By Micole Williams, Entertainment Columnist
Some roles are easy to forget, but this is not one of them (considering it happens to be three women in one.) In Frankie and Alice, Halle Berry, an actress known for playing tormented characters and who lives a real-life dichotomy: a beauty and a brain, plays a go-go dancer from Watts, a child genius and a racist, all in one body. Based on a true story, Frankie Murdoch is lost in her multiple personalities that fight each other, and like Dorothy in The Wiz, all she wants is to find her way home.
Set in the 70s, Berry seems to fit right on in as if her funky fabrics are a second layer of skin. Her poker-playing, sharp shooting, pay phone using, flower-child vibe seems very natural and the fragmented portrayal is intense and convincing.
Effortlessly, Berry transitions from character to character to character. The look Frankie gives people is priceless-like they are strangers out to get her. The highfalutin southern belle who spews such racially-charged venom gets several reactions from a crowd and you can’t help but pity the scared kid that peeks out from under the veil here and there.
All these personalities reveal more and more details of this mind-boggling mystery. While watching, I had flashbacks of Berry’s earlier challenging roles like Jungle Fever, Queen, Losing Isaiah and Their Eyes Were Watching God because they seem to have been preparation for authenticating each alter-ego’s distinct dialectic and innate mannerisms.
The film opens with Frankie’s cage dancing scene, one that lasts a little bit too long. In the dressing room of the club, we soon come to know a street-wise, worldly woman, a mentor of sorts to the other dancers who gather at her boots. Right then, we learn she is more than just a ding-dong loving stripper, she is also a threat to many. Early in the film, an event triggers a hallucination that sends her running like a mad woman into the late-night streets. Not only is she losing her mind, but some clothing along the way (seems like Berry is up to her old antics again).
When found in the street, she is soon admitted into a psych ward. Her soon to be doctor, one who plays all that jazz, doesn’t know what he is in for. His world is about to be blown away, Coltrane-style. Frankie is one-of-a-kind, a bit hard-headed and a know-it-all who plays down all these spells, with I “get all mixed up.” But she can’t explain why she was running in traffic since it is more than memory loss that she suffers from. Her doctor is the right person for solving the mystery, but there are many factors that keep this process from going steady.
After she is released, she loses her job due to one of her alter-ego’s violent streaks, and back home to mama (Phylicia Rashad) she goes. It’s a place of home cooking, a lot of estrogen and also a bit of denial. The mother is under the impression that Frankie is in night school. That is funny. Her antagonistic sister (Chandra Wilson) who seems to hate Frankie’s guts, shares the latest gossip — news that pushes Frankie over the edge. Now on an all-time low, one disorientated black-out occurs after the next. Frankie’s life, like the spin-cycle she watches at the washateria, is going in circles. After several ostracizing episodes, she returns to the doctor, checks herself into the nut house to avoid jail time and begs to be under the care of the jazz loving doctor. This is where it gets even crazier.
The compassionate doctor tries to handle Frankie with care as he sorts out her divergent results and gets closer to finding links of her post traumatic moment that ignites all of this incongruence. After a process of elimination, Frankie is diagnosed with DID (dissociativie identity disorder).
As the movie comes to a close, the only other scene that didn’t seem necessary or better if cut short was when she was videotaped. The gimmicky, back-and-forth cliché-ish way to showcase her illness seemed like it would be more effective as a reenactment. This actually does come moments later in the form of flashbacks, ones that reveal the needed details of what triggered her disorder all along.
Yes, the film’s subject matter is heavy and even in darkness, it has a sense of humor and light. This is a project that Berry took on as co-producer a decade ago. In 2010, it was screened and did exceptionally well on the indie-circuit. It was previously re-launched to major theaters this month and has garnered much praise as well as some disdain.
The movie is heartfelt and worth seeing for two reasons especially:
There is a universal appeal and a theme of overcoming obstacles. This film shows one woman’s life, one that is inspirational because getting help for a specific illness can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes it can make just a little, but ignoring the problem hurts too many involved.
It also showcases a real taboo in the black community – dealing with mental health. Too often, “spells” are downplayed and therefore can never be broken. Too often, people are called “crazy” – a term used loosely and ambiguously, and never properly figured out.
For me, a great deal of sympathy goes to those who deal with mental ailments. Even more empathy goes to the families that try to love the person out of it, because unlike Dorothy in the The Wiz, no matter if the “lost loved one” clicks their heels two times, no matter if the great, Lena Horne comes out superbly singing, “Believe in Yourself”, they are stuck in a maze of their own mind.
As I watched my own grandmother’s once sound mind gradually deteriorate from suffering from dementia and Alzheimers for over 10 years, I developed patience and a puzzling type of pain. Moment to moment, day to day, my family and I had to grapple to find the small victories to celebrate, because the reality was overwhelmingly devastating.
Although Frankie has a far from perfect story, you root for her because she, in the midst of all the mental chaos, decides to take some needed steps to recovery. And there are some major victories when one faces fears and faces the past, head on.
Micole Williams is a teacher, author and filmmaker from Houston, Texas. On Twitter, follow her @willmpower and follow her book series @the TWOTLTseries.