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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Is Effie The New Miss Celie?

Found this on Black Perspective:

Is Dream Girls This Generations Color Purple?

By: D. Yobachi Boswell
With contributions from Freelance Writer Tressie McMillian and Black Literature Professor Stacie McCormick

The natural inclination is to compare Dreamgirls to Sparkle, the 1976 black film classic about a singing group of three sisters in Harlem. Both are about young girl groups struggling to make it. They even take place in the same time period since Dreamgirls is a retrospective back to the 60’s and 70’s Motown flavor and era. Certainly the two can legitimately be compared, and have many lines of similarity that can be delved into; but the question I ask here has to do more with cultural significance rather than surface plot traits.

The film The Color Purple, adapted from the Novel of the same name by distinguished African American author Alice Walker, explores the inner emotions and purview of a series of women, and their battles to capture their humanity foremost, and further to capture the love of their husbands, fathers; and also their trials in trying to do right by their children and reconcile their families. It demonstrates their strivings to become whole persons, to succeed as mothers, to succeed professionally in a world that professional work was scarcely a woman’s place, to succeed as women; and finally to find their place in the world and to be secure in themselves and their surroundings.

For the ladies of The Color Purple some of their dreams were largely simple; including some things we take for granted in modern society, but in other ways their dreams surround overcoming pathologies that are still pungent and that women must deal with still today. Dreamgirls starts off as a dream for glamour and glory, success and fame in the entertainment industry; but evolves into a story about girls growing into their woman-hood, and then as women fighting for empowerment, fighting relationship love-fallacies, and attempting to overcome abuse of the heart; albeit not the brutal physical abuse and all encompassing demeaning mental abuse Color Purple’s women endured. Yet, it all follows the same general area of exploration.

Of course the Dreamgirls haven’t had life quite as hard as did the ladies in The Color Purple. Though both films touch on some similar issues of black-female disempowerment; the dream girls don’t suffer the same level of indignity; nor was their climb to enfranchisement as steep, but again, the same basic elements are present.

These movies do though take place a couple of generations apart; and almost by default rural woman of the most maligned race in the south during the early 20th century had a more arduous life to confront than would city girls of the 60s. Yet certainly being a brown girl in the racially segregated 60s still posed great challenges. This is 50 years later - this is like the lives of the granddaughters of Celie, Nettie and Shug.

Don’t misunderstand my position. I’m not even comparing the quality or veracity of the two films. I harbor no inclination that Dreamgirls is as good as The Color Purple which is practically a master piece. Dreamgirls is a confection, a confection with some good underlining substance, but a confection and a spectacle nonetheless; whereas The Color purple was deeper, with it’s story and characters more developed, and their feelings and psychologies more intensely explored. Again, here the thing is how similarly Dreamgirls might effect the cultural landscape for this generation in like fashion as did The Color Purple the last.

How I come to begin to see this parallel cultural affect starts with the directors. The parallels of these two stories, based on black women and exploring their empowerment to their varying degrees, starts with them both being directed by previously successful white filmmakers: Color Purple director Steven Spielberg having been outrageously successful with Indiana Jones and ET; and Bill Condon being the Screenwriter and director of Dreamgirls, having been the Screenwriter for the very successful silver screen version of the musical Chicago.

From there we see an unusual situation for black film, especially black film that is anything other than silly (and often bamboozling) slapstick type comedy – the white media has given great attention to these movies. Not only pre-release attention, but prominent awards nominations as well. The Color Purple won 1 out of 5 Golden Globe nominations and garnished 11 Oscar awards nominations, though snubbed by the Academy; nonetheless, this level of recognition through even nominations is pretty much unparalleled for a film about black people. Dreamgirls received 5 Golden Globe Nominations and 3 wins, and with 8 nods, Dreamgirls leads the Oscar nominations just as The Color Purple did in ’86 – again other than The Color Purple, this is pretty well unprecedented for black film; which has me thinking that black stories only become even semi-relevant to white people if a white man plays a strong hand in creating the story for the screen, but I digress.

A national newspaper story I read the day after the Golden Globes were given out said something to the affect that Dreamgirls did not quite make a splash at the box office, but 67 million dollars after one week of full release for a non-cliché (ie black people bucking their eyes and flipping over couches) story about black people is a big number. All things are relative. The Color Purple performed similarly for its time.

It’s hard to determine yet, but the real test will be how do blacks in general, and young black women in specific relate to the Dreamgirl characters and to the movie overtime. We’ll have to wait awhile to see if it’s still holding strong at DVD release time, and then wait five years to see if catch-phrases, characters and parts from the movie become cultural reference. You can simply blurt out a phrase from The Color Purple in a room full of black folks, and with no explanation, almost everyone will know what you’re referring to.

I was at a Wendy’s here in Nashville about a week ago, at 28th and Jefferson by Tennessee State, and witness three black boys about the age of 10 with a female teenager. The three boys were clowning around and one begins to blurt out “and you, and you and you”. I did not realize he was imitating a portion of the And I’m Telling You song from Dreamgirls, that is belted out by the Effie character, until he got to the “you’re going to love me” part. And though I had faintly heard some music playing over the restaurant speakers, I did not notice that And I’m Telling You was playing at that moment, being his [reason] for imitating it. He then said, “my momma watches that movie every day” (bootleg obviously being that it is still in the theatres and is months from DVD/video release).

