The American Black Film Festival named actress-turned-director Halle Berry its official ABFF Ambassador in 2021. As the fest celebrated its 25th year, Berry proudly showcased her directorial debut “Bruised.” Normally the fest takes place in Miami, but this year, ABFF’s Black films screened on their streaming service ABFFPLAY.com. Berry’s new film was one of the bright spots.
Former UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) legend Jackie Justice (Halle Berry) is on the comeback trail as a New Jersey mixed martial arts fighter and a protective mother. There are a lot of challenges for the character to digest and a lot of plot devices for an audience to believe.
Yet that’s what’s on the pages of the cliché script (Michelle Rosenfarb) that Berry uses as a blueprint. It’s like starting a boxing match with a weight on one foot. Respect the source material but know that its generic words and characters are putting Berry’s best intentions to the test.
However, somehow, when the bell rings, Berry flies out her corner—as a director/actor—and finds a way to build a story with heart and momentum that lasts until the final round.
Drinking her troubles away isn’t helping Justice’s plight. Her failed fighting career has reduced her to cleaning houses and scrubbing toilets to make money. One fateful night, her volatile boyfriend and smarmy manager Desi (Adan Canto) coerces her into attending an underground, unsanctioned MMA match.
Through a mishap, Justice gets to show she still has fight in her bones. A sleazy promoter (Shamier Anderson) offers her an opportunity for a champion bout. It’s a glimmer of hope but is complicated the day her mom (Adriane Lenox) shows up with a surprise: “That’s your son. His daddy died.” The baby she gave up at birth is now a kid named Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.).
The script packs on so much melodrama and backstory that it stretches reality way past any norm: child, spousal and parental abuse. Alcoholism, homelessness, and underhanded payoffs. The final over-the-top device is a lesbian relationship that goes nowhere.
But even these trifling machinations don’t stymie Berry’s solid instincts as a director. She pulls decent- -to-good performances from her cast. The martial arts fights are well staged and photographed (cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco).
Everyone is cast appropriately and wears clothes that reflect their being (costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier). If the editors Jacob Craycroft and Terilyn A. Shropshire had exhibited tighter control, 10-15 minutes of excessive footage would be on the cutting room floor and scenes wouldn’t drag in this longwinded 2h 9 m film.
Canto as the brute boyfriend is suitably threatening and temperamental. Anderson as the sketchy promotor is equally immoral. Great to see Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences”) in any movie, and especially here as a coach who steps up when Justice needs him most. Lenox (“The Blind Side”) plays the fighter’s tough-talking mother as a woman who gives what she gets in verbal spats. Sheila Atim (“The Underground Railroad”) dignifies the role of Buddy the trainer/lover and steals scenes with her stoic presence.
Berry’s skills behind the camera are a work in progress. In front of the lens, she is a virtuoso. No noticeable makeup, glamor or her trademark sexiness. She looks her age (55), and her face appears as weathered as that of any pugilist who wears her profession’s bruises and scars with pride. She gets angry, sad, lost and loving—always playing the emotions deep. Her best acting is reserved for the ring. Body blows, punches and chokes holds—she makes it look like Justice is fighting for her life.
Says Jackie to Buddy. “I have to figure my life out … I have to do it on my own.” Similarly, Berry seems very motivated to pursue her goals as a director and shows great promise. She’s got it. Netflix audiences will be impressed.
“Bruised” is now on Netflix.