Sparkle tells the story of a 19-year-old innocent young woman growing up in late 1960’s Detroit, who dreams of becoming a music star. Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dee (Tika Sumpter) are sisters who love each other fiercely, but each have their own ambitions. When they form a girl group and set out to take the music world by storm, the harsh realities of the spotlight take their toll on the girls and threaten to tear apart the tight knit family, which also includes their less than supportive mother (Whitney Houston). The film also stars Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Omari Hardwick and CeeLo Green.
At the film’s press day, director/producer Salim Akil and screenwriter/producer Mara Brock Akil talked about how they came to be a part of the remake, the inspiration for the story changes they made, the pros and cons of working so closely with your spouse, how they got Whitney Houston to do the film, what sold them on Jordin Sparks, and how they approached the music with the songwriters. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
SALIM AKIL: It was pretty traditional, the way the movie came to me. I had just finished Jumping the Broom, and they were happy with it and wanted to get back in business. So, they were looking for something and they brought it to me. They said, “Do you want to do this?” I went home and told Mara, “No, I don’t want to do that. That’s crazy! Black people aren’t going to lynch me for redoing this movie.” But, after we talked about it a bit, I felt like there were things that I could bring to it that would be fresh and new. I started asking 20-somethings, “Have you seen the movie?,” and most 20-somethings were like, “No.” I would ask 30-somethings and most 30-somethings said, “Well, I’ve heard of it, and I’ve heard it’s a really good movie.” I really had to dip down to people my age – 40 and above – to find people who actually remembered seeing the movie. I thought, “What a great way to introduce little girls to the idea of an aspirational life, being talented.” And I wanted to empower the women. So, when they pitched a few writers, I said, “Well, I have a writer I would like to pitch.” But, I do think that was a set-up because it didn’t take much pitching. I told (my wife) Mara, “There are a few things that I want. I want to do it in 1968, I want the women to be empowered, and I want Satin to be a comedian.” Although I loved the original, I felt like the women were victims, in a lot of ways, and I wanted to empower the women. And she ran with it from there.
MARA BROCK AKIL: When he said, “Mara, I pitched you and they want you to do it,” I was like, “I don’t wanna do it!” The reason for me not wanting to do it was that we were coming off of historic ratings on BET. We were doing all right, and I didn’t want to take on something and fail at it. It’s tricky. I did know how much people had loved the movie. I loved the movie. But then, when I stopped, I thought, “What do I remember of the movie?” I remembered the glamour, how beautiful they were, and the tone. I think why people loved the movie so much was that it felt like it took black people’s problems and life seriously, in the context of what it was during that time. I was hungry to see our images, our issues and our humanity taken and nuanced a bit. And I remembered that Sister was being beaten and that she died. I remembered certain things, but I couldn’t remember the whole story. So I said, “Let me go back and watch it.” I didn’t want to take on this project and follow a template. I wanted to do something that I could make our own. So, I took all of Salim’s elements and listened to what the other producers wanted to do, and I thought, “Okay, to empower them, Sparkle has got to write the music and she’s gotta be the one who’s telling the story.”
When he said he wanted Mike Epps to play Satin, what I loved about that idea was that it was an opportunity to show what domestic violence could look like, very easily. Whereas in the original, he was just a bad guy, to begin with, who you should stay away from. Salim wanted to do a modern take, but also take you back into the period. I was like, “Okay, I think people can relate to the fact that he looked like a catch. Going after a catch, you can still end up in this situation.” I was excited about showing the audience what it could look like, and not to do that.
Emma’s (Whitney Houston) background was something Salim wanted to do. In the original, it was a rags-to-riches story, but we’ve been there and done that. There’s a whole other American story, through our lens as black people, in this country. Detroit was a thriving, booming city. It’s sad to see where our beloved city is today, but it was a thriving city that we participated in. We were middle class, and this is what it looked like. Motown was there. The motor industry was there. Because of the times, integration wasn’t that popular, so we had business. Emma had a dress shop. That whole middle class thing was rich. Her background was that she was a failed singer who had this past. I just thought that making her the obstacle and the thing that would stop Sparkle from pursuing a god-given talent was interesting. Sometimes the bogey monster isn’t outside of the house. Sometimes our obstacles can be our own, or from our family.
I was also very excited about the Levi (Omari Hardwick) character. I was excited about Levi’s plot, in the movie. I just loved showing how a good guy’s heart can be broken. Had Sister (Carmen Ejogo) chosen him, maybe her life would be different. She made a choice, and her choice led her down a certain path. Sister died in the original movie, and that was a huge, iconic moment. I thought, “Does she have to die?” Death can be so many different things. Death doesn’t have to be in the coffin. A lot of us are alive, but we’re not living. And Dee (Tika Sumpter) was also fun. She was important to me because I didn’t know who she was in the original. I enjoyed shading her in and giving her a journey. I love that all three sisters approach the music differently. They weren’t in the group for the same reason.
SALIM: I think the pros are that you always have someone who has your back, that you can trust, and who’s going to give you an honest opinion. For me, there really are no cons because we love what we do. Any disagreements we may have are creative, and creative differences ebb and flow. I don’t really see any cons, thank god.
MARA: I’m just so excited to be on a journey together and go through everything. There are ebbs and flows with getting a movie made and getting it done. I love how it has to shift. It’s been great.
