Don't Play Us Cheap

Don't Play Us Cheap ★★★½

Don't Play Us Cheap is just glorious, a celebration of undaunted joy, strength, and community. Living in a country that forces them to the margins, this multigenerational collection of Black friends pays that country no mind, learning from and supporting one another and moving ever-forward, confident in their power and ability to persevere, regardless of the obstacles in their way. After all, if the minions of the Devil himself are so easily faced down, what real challenge could any mortal force possibly pose?

At the center of the film's community is the magnificent Esther Rolle as Miss Maybell, the permanent host of weekly Saturday night parties, and a font of knowledge and patience to all who will listen. Rolle is a magnetic performer, and Maybell is in every way worthy of her talent, a woman who plays a maternal role while also defying convention with an ease that takes your breath away, particularly when it comes to the place and role of women.

When her young niece, Earnestine (Rhetta Hughes), confesses to having hooking up with a man she met only when he arrived, uninvited, at the party (Joe Keyes Jr. as Trinity), Maybell's response is joy and encouragement. There's no judgment, no stern talks about marriage, or men only wanting one thing from women, or about the risk to Earnestine's reputation. Instead, Maybell applauds the girl for seizing her joy, regardless of how long it lasts. If she found pleasure with Trinity, that's all she needs to know to confirm that her decision to be with him was a good one.

And, later, Maybell applies the same rules to herself, frankly expressing her desire for Brother Dave (Avon Long), a man whose attempted assault on her is turned back on him with an ease that has his head spinning. Maybell knows, she says, that Dave is not a good man (she doesn't know he's a minion of the actual Devil, but she may as well), but that doesn't mean that a night with him can't be a source of pleasure — and why should she deny herself that? Just as she told Earnestine about her own situation, Maybell's choice is about her, not about Dave, or about anyone else. She's an adult who knows what she wants, and if Dave can fulfill that need, what does matter whether he's a good person, or if he wants to stick around? (Hell, who said she would want him around?)

Though Earnestine and Trinity are engaged by the end of the night, the film's focus on women being themselves before they're attached to men is striking and empowering, as both Earnestine and Maybell seek their pleasure without being judged, and Joshie Jo Armstead sings a flat-out incredible song about a woman putting herself and her dreams back together after being left by a man. She's not repairing herself by finding love elsewhere, or giving up on the dreams that he destroyed, just calmly and patiently working alone on standing back up and dreaming again. There's a warmth to the song, and a love for the self that flows through the veins of the film as a whole, and renders it a truly magical piece of work.

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