Little Miss Perfect riots after being burned to a crisp: that is the brief summary of Diablo Cody’s new film, Paradise. Paradise follows the journey of 21-year-old Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough), whose life is shattered when a freak accident leaves her disfigured and doubting her once unshakable faith in God. Lamb decides to leave the safety and comfort of small town Montana to see the world on her own terms, starting with Sin City: Vegas. Since Lamb grew up in a conservative Christian community that banned shorts and modern entertainment, she is utterly unprepared for the grim reality and conspicuous debauchery that Vegas provides. Fortunately, Lamb meets two locals to guide her awakening: Loray (Octavia Spencer), a drunken nightclub singer, and William (Russell Brand) a bad-boy bartender with a heart of gold. Together, the improbably trio explore Vegas and search for personal salvation.
Last week I attended a press conference for Paradise, where I listened to Diablo Cody, Octavia Spencer, and Julianne Hough field questions about God, filmmaking, and Russell Brand. The conference occurs at a swank hotel in Beverly Hills, a place where journalists can be spotted by their comparatively crap rides. The only exception was that skinny bish from People who rolled up in a mini cooper and talked about Paris, babe.
A hush falls as the celebrities take their seats. Famous people tend to sneak up on me; one minute I’m making friends with a clever redhead, and the next Octavia Spencer’s shapely calf is catching my eye. As soon as the conference begins, it becomes clear who is running the show. Three elderly reporters who I soon dubbed ‘The Furies.” The Furies spin a cruel fate: extensive discussion of Russell Brand. Here are some highlights:
Blonde Fury: “Octavia, a lot of people recognize you from The Help, but in Paradise your character is…” Blonde lady snaps her fingers to insinuate black sass “GIRLFRIEND. How is that?”
I emit a horrified chortle. Did that seriously just happen? Is that even a question? Do blonde white ladies not know it’s rude to mock black speak to an Oscar-winning actress? Is this normal? Apparently. Octavia’s face stays perfectly blank. Like a glorious ebony sculpture.
Octavia Spencer: I don’t think my character is “GIRLFRIEND.” I think she’s much smarter than that.
Bronze Fury: Most of Paradise takes place in Sin City, Las Vegas! Did you ladies ever go for a wild girls night out?
Girls: Not really
Bronze Fury: So what you’re really saying is: What Happens In Vegas, Stays In Vegas?! [Stage wink.]
Girls: Yes, that’s it.
Appreciative laughter. Merriment. The questioning continues in this shallow vein.
Diablo Cody: For me, religion is what this movie is about thematically. Not religious extremism, the the positive stuff that comes from when the pendulum swings to the middle.
ON DIABLO CODY’S WORDS
Octavia Spencer: The beauty of working with Diablo Cody is getting to say her words.
Julianne Hough: I did this movie because I wanted to work with Diablo Cody and say her words.
ON RUSSELL BRAND
Julianne Hough: He’s like another type of human being.
Diablo Cody: I like Russell, he has a good heart and he’s very smart. But he can be hard to corral.
Octavia Spencer: He has a good heart.
Diablo Cody: This was my first time directing anything. I think I realized that there’s never going to be a right time, so I just decided to do it.
Julianne Hough: I grew up in a Utah Mormon household, a lot like my character Lamb’s home. When I went to London it was also a culture shock.
Octavia Spencer: The two things I’m worst at are cooking and exercise. CONSISTENT exercise. I can’t.
ON WINNING AN OSCAR
Octavia Spencer: I really love that award.
The conference is coming to a close so I look for an opening. Paradise has an interesting premise, but ultimately falls prey to moral cliche and an overly neat ending. To me, the most interesting moment of Paradise was a moment when Octavia Spencer’s character brings irreverent rhetoric about race in Hollywood from the internet to the screen. After a couple hours listening to to Lamb’s wide-eyed ignorance about the ways of the world, Loray gets annoyed and snaps “I AM NOT YOUR MAGICAL NEGRO.” The Magical Negro is “a supporting stock character in American cinema who is portrayed as coming to the aid of a film’s white protagonists.” Spike Lee coined the term in 2001 when he criticized Hollywood’s continuing pattern of using “super duper magical negro” characters as props in the journey of a white protagonist. Since some critics dismissed Octavia’s character in The Help as a “magical negro” trope, it was ballsy to see her straight up saying “I am not your magical negro” in this latest film.
Just as I was about to raise my hand, I made a horrifying realization. Asking this question would require saying negro. Aloud. To Octavia Spencer, Diablo Cody, and a room full of Tensing, I prepared to bring the topic up when a disturbing realization came to mind: I was going to have to say “negro.” To Octavia Spencer. And Diablo Cody, and a room of seasoned journalists in one of the most posh Beverly Hills Hotels. For a minute, I was actually paralyzed in sheer horror. Then I summoned every reserve of journalistic strength/embarrassment control and raised my hand. This was going to happen.
AfterEllen: Octavia, my favorite part of Paradise was when you turned to Lamb and said “I’m not your magical negro.” I’ve never heard that term used in a Hollywood film, and it’s great to see someone calling that trope out. What keeps your character, Loray, from falling into the magical negro trope?
Octavia raises and eyebrow, and Diablo Cody (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed) jumps in.
Diablo Cody: Just the fact that she said “I’m not a magical negro” disqualifies Loray from being a magical negro. Because they usually seem pretty happy.
Octavia Spencer: Loray goes on a journey. She grows through the film, just like Lamb. Magical negroes don’t grow. They stay the same, and exist solely to help.
Whew. That was incredibly uncomfortable, but worth it. Talking about race is important, even if it means making yourself incredibly uncomfortable.
A PR girl cries “One more question!” and Blonde Fury strikes fiercely. What will her final strike be? Another question about cast bonding? Or maybe the third mention of a short film that she directed, much like Diablo Cody, as she keeps reminding Diablo Cody?
Blonde Fury: “So what can you tell me about Russell Brand that I don’t already know?”
And scene. The thread is cut.