Review: “A Ballerina’s Tale” shortchanges Misty Copeland; “The Cut” needs sharpening stone

Copeland has broken down barriers for African American ballet dancers.
Copeland has broken down barriers for African American ballet dancers.
Copeland has broken down barriers for African American ballet dancers.
Copeland has broken down barriers for African-American ballet dancers.

As the first African-American woman named a principal dancer by American Ballet Theatre in its 75-year history, Misty Copeland has a story worth telling. Too bad A Ballerina’s Tale does such a so-so job of it.

Nelson George’s documentary is perfectly pleasant to watch. Little girls with tutu dreams will probably have a great time. Yet while it’s a nice showcase for Copeland’s girlish-yet-disciplined personality and perfectionism, it never quite decides what sort of movie it wants to be. Trailing the dancer through backstage labyrinths and into Upper West Side apartments where she has physical therapy, Tale is partly a traditional tick-tock approach familiar from cinema vérité. Yet it also features talking heads — primarily other women of color — who speak to the significance of Copeland’s ascendance.

That story, though, is watered down in its specifics. The movie elides any mention of the protracted custody battle between Copeland’s mother and her ballet teachers when she was a teenager first catching balletophiles’ eyes in California. Tale seems determined to keep the narrative tidy. Though we meet Copeland’s best friend Leyla, a fellow dancer, there’s no mention of her personal life. The guy who kisses her in the very last scene? If you Google, you’ll find out it’s her fiancé, cousin of Taye Diggs, who apparently played matchmaker. That sort of information would have been interesting. 

Speaking of interesting (or not), director George manages to make the most dramatic incident — a shin injury that’s diagnosed just shy of possibly resulting in a shattered bone that would have immediately ended Copeland’s career — clinical and anticlimactic. (Long story short: She survived.) 

Perhaps a bigger issue for me is that the movie repeatedly brings up the Caucasian-driven, Eurocentric history of ballet and the importance of the long-overdue promotion of someone like Copeland into a lead role at a major company. Susan Fales-Hill, self-described as Copeland’s confidant-slash-consigliere, is amusing and charismatic as she discusses her protégée. 

But the movie could use more voices and, ironically, more diversity, giving a broader context to Copeland’s achievement. In the end, Tale feels like the polite opening conversation in what deserves to be a more rigorous, ruder discussion about the arts and the continued need for cultural and racial inclusion within them. 

But wait, there’s more not-so-good news. Also opening, The Cut from director Fatih Akin (2004’s admired Head-On) gets props for its ambition to put dramatic focus on a little-known bit of World War I history. But that ambition isn’t fulfilled. In 1915 in the then-Ottoman Empire, Christian and Muslim men over the age of 15 are being conscripted to fight or to perform backbreaking labor. Minorities, like the Armenian population, are mysteriously starting to disappear. 

Nazaret (Tahar Rahim) is a Christian Armenian living in Mardin, Turkey, working as a blacksmith to support his wife and adorable twin daughters. The movie sets up his idyllic home life with such familiar clunkiness, we know it’s only a matter of time before angry fists start hammering at the family’s doorway in the dark of night. 

The Cut explores ethnic cleansing in the era of World War I.
The Cut explores ethnic cleansing in the era of World War I.

Sure enough, Nazaret is rousted from bed and sent to the desert, a member of a chain gang ordered to hack at the boulders with pickaxes to build a road. Bad goes to worse when the men are lined up against a cliff, firing-squad style. But their throats are slit, instead. Nazaret’s assigned would-be killer balks, only wounding his neck. The blade destroys Nazaret’s vocal cords, but he’s able to play dead and survive. 

Much of the first hour of this long film follows the now voiceless Nazaret as he stumbles through the desert. The sequence all too successfully lets us feel what it’s like to be stranded and starving in the dusty Turkish landscape. It’s capped by a visit to a desperate tent-city of abandoned, starving women, including Nazaret’s sister-in-law who begs him to end her suffering. A lingering flavor of nightmare suffuses everything.

In its second half, The Cut becomes a more traditional kind of travelogue, taking us to the streets of Havana then to the American Midwest as Nazaret tries to find his teenage daughters. (The movie’s time frame extends from 1915 to 1923.) These scenes have more forward momentum than the long sojourn in the desert. But the movie never makes us care much for the fate of this family.

That’s partly the fault of the script and direction, partly the fault of its leading man. Rahim has been cast in some good movies, including A Prophet and The Past. He’s young, handsome — and a dead zone in every movie I’ve seen him in. There’s a blankness behind his eyes, and when he talks, he always seems to lag a beat behind the other actors. (Making his character mute for most of The Cut was probably a wise strategy.) It’s a shame for The Cut, a movie that winds up as uninvolving as it is ambitious. 

A Ballerina’s Tale. A documentary by Nelson George. Unrated. 85 minutes. At the Plaza. 

The Cut. With Tahar Rahim, Simon Abkarian. Directed by Fatih Akin. In Armenian, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Spanish, with subtitles. Unrated. 138 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. 

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