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Black Stories Film Series #8:
“What’s Love Got To Do With It” (1993), named for the popular song by our films heroine, Tina Turner, is a full force biopic was directed by Brian Gibson and stars Angela Bassett in a striking portrayal. Embracing the physicality and sharp movements, strength in stance and tenor, and matching in giant, electric smile, Bassett nails it.
Born Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tennessee, we watch as a young woman intent on becoming a nurse, but gifted with a voice for the stage, stumbles into a local bar with her friends where the up and coming heartthrob Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne) performs. He brings her into business with him, gives her a stage name and they become “Ike and Tina Turner,” but it is far from ‘A Star is Born.’
The film refuses to compromise in its portrayal of the abuse that Tina Turner went through at the hands of her husband. It is brutal, undisguised and violent. Navigating smoothly between the suave charm and the brunt force, Fishburne delivers a menacing performance of Ike. Sharing four children solidifies his grip on her life, but Bassett conveys the gumption and resilience of Tina Turner as “the show must go on.” She continues to perform. She continues to raise her children. She presses onward. Bassett also masters the physicality of Turner so well, it is easy to forget it is not her.
The screenplay was based off of “I, Tina: My Life Story,” a 1986 autobiography by Tina Turner, which she co-wrote by MTV news correspondent and music critic Kurt Loder, and released after her divorce with Ike Turner in the late 70’s (as his abuse during their marriage is prominent subject matter in the book). Gibson does an excellent job of taking viewers through the span of her forty years in a seamless way. Prior to this, he worked on BBC film “Blue Remembered Hills” with Helen Mirren, which won him a BAFTA Award for Best Director, but this was the film that placed him in the limelight, as it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Actress for its leads. This is the first film of the series that is not directed by a person of color, but due to the material, it was included. However, it is important to note that after the release of the film, it was acknowledged that many inaccuracies and dramatizations occurred. Some of the inaccuracies are to do with the song choices at various moments or a band being called one thing when they would have been called something else at the time, but the most notably the film insinuates that Craig is Ike’s biological child, but he was actually Tina’s son with Ike’s saxophonist. Ike brought two children to the marriage from his ex, Lorraine. Further, Ike Turner was not actually present for the birth of their first son, despite the fact that the film shows that he sneaked her out of the hospital against doctors orders. Most significantly, there is a disturbing rape scene in the picture, but both Tina and Ike confirmed that this did not occur. In her book, she wrote that after their fights, Ike would have sex with her in a way that was “like rape.” She maintains the level of abuse, but Ike wrote his own autobiography, “Takin’ Back My Name,” to defend his reputation. In a 1993 article with Vanity Fair, Tina Turner stated she wished the film had more truth to it and she was not proud that the film had her being portrayed as a “victim.” Then, more recently (in 2018), she revealed to Oprah Winfrey that she only recently watched the film, saying, “I watched a little bit of it, but I didn’t finish it because that was not how things went. Oprah, I didn’t realize they would change the details so much.”
Despite these inconsistencies with what happened in actuality, the purpose of the film was to serve as a portrayal of her strength and resoluteness. When finally leaving Ike in 1978, Tina Turner shockingly surrendered her claims to record royalties, publishing rights, and assets, but was adamant about keeping her name. “That name’s got my daddy’s blood written all over it,” Ike protested, but as critic Roger Ebert noted, “it would be more accurate to say it was written in Tina’s own blood.”She was in her forties when she had to start from scratch and launch a solo career with that name alone, and the magnificent thing is that she did in spades, serving also as an inspiring reminder that it is never too late. It was 1984 when her song, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” swept music lovers and she won the Grammy Award for Record Of The Year. She performed with Mick Jagger in 1985, where he famously ripped her skirt off. In 1988, she beat the Guinness World Record at the time for having the “largest paying rock concert attendance for a solo artist” when she performed at at at Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since then, she’s won 12 Grammy Awards, including three Hall of Fame awards, and a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
“What’s Love Got To Do With It” is a sprawling drama that recounts one woman’s back-breaking perseverance and exceptional talent. It revels in the examines the difficult and all too prevalent intricacies of domestic abuse, and distantly dives into how Tina Turner’s Buddhists chants helped her through her most consuming struggles. Overall, it’s a conventional biopic with a linear timeline and slew of chart-topping performances, but it will entertain and teach you something about Turner’s early life. I would watch for Bassett’s performance alone.