This is fascinating in concept if not precisely in execution: Lifetime is remaking Steel Magnolias, that redoubtable weepie of Southern women, beauty shops, and diabetic comas, as a television movie. But it’s doing so with an all-black cast that includes Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, and Jill Scott. Latifah will play M’Lynn, taking Sally Field’s role in the original, and her daughter Shelby, portrayed by Julia Roberts in the original, will be played by Rashad’s daughter Condola. All the casting discussion aside, this project raises a number of questions* that I feel like I don’t have answers to.
Should we embrace remakes of movies that originally had black casts with white leads?
Or should we wait until original stories about characters of color can get into production, even if there’s little likelihood that studios will do the work to get those projects to cross over?
Television gets a lot of hype as a place where creators can be more innovative than they are in movies. Is that really true when it comes to race? It feels as if it’s less true now than it was in, say, the early nineties.
If a remake moves a concept from the movies to television, does that count as a demotion?
And will a remake of Steel Magnolias just slot Latifah, Rashad, and Scott into essentially straight rewrites of the original? Or will it be mindful of the ways in which the black and white southern experiences are different for women? It’s true, of course, that both black women and white women visit beauty parlors. But if you get that far and think you’ve figured out that folks are the same, you’re missing some rather important things.
*As a side note, I will be fascinated to see if the movie includes the original’s pilot about taking Shelby off life support, or if in our moment of resurgent pro-liferism and after Terri Schiavo, even that’s become too controversial.