Damn You, Oprah!

'Emmanuel's Gift': inspirational, compelling subjects; manipulative, dreadful execution

My sister used to do charity work at a children's hospital. One day, after working a long and difficult shift there, she phoned me up to say, "I hate little blind kids with cancer." After watching Emmanuel's Gift, I kind of see where she's coming from.

Emmanuel's Gift is the moving and magical story of one heroic man's heroic struggle to heroically overcome a heroic handicap and magically inspire and raise our hearts and lift up a nation. Or so Oprah Winfrey tells me.

See, the problem with Emmanuel's Gift is not the inspiring man, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, whose story, no doubt, would make an inspiring movie. It's that "filmmakers" Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern don't trust their story, so they load it up with such an excess of sentimental music and self-important voiceover that you feel like someone is jamming William Bennett ass-first down your throat.

The titular Emmanuel was born with a severe deformity of his right leg. While this would have been a challenge all by itself, being born handicapped in Ghana made it far worse, at least according to Emmanuel's Gift. The Ghanaians, it's said, view handicaps as curses from God or the gods, and the disabled are denied educations and forced into lives as beggars.

They are also customarily dumped in the streets by their families, who hope never to see them again. However, I have only the word of the film on this; it may be that Ghanaians have a long tradition of kindness toward and integration of the handicapped. Emmanuel's Gift is so obsessively manipulative that I wouldn't trust it if it reported that Harvey Fierstein was gay.

However, assuming that the film is just cloying and not deceitful, Emmanuel was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who supported him and encouraged his education. His father, on the other hand, ran off the moment Emmanuel popped his twisted leg out of the womb.

Thus, Emmanuel had to work to support his mom, who was always sick, and then she passed away, and there was heartache and triumph and joy. Ultimately, Emmanuel completed an inspiring bike ride around Ghana, came to America for surgery, returned to Ghana with a prosthesis and became a major agitator for the rights of the handicapped while also heading up a group that built wheelchairs for the disabled poor. On the whole, it's hard to imagine a more stand-up guy.

So you'd think the last thing you'd need to do in telling his story is have an endless series of musical swells every time some obviously moving moment is presented. And the second-to-last thing you'd want to do is get Oprah Winfrey involved as a narrator.

Winfrey is to the discussion of human feelings what Paris Hilton is to being a human being: some horrible, pale shadow that parasitically feeds off the real thing, turning it into two-dimensional, easily digestible pabulum designed to fool the unsuspecting into thinking that they've encountered something other than a mere counterfeit.

And to hear her drone on about how heroic Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah is just diminishes his story. As do scenes of Robin Williams handing Emmanuel a prize. I have nothing against enormously wealthy Hollywood celebrities taking an interest in charitable affairs, but in Emmanuel's Gift, Oprah's presence seems like a cheap ploy to make the story meaningful and deep, since meaning and depth are what Oprah fatuously symbolizes. But if Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah did all the film claims he did, then he doesn't need Oprah's help here.

While superficially, this film is dreadful, there are some interesting and compelling moments. Obviously, Emmanuel's story is as inspiring as the film hypes it as being. Even more weird and engaging is the tale of Jim MacLaren, an American athlete who inspired a foundation that helped Emmanuel in his quest.

MacLaren was a college football player who was hit by a bus while bike-riding. After waking from a coma to find he'd lost a leg, he rehabilitated his shattered body and competed in marathons and triathlons. Then, in a freak accident that most people would take as proof of the existence of a petty, vindictive God, Jim was hit by a truck while riding in a bicycle race. The truck driver had apparently ignored the signs indicating the roads were closed and barreled through an intersection, slamming into MacLaren and snapping his neck, paralyzing him from the waist down. MacLaren now works to aid other handicapped athletes.

MacLaren's story, like Emmanuel's, is the stuff of dreadful Hollywood feelings films, but removed from the horrible glitz of cinematographer Samson Chan and directors Lax and Stern, it could make for a riveting documentary. Sadly, both Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah and Jim MacLaren wound up in Emmanuel's Gift, where vampires of sentiment Lax and Stern sucked them dry and then covered them with Winfrey-flavored mawkishness.

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