When Lifetime announced its plan to remake the 1989 cult classic Steel Magnolias, the internet’s collective groan was stopped short by the list of names attached to the project: Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott. Female-centric films focused on a group of women over the age of 40 are practically extinct in Hollywood these days. Toss in an all-African-American cast, and you’re approaching mythological unicorn territory. So I’m happy to report that while the updated version of the southern classic isn’t quite as magical as the original, it is a warm, sentimental, whole-box-of-Kleenex emotion-fest of deep-fried proportions.
Writer Sally Robinson and director Kenny Leon have updated Robert Harling‘s Steel Magnolias screenplay to include modern references (Michelle Obama gets a shout-out), modern hairstyles, and modern medicine, but the basic story remains the same. On the day before her wedding, Shelby (played by Phylicia Rashad’s real-life daughter Condola Rashad) finds out that she cannot have kids due to kidney complications from her diabetes. After some hesitation, she goes through with the wedding, and ultimately gets pregnant and gives birth to a son. The repercussions Shelby faces after childbirth have been altered a bit from the original film, but you will still need a handkerchief and a mint julep to make it through the final 15 minutes
Latifah takes over for Sally Field in the role of M’Lynn, a slightly overbearing southern matriarch who would do anything for her children. Scott steps in for Dolly Parton as Truvy, the benevolent owner of the salon where most of the story takes place. Rashad’s lovable prankster Claree was originally played by Olympia Dukakis. Adepero Oduye plays the wide-eyed, newly single Annelle, a role that helped launch Daryl Hannah‘s career. They all do a fine job making the characters their own. But the most impressive acting comes from Alfre Woodard, who was tasked with the seemingly impossible job of inhabiting the Shirley MacLaine-sized role of curmudgeonly Ouiser Boudreaux. Not only does she provide the bulk of the movie’s laughter; she is the film’s emotional anchor. Even in the final, heart-wrenching scene, where M’Lynn’s sadness permeates her every move, the camera (and the editor) can’t seem to take its eyes off Woodard.
At its heart, Steel Magnolias is the story of six women of different ages and different backgrounds and different societal standings who form a makeshift family. They laugh with each other, they laugh at each other, and they love each other through all of the hopes and tragedies that make up a life.
The Lifetime remake doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the original film, but it is a reminder that it is possible to make well-written movies about complicated female characters, none of whom need to be a love interest for a superhero or a Megan Fox-shaped femme fatale. It is also a reminder that there are far too few roles for women of color in Hollywood. Octavia Spencer recently told New York Magazine that even after winning an Oscar for The Help, she hasn’t received a single movie offer from a mainstream studio. “My challenge and my opportunity now is to take the opportunity to create my own work,” she said. And that is exactly what Queen Latifah has done by producing this remake. She has created the opportunity for talented black actresses to play layered, beloved characters. It’s not a solution to all of Hollywood’s women woes, but in the wise words of Shelby Eatenton: It’s better to have 30 minutes of something wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.
Steel Magnolias airs this Sunday, October 7th, on Lifetime. Will you be watching?