Losing Isaiah

1995, Movie, R, 108 mins


Two good performance and a few touching moments make LOSING ISAIAH a notch better than most made-for-television movies about child custody battles, but exploitative writing and uneven direction prevent the film from being a superior melodrama.

LOSING ISAIAH is set in two worlds--the ghettos of Chicago and the city's more affluent suburbs, many miles away. The story begins in the inner city, where drug-addicted African-American Khaila Richards (Halle Berry) leaves her baby, Isaiah, inside a garbage can for a few minutes, while she makes a drug deal nearby. When Khaila returns to retrieve Isaiah, she is horrified to discover that he is missing, not knowing that some sanitation workers had found the baby, and taken him away to a Chicago hospital.

The hospital's Caucasian social worker assigned to Isaiah's case, Margaret Lewin (Jessica Lange), takes a special liking to him, and soon convinces her husband, Charles (David Strathairn), and teenaged daughter, Hannah (Daisy Eagan), to adopt Isaiah into their middle-class home, located outside of the city. By the time Isaiah is four (and played by Marc John Jefferies), Margaret secures the adoption. In the meantime, Khaila has recovered from her drug addiction and is struggling to make a new life for herself. By happenstance, she receives news that Isaiah has been found, and, with the help of an activist lawyer, Kadar Lewis (Samuel L. Jackson), she becomes determined to assert her maternal rights and reclaim him.

Margaret and her family are devastated by the news of the lawsuit, but quickly hire their own African-American lawyer to fight back in court. During the proceedings, however, Khaila prevails over the Lewins thanks to her lawyer's shrewd ability to convince the judge that "black babies belong with black mothers." Yet, soon after Khailah takes Isaiah from the Lewins to live with her in her new home, she realizes that the boy misses his "other" mother. Khailah then calls Margaret, who has been distraught ever since losing Isaiah, to help her create a happier life for "their" son.

LOSING ISAIAH appears to be ripped from the headlines regarding recent hotly contested Solomonic child custody suits (Baby M, most notably), but producer-screenwriter Naomi Foner and director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Foner's husband) are savvy enough to use the time-honored techniques of old-style Hollywood melodramas like THE GREAT LIE (1941) and OUR VERY OWN (1950) to tell a tale more successful at stirring emotions than resolving issues. (The added element of race seems to also make ISAIAH topical, but this, too, simply adds another layer to the audience manipulation.) Foner even structures her screenplay toward a classic "when ladies meet" scene between the main protagonists (which takes place in a bathroom during a court break). The moment sparks dramatic interest (and, yes, the fur flies), yet it also exploits and demeans a legitimate debate about the social welfare of children today in non-traditional family units.

Fortunately, Jessica Lange and Halle Berry make the bathroom encounter and the other two-dimensional theatrics throughout much more authentic and honest then they might have been. Berry, in particular, succeeds against the filmmakers' racially stereotypical attitudes in the early scenes, and makes her remarkable transformation later on convincing to watch. Lange has less of a role to work with as Margaret, but she gives a nuanced account of a woman who might just be using her love for the abandoned child as a substitute for her emotionally unstable marriage. The other actors fail to get beyond the thin, stereotyped writing (Samuel L. Jackson is the least persuasive of all) but Cuba Gooding Jr. makes a pleasant impression as Khailah's over-eager, would-be suitor.

The happy ending notwithstanding, LOSING ISAIAH leaves a bitter aftertaste. It also too rarely transcends the heated yet simplistic polemics (Ken Loach's LADYBIRD, LADYBIRD provides a much better example of a recent film dealing meaningfully with related themes). Despite the fine leads and some well-crafted scenes, LOSING ISAIAH is apt to make viewers angry and frustrated no matter where they stand on the issues. (Violence, nudity, adult situations, substance abuse, profanity.) leave a comment

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