When you cast the film, who did you see as the star?
SALIM: I approached the film from the standpoint of an ensemble, in the beginning. It really is a movie that is an ensemble. It’s about youth culture and achieving dreams. Stix (Derek Luke), Sister, Dee and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) all wanted a better life. In 1968, life was changing in American culture, and everyone wanted to participate in it. Stix wanted to get in business. Dee wanted to become a doctor. Everything was very open, and becoming wide open. Dr. King was making his statements across America. I approached it from the standpoint of an ensemble, and I wanted people to see how one person’s dream can affect the rest of the bunch. It was that journey that I wanted people to see. Everyone made a change. Everyone took a turn. So, it was an ensemble, but that ebb and flow between Sparkle and Sister was very important because they’re really just different sides of the same coin. They were raised by the same woman. Sister has a some of Sparkle in her, and Sparkle has some of Sister, and they both have Emma. It was important, especially in the beginning, to see that.
MARA: I think the modernness of it is that Sister represents what a lot of people would criticize music to be today, with all of the looks and no sense of substance. Sister has all the right moves and the sexy clothes, and Sparkle has all the talent, hiding in the background. I thought the two actresses understood that and played it very well. Carmen sent in her audition. We all got an email from our casting director that said, “Everybody look at the email I just sent you.” I remember everybody going, “Oh, my god!” It was just the same when we saw Jordin’s audition. It was exciting to know that you were going to have these rich players in this piece.
How did you get Whitney Houston?
SALIM: It was nice. She was very kind for doing it. It was wonderful. It was nice meeting her. Our first meeting was in Venice, in my workspace. We were both kind of shy, but we warmed up really quickly over food. I knew her mom was in the church, but she found out that my mom was a singer and had made records, and had opened up for James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner, so we bonded over that. Both of our mothers went back to the church, in terms of their careers. We had similar stories, in that way, so it was very easy to bond. And then, she read the script and loved it. She was like, “I’m going to be the executive producer, and I’m going to be in the movie as well.” I was very happy.
SALIM: It was like being a kid in a candy store. She came to work. She had her script with her, every day. She had notes in her scrip. We would talk about the scene. We would adjust this movie, or we would adjust that moment, depending on what I felt I needed. She had totally given herself over to the character. She really wanted to play the character of Emma, and not be Whitney Houston playing the character. A lot of people are touched when she sings that song, and you can’t help but be. But, I don’t think you would be as touched, if she hadn’t done the work, up to that point. You believe who she is, and you believe her pain and her struggle. So, to watch that develop, and to participate and help with that, was amazing. After the movie, she whispered in my ear, “We have to do this again,” and I said, “Yes, we will.” So, I thought that she was headed towards doing another movie with me. Seriously, I thought that she was proud of the work that she did, and was excited about the work that she did. I know that she was swimming every day, and she was ready to go get it done. That’s what I thought she was going to do. I was just looking forward to the next movie, and hoping that it was mine.
SALIM: I never wanted this to be the traditional musical that I’d been seeing lately, where people would be walking down the street and break out in song. When they did it in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was great because it was new. I remember watching those movies. But now, because we’re in modern day, I think people really need to be captured by the story first. You need a really good writer to be able to write a script with music in it, so you don’t feel like, “Oh, here’s a scene now that’s to music.” I always wanted to film the performances in a realistic way. You’ll notice, a lot of times, you’re not just looking at them in the crowd. You’ll see backstage, or you’ll see someone standing on the side, so that it breaks that music video style where there’s no other world but what’s on the stage. So, I really wanted the music to inform where we were in the story, at the time. We’re always telling stories with the music. We’re storytelling, at all times. I think that that’s the difference, and that’s what helps make it work.
What sold you on Jordin Sparks?
SALIM: In 1968, there was still a certain level of innocence that Americans were attached to. It was being peeled away, but it was still there. And I needed Sparkle to have a certain level of innocence. I thought what Jordin naturally has is that innocent quality, although she’s a determined woman, obviously, and a strong woman to get through American Idol and stand up to Simon Cowell. It takes strength to do that in the public eye. Her big story lately is that she lost weight ‘cause she was committed to doing that. She’s a very strong-willed person. I saw this innocence in her, and then when I helped her play it up to balance the character, it became self-evident, in all of our rehearsals and testing, that she was going to kill it. The thing that drew me to her was the ability to convey innocence. There’s not a lot of actresses who can do that now because they’re so public about everything that we know everything about that. Jordin was still a secret to some, and had disappeared off of the landscape. I thought there was a great opportunity to be like, “Here she is, and here’s what she can do.”
Was she one of hundreds that you saw for this role?
SALIM: No. It was a very small pool of choices, and she stood out as numero uno.
Is there something about musicians that makes them viable actors?
SALIM: They’re artists and they understand emotion, and they convey emotion in a really special way. Most of them, if they have the right conductor and environment, and if the project is right for them, then they excel.
MARA: I think he’s being a little modest. Salim is very good with seeing the artist in someone and helping guide actors through that, even the ones whose ability you don’t question. He’s really talented, in that way. We’ve been working together, for many, many years, so I’ve been able to witness it for awhile, and I can say I’m an authority on that.