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‘Losing Isaiah’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 17, 1995

ONE DAY, in a picturesquely squalid Chicago neighborhood, junkie Halle Berry dumps her screaming infant (whom she has lovingly thought to name Isaiah) into a cardboard box, leaves it for the trashman, then moves on to the next crack high.

This is the beginning of "Losing Isaiah," a shamelessly manipulative movie, in which Isaiah -- who survives the ordeal -- will become the central figure in a racially defined custody battle.

Cut to Jessica Lange, harassed social worker, who lives with David Strathairn (rapidly turning into the poster boy for all overworked, spiritually destroyed husbands) and sullen preteen Daisy Eagan. When Isaiah is rushed to the hospital where Lange works, then remains unclaimed, she falls in love with the child and adopts him. While Isaiah thrives in a loving, affluent home, Berry (unaware her son is still alive) undergoes an arduous rehabilitation.

Three years after the trashing incident, when Berry finds out Isaiah is still very much around, she signs on with public-interest attorney Samuel L. Jackson and serves papers to the shocked Lange. A long, drawn-out courtroom battle begins. Both women believe they have a moral right to the child, both feel the angst of motherhood, and both are excellent criers.

Attorney Jackson argues the need for Isaiah (played brightly by pint-sized 4-year-old Marc John Jefferies) to return to his racial roots, as well as to his biological mother. To him, Lange and Strathairn represent white benevolence at its worst. But Lange's attorney reminds the judge of Berry's desertion, her lack of dependability, and the adoptive parents' love and stability. The conflict is further inflamed by the child's belief that Lange is his true mother.

"Losing Isaiah," which also stars Cuba Gooding Jr. (as Berry's pending love interest), pits Afrocentric culturalism against knee-jerk liberalism with the kind of falsely pluralistic earnestness that screams for a prime-time TV spot. The movie, directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, steers gleefully through the nastiest possible straits: Jackson asks Strathairn to recall the last time he had a black couple to dinner and batters Lange with the black kid-white doll thing. Lange (voice trembling, eyes misty) argues for color-blind love, while Berry (employing similar facial waterworks) talks about her great personal comeback. (In TV-shorthand-fashion we only see the highlights of that soul-changing rehab.)

It's hard to know whether to draw offense at the which-side-are-you-on? racial button pushing, or the second-rate dramatics of Naomi Foner's script (which she adapted from Seth Margolis's novel). To make matters worse, the movie -- after smashing these emotional ideologies against each other -- opts for a cop-out ending intended to offend no one and give everyone some note of satisfaction. Not only does this lowest-common denominator conclusion backfire, it insults anyone who invested their time getting involved in the whole thing.

LOSING ISAIAH (R) -- Contains scenes of drug use, hospital trauma and, at the beginning, the prospect of a baby being crushed in a trash truck.

Copyright The Washington Post

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