And if somebody overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.
— Ecclesiastes 4:12
When David (Morris Chestnut) met Clarice (Taraji P. Henson) in college, he recognized right away that she was a good woman. So, in his own words, he “did what a good man does when he finds a good woman.” He married her. The wedding scene opens Not Easily Broken, a dreamy flashback under David’s voiceover: she was going to make it big in real estate, he’d fulfill his major league baseball dreams, and they would build a family together. The bishop presiding over the ceremony drapes a braided cord over their shoulders as he warns, “Life is going to try and knock you down, but a cord of three strands is not easily broken.” God, it is clear, is the third strand in their marriage.
This first scene suggests that Not easily Broken will follow standard marital ups and downs, as well as the couple’s spiritual journey. However, Not Easily Broken is far less concerned with understanding and defining that third strand than it is fixated on the other two: a good man and the good woman who defines him.
More than 10 years into the marriage, David’s plans have long since been derailed by a career-ending knee injury. Instead, he’s got a small construction company, his face reflecting resignation and discontent. He distracts himself by coaching a Little League team of at-risk kids, whom Clarice resentfully refers to as “gangstas in training.” By contrast, Clarice has nearly everything she ever wanted: the big beautiful house, successful career (she’s recently been named salesperson of the year at her real estate firm). She’s also put off having kids, another disappointment for her husband. Clarice dismisses his dissatisfaction, pointing out that they have nothing to be unhappy about, given their material success.
The film overtly sympathizes with David, making Clarice the villain. She is shallow, insensitive, and overly ambitious, while he somehow comes across not as whipped, but rather, as a saint for putting up with her. We see that he wants to be a good man, but she has not lived up to her end of the bargain. The dynamic changes when a car accident sidelines Clarice’s career. David sees his opportunity to “work, cultivate and protect.” This is what men since Adam are designed to do, he explains. He sees Clarice as a product of a world where women “started becoming their own heroes and… took away a man’s reason for being a man.”
Enter Clarice’s mother Mary (Jenifer Lewis), who moves in to help with her recovery and, by the way, blame David for the accident. Mother and daughter form their own little unit standing against him, fulfilling the first part of the scripture that the bishop was referring to in his homily: “And if somebody overpowers one person, two can resist him.” Mary, a man-hating caricature, forces the wedge between David and Clarice to the point where she flatly tells her daughter to “throw his ass out.”
The film repeatedly positions David in different groups of three, alluding to that three-stranded cord. When David appears with his two buddies, womanizing Brock (Eddie Cibrian) and sensitive Tree (Kevin Brock), he is the balanced middle, less aggressive than Brock but manlier than Tree, whose wife chides him for being “too in touch with his feminine side.” When he intervenes in the relationship between thuggish former friend Darnell (Wood Harris) and his son Darius (Kwame Boatang), David plays father figure to both, but it’s hard to forget he doesn’t have his own child. His most satisfying, if imperfect, relationship is with Clarice’s physical therapist, single mother Julie (Maeve Quinlan) and her son Bryson (Cannon Jay). She is almost immediately in need of a hero, starting when her car breaks down and ending when she faces a tragedy in her own life.
Not Easily Broken wraps up neatly, through a series of conventional images: lonely ponderings on a church pew, dazzling sunbeams breaking through the clouds when realization finally comes. While it’s clear that David needs to work, cultivate, and protect in order to be a good man, it seems the woman needs only to recognize him as such and present herself as the willing, and preferably grateful, recipient of his goodness.