Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)
HBO Home Video
Cast: Halle Berry, Brent Spiner, D.B. Sweeney, Klaus Maria Brandauer
Extras: Cast and Crew Biographies

If you’ve watched any awards shows lately where trophies were being given out for excellence in television, then you’ve probably heard "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" mentioned. And there are plenty of reasons why this movie is being lauded with praise. This HBO production starring Halle Berry in the title role has recently hit DVD, so you can see for yourself what all of the fuss is about.

"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" follows the life and career of the singer/actress from the early 40s to her untimely death in 1965. Despite the fact that she was talented and beautiful, Dandridge had to overcome many obstacles to become a star. Because her mother Ruby Dandridge (Loretta Devine, the voice of Muriel on "The P.J.s"), was a busy character actress, Dorothy and her sister Vivian (Cynda Williams) were looked after by their abusive "Auntie" (LaTanya Richardson), who is featured in the most disturbing scene in the film.

Dorothy marries dancer Harold Nicholas (Obba Babatunde), but soon learns that they want different things from life. They have a child together, but sadly the child is born mentally retarded.
Dorothy’s luck changes when she meets music manager Earl Mills (Brent Spiner…that’s right, Data from "StarTrek:The Next Generation"). Mills is determined to make Dorothy a star and convinces her to pursue night-club singing instead of acting. Dorothy hesitantly takes his advice, and begins to make a name for herself. Her success as a performer leads to offers from Hollywood. Soon, Dorothy finds herself working with the likes of famed director Otto Preminger (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and studio mogul Darrly Zanuck (William Atherton).

Dorothy then makes history by becoming the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award as the Best Actress in 1955 for her role in "Carmen Jones." She ultimately lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly that year, but was in great company among Hollywood legends such as Jane Wyman, Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland.

However, despite all of her success, Dorothy can’t overcome the fact that the America of the 50s and early 60s wasn’t ready for a movie star who wasn’t white. We get to see all of the disturbing indignities that Dorothy was forced to endure simply because of her skin color. As her career takes its ups and downs, the pressure begins to be too much for Dorothy and she sets herself on a course of self-destruction.

"Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" does an amazing job of chronicling not only the life of a star, but of a turbulent period in American history. The film isn’t subtle in its portrayal of the racism that Dorothy had to face and this makes the film extremely eye-opening. The thought that Dorothy couldn’t swim in a pool with whites due to "health reasons" seems insane to us today, but it is exactly the kind of humiliating treatment that she received. Despite the fact that she was successful, wealthy, and an Oscar nominee, the fact that she was African-American kept her from getting the same courtesies that were extended to white stars. And while she broke the color barrier on many occasions, she could not obliterate it completely.

For her role in "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge", Halle Berry has won a Golden Globe award, an Image Award, and was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild, and trust me, she deserves all of those honors. Berry, who was also one of the executive producers on the film, appears in practically ever scene and gives 100% in each one. She portrays over 20 years of Dandridge’s life and shows every conceivable emotion during that time. Brent Spiner shows that he can do much more than play a pale android and deserves to have receive as many awards as Berry did. (He was nominated for a Golden Satellite Award. I’m not sure what that is.) Spiner’s portrayal of Earl Mills, whose book was the inspiration for the film, shows us a man who was very good in show business, but also truly cared for Dorothy on a very human level. Klaus Maria Brandauer, who was nominated for a Golden Globe, is fantastic as Otto Preminger, presenting us with a cold and ruthless man who would do whatever it took to get his picture made.

The HBO Home Video release of "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" is presented at a 4:3 full-frame ratio on this DVD, which appears to be the movie’s original aspect ratio as the film was made for TV. However for some reason, the DVD opens with the familiar "This film has been modified from its original form to fit your TV" warning. I’m not sure why the film would have been shot outside of the TV-safe ratio, but at no time did I noticed any panning and scanning, nor any squeezing or distortion in the framing. The picture itself is clear for the most part, but it is a bit dark and the colors are somewhat drab. A small amount of grain is noticeable on the picture. This may be due to the fact that the nearly 2-hour film was squeezed onto a single-layer disc.

The audio on the "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" DVD is presented as a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2-channel surround mix in English, as well as a Spanish mono track. The audio is well-balanced, with both the dialogue scenes and the musical numbers sounding equally good. There isn’t much of a presence of any spectacular surround sound, but the sound of the musical numbers is well-mixed and takes good advantage of the multiple-speaker format. The audio sounds natural without exaggerated high ends and dialogues are always present and understandable.

The DVD contains cast and crew talent files and trailers for two other HBO productions, the incredible "A Lesson Before Dying" and a series on documentaries on famous athletes.

It’s always nice to see a multiple-award winning film that actually lives up to the hype. "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" definitely took me by surprise. The film features some outstanding performances and tells an amazing story of someone that I knew rather little about. This DVD of the film from HBO Home Video offers a crisp transfer and excellent sound, and for less than $20, it’s quite a steal.