"Not Easily Broken" is a well-crafted message picture disguised as soap opera. It's the latest production from Bishop T.D. Jakes, a popular TV clergyman and author who is expanding his reach through film. If that sets off alarm bells, relax. Religion plays an important role in the lives of the film's upper-middle-class black characters, but the tone isn't preachy.
The film opens with the wedding of Dave (Morris Chestnut) and Clarice (Taraji P. Henson), whose minister symbolically unites them by draping a three-stranded cord around their necks. Two fibers represent the couple and the third is God, he explains, and if they remain intertwined the relationship will thrive.
The homily is filed away as they pursue upward mobility. Dave's dreams of a baseball career are shattered by injury. Instead, he starts a modest practice as a building contractor, while Clarice outpaces his earnings as a real estate saleswoman. Time-pressured and focused on getting ahead, she begins to ignore him. Instead of talking, she verbally overwhelms him with advice, instructions and complaints, while he withdraws. Dave wants children, and begins spending every free hour with his basketball buddies or coaching his Little League team.
As their relationship frays, they grope for outside sources of support. Dave seeks solace with his pals, who have comic women problems of their own, and his young ballplayers, especially one neglected by his ex-con father. Clarice turns to her job, her girlfriends and her overbearing, bitter mother (steely Jenifer Lewis), who scapegoats Dave for every flaw in their marriage. The couple forget their minister's counsel to make God the third strand in their cord.
The characters aren't the flat figures of a morality tale, but rather well-meaning, limited people struggling as we all must do. When a traffic accident puts Clarice in a wheelchair, and an attractive blonde physical therapist enters the couple's lives, they're ill-prepared to handle the temptation and jealousy her presence generates.
Jakes' message is nuanced; piety doesn't offer prefabricated answers. He approves of the couple's efforts to get ahead, but cautions against letting an acquisitive lifestyle distract them from basic values. In a funny, pointed scene, Clarice exaggerates Dave's professional capabilities to a tableful of real estate investors while he frets that his credit card will be declined.
The film is dramatically persuasive and well-paced. Bill Duke's workmanlike direction never gets in the way of the message, but it never becomes contrived. George Orwell observed "All art is propaganda. But not all propaganda is art." "Not Easily Broken" gets the equation right.