. And director Jackie Cooper manages to present a harrowing image of life on the street in New York City, with loud-mouthed thugs and destitute bag ladies populating the screen.
Bette Davis does nicely with the material, evoking sympathy by not appearing weepy or maudlin, which might be the case with a lesser actress. She remained a magnetic presence on the screen, and it's great fun to watch her interact with the talented young Harden, who matched her at every turn. But when she raises her voice, Davis tends to be a bit shrill, although it may very well be appropriate to her character. And there's one very amusing scene in which Mrs. Malone attempts to teach her young ward how to read, and soon becomes scandalized by his taste in "literature."
Certainly there are some nagging questions left unanswered. Like as to why Mrs. Malone remains estranged from her daughter, and not even certain of her whereabouts? Her explanation that her daughter "married an Army man," rings hollow, and really offers no valid reason. This surely implies some sort of dysfunctional relationship, especially considering that Mrs. Malone couldn't even contact her daughter to inform her of Mr. Malone's death.
We witness a great extended segment midway through in which Mrs. Malone is given a lesson in life-on-the-street from Eileen Heckart's Three Bag Lady. Unflinching and unsympathetic, these scenes remain compelling and very relevant today. And then there's Virginia Capers rounding out the cast as racially-insensitively-named (but sweet) street person, "Gorilla Sydney." There is also a nice turn by veteran actor Lurene Tuttle as a flustered neighbor of Davis, and a nasty little cameo from Anne Ramsay as the unpredictable and explosive bag lady "Heavy Charm."
I gave this little movie ten stars simply because I enjoyed the performances that much, and would recommend it highly to fans of either Davis or 80's flicks. For those who are not ardent Bette Davis admirers, the proceedings here might become a tad tiresome.
All that said, "White Mama," although it's burdened with an awkward title, still delivers some hard-hitting and relevant drama featuring the great Bette Davis in a role worthy of her talents.
An unusual tale of friendship is told in White Mama where Bette Davis
plays the title role and Ernest Harden, Jr. is the one who's in need of
one of any pigmentation.
If you can imagine Bette Davis's character from The Catered Affair some 20 years after that film came out. Her children are married and gone, her husband has died some time ago and she's having trouble making ends meet, but won't go on welfare. But she will take in a troubled youth and supervise his probation until he's of age.
Davis and Harden are one unlikely pair to bond and not just because of race. But strangely enough they do and prove to be of invaluable assistance in moments of crisis.
No bigger crisis for Davis can be in that she lost her apartment she cannot find a place to live and is forced to become a bag lady. Harden happens to know them from the street and they're an interesting new circle of friends, Eileen Heckart and Virginia Capers being two of them. And there's a deadly Anne Ramsey who carries a switchblade for protection and knows how to use it.
Davis and Harden have a real good chemistry between them and that's half the enjoyment of watching White Mama. Those bag ladies are good support and I also can't forget Lurene Tuttle her long time neighbor in that apartment building she lives in who says she's found a good living situation with one of her children. No matter how good it is it ain't the same as being on your own.
I was lucky to see this on YouTube, hopefully it will come out on DVD at some point.
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