Due to an editing error, the following movie review was not included in Friday's Weekend Section:
"How the Council Got Its Groove Back Messin' Around With Willie Wilson" is the racial melodrama to top all racial melodramas produced in the District since Himself -- Marion Barry -- went bye-bye. A mischievous sitcom in the genre of "Barry and His Bureau Buddies," the low-budget "How the Council Got Its Groove Back" takes race to a place where color-struck fans in this city love to go. It is old-fashioned filmmaking about racial politics on the Potomac at its best. A must-see -- if you're into watching people slip and slide, peep and hide, emote with anger, and cower in fear.
The cast carries the flick. That's because there were no screenwriters or director in evidence. The actors just made it up as they went along, trusting their instincts for high comedy and lowbrow theatrics.
Most of the action takes place in and around One Judiciary Square, where the mayor, played by newcomer Anthony Williams, and the D.C. Council, played by 13 underemployed character actors drafted at the last minute from central casting, take turns showing why city leaders aren't to be taken too seriously.
This movie is based on a dime-store novel about an outspoken black preacher -- the book's hero -- and his encounter with a majority white city council that initially seems to regard his elevation to the trustee board of the city's university as akin to putting a Mafia don in charge of the Federal Reserve. How the preacher, his supporters and the flip-flopping mayor who decides at the last minute to put the pastor in play come to deal with the grumbling lawmakers is what the movie is all about.
The film depicts -- depending upon your seat in the theater -- the preacher, Willie Wilson, played by a longtime local performer, as an earnest man, racial healer, the very picture of piety . . . OR (if you're seated in the balcony), a demagogue of the first order, capable of unleashing the gates of hell -- including a bunch of angry black folks -- on any and all white foes and "Negroes" who would thwart his will.
Most of the audience roots for Wilson.
But it's the mayor who steals the show.
The actor portraying Tony Williams looks as if he should be in charge of bookkeeping rather than the high office that thrusts Willie Wilson into the spotlight. There he stands in the church pulpit -- Woody Allen playing Marion Barry -- looking down on the crowd of Wilson followers who are agitated no end by the thought that the council's new majority might reject their leader.
Watching the mayor as he tries to "get down" rhetorically at a church rally in behalf of his embattled nominee is a hoot. It's like catching him try to dance the Electric Slide.
And that's what makes him the movie's biggest surprise.
We see a perfectly klutzy mayor, unschooled in the ways of politics, an amateur schemer at best -- and with no acting experience -- help rescue his controversial nominee from the jaws of certain defeat by doing a neo-racial number on the council.
It is a scream.
It couldn't have happened, however, without Wilson's supporters.
Archbishop George Stallings, as one of Wilson's leading defenders, brings a ferocity and regal bearing to his role, while managing all the while to play much of his fulminating for laughs. The rest are fairly predictable in their professions of outrage but effective nonetheless in projecting a fevered presence.
The production had one oddity, which, while it didn't make the film any less entertaining, was a delightful surprise.
In most flicks about racial dust-ups in D.C., there's usually a subtle song cue midway where former D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy breaks into an a cappella rendition of "The Impossible Dream" -- which allows fans to slip out for refreshments.
But in this screenplay, it is Queen Mother Virginia Williams, the mayor's mom, who supplies the vocal talent. With son Tony nodding approvingly in the pulpit, Mother lifts her voice in song, and with it those of the audience, into a pulse-racing, spine-tingling rendering of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
Be still my heart!
The entire D.C. Council cast delivers commanding performances. Usually a vain, hot-dogging crew whenever on camera, they transform themselves into an absolutely craven lot upon learning that the good reverend's backers are upset over his looming rejection. The lawmakers are given over to quaking and quivering; all, that is, except two middle-aged actresses assigned the roles of outspoken council members Kathy Patterson and Carol Schwartz. They set off sparks when they refuse to retreat from their opposition to the good pastor.
No threats to the real Patterson and Schwartz, these two unknowns are well-cast as prim but plucky women who won't bend in the face of a boatload of machismo, taunts and threats.
While the movie contains no battle scenes, there's much comic intrigue as Patterson's and Schwartz's white colleagues struggle to keep their distance, lest they, too, draw the crowd's displeasure.
The film lays to rest the myth of white solidarity on the D.C. Council. Shouts an angry voice from behind closed doors: "What do you mean, `we,' white WOMAN?"
As the screen credits roll at the end, certain council members are heard to say (actual quotes):
"He knew he had my vote days ago. I had worked with Union Temple [Wilson's church] on HIV issues. I'm a white, gay man, and he invited me into his pulpit." -- Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).
"It wasn't my fight. I want to develop a rapport with the constituency [Wilson] represents." -- David Catania (R-At Large).
"I didn't see anything that disqualified Rev. Wilson from serving on the board. I don't have Carol's problem with him." -- Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
"[I]t is my view that there is greater difficulty given by rejecting Rev. Wilson than by confirming him. I met with Rev. Wilson for over two hours last week at his church." -- Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).
As for Saint Sharon of Ambrose (D-Ward 6): On the road toward voting against Wilson, scales fall from her eyes, she glimpses the marvelous things he has done -- takes in the size of his Ward 6 congregation -- and miraculously changes her mind.
"How the Council . . ." is a movie that asks the question: "Can a young ice cream vendor from Tidewater, Va., rise to the top of a public university in the world's most powerful city?" The answer: Sure he can -- if he has a posse.
"How the Council Got Its Groove Back Messin' Around With Willie Wilson." (Rated R, 18,760 minutes). At One Judiciary Square, indefinitely. No nudity, profanity or sexual situations. Contains graphic scenes of insufferable tub-thumping, vulgar self-pity and profiles of courage and cowardice.
Reviewer's note: apologies to Rita Kempley, Stephen Hunter and Desson Howe.