Hearing this young chocolate skinned black boy speak of his mother watching that film everyday reminded me of this black boy at that same age having a momma who watched The Color Purple literally EVERY – SINGLE –DAY; or at least almost thereabout. And no, we didn’t bootleg it, we taped it off of HBO.

This antidote further illuminates what I was already beginning to see with the cultural reaction to Dreamgirls.

In response to my ideal that The Color Purple and Dreamgirls follow linear themes, writer Tressie McMillian wrote in response “If viewed as a segmented epic, I can see these girls living out the dreams and fears of their grandmothers. I imagine them to be the children of that generation that migrated North, taking the country with them - as seen in the value assigned to “having a man”; because in the end that seems to be the black woman’s story in America - our wanting to be recognized. If it can’t be garnered from the world, we’ll transfer that desire to a man, ANY man when we don’t know better, and thus the reason we feel heartbreak so much deeper; and the reason Effie had a song to sing. Our hearts break more profoundly because we need to be loved most desperately.”

It’s interesting to note that Dreamgirls started as a Broadway play debuting in 1981 and was release as a movie in December 2006; while conversely The Color Purple was first seen as a movie in 1985 and then release on Broadway as a play a year to the month before the Theatrical release of Dreamgirls.

Though Dreamgirls is not new, it is new to the broader culture, as not nearly most people see Broadway plays. Further, it’s being brought back to life for a new generation. This cross convergence of these two stories along with others such as the aforementioned Sparkle, Lady Sings the Blues and others that depict the striving and dreams of black woman are an elevation from the long standing and still typical character pigeonholing of black women as the whore or the black mammies (see Eddie Murphy’s Norbit for the latter).

There are many more detailed theme and character comparisons between The Color Purple and Dreamgirls, not the least of: Effie to Sophia; with overlaps of Celie, Deena to Celie, Curtis to Albert/Mister, Lorrell to Squeaky, and so on; but keeping with the focus of the piece I’d like to draw to a conclusion with the focus of eyeing the social significance that Dreamgirls may or may not come to hold over the coming years. If I can walk into a room full of black people 10 years from now and say “Jimmy wanna rib, Jimmy wanna steak” and without explanation have everybody respond “Jimmy want some of yo chocolate cake”, I’ll take it that The Color Purple torch has been passed.

Edit: Note that this piece was written and originally published in the Nashville Pride before the Oscars aired.

Congratulations to Dreamgirls for winning for Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Hudson). Not that I begin to think this shows that racial respect has fully arrived; but at least the mainstream culture has responded better 20 years late than it did to The Color Purple.

And Dreamgirls still got snubbed on the best song award – GET OUTTA HERE!!!


Qadree said...

I think it's a bit of a stretch to compare these two films. After admitting that the two films really can't be compared and then they go ahead with a forced comparison that uses a criteria that is so broad that any film where a black women struggles could be substituted for Dream Girls.

What does having a white director have to do with the question of "cultural significance"? I can see using this to compare the industry response, but the audience favorites are usually not in line with the industry favorites, and I hope we are not measuring cultural significance of black films by the degree of white Americas acceptance. As directors, these two are in different leagues. Speilberg's name alone will sell a film, it's been like that for a long time. Most people will not see a film just because Condon's name is on it. I doubt if most people who liked Dream Girls can even name any of his other films.

Quotabilty, in and of itself, is weak grounds for a comparison of this kind. I don't believe people would quote these movies for the same reasons.

Dream Girls was decent, but like the two directors, each film is in a league of it's own and I don't think there is much room for comparison.

Invisible Woman said...

I love your commentary, Qadree, and must say you make some excellent points...

Yobachi said...

Wow, thanks for the repost. I've been here three times today alone, and I'm just noticing.

Qadree, you can feel as you like, but you use straw man tactics to attempt to discredit my point.

You focus on one detail, white directors, then claim I think white acceptance is the bench mark of cultural significance when I said no such thing, then ignore all other details and the overriding point.

Point in case, your final sentence. I said point blank more than once that I wasn't comparing the quality of the films but the cultural affect, so for you to try to discredit my thesis based on a comparison I explicitly said I wasn't making, shows you didn't even follow my exegesis.

Qadree said...

This being a cinema blog, I was trying my best to address the film related issues without going into quality of the article itself, so much for that.

The entire premise of the article is flawed. It is an insult to every competent artist to separate the "cultural affect" they achieve from the skill that they use to achieve it. An unskilled person can get lucky on occasion, but that's not the issue here.

After going on at length about how different the films are in all the areas that would qualify a film to be considered good, you lead into your first "parallel" with the offensive and preposterous assertion that a white director has something to do with "cultural affect". You support this statement by concluding that "black stories only become even semi-relevant to white people if a white man plays a strong hand in creating the story for the screen". What does this have to do with the "cultural affect"? You never explain this, not even in the response to my criticism of it, and if these things don't have anything to do with "cultural affect", why did you make this your first point of comparison?

Box office performance, a little boy at Wendy's, similar characters, all Hollywood does is recycle plots to try and repeat box office performance, and do I really need to address the boy at Wendy's? There are way too many film that would fall within these boundaries to start talking about a similar "cultural affect".

Most of the article is filled with pointless trivia and meandering walks down memory lane that don't support your main premise and I really don't feel a need to address the dead weight. The article overall is unfocused, assertions are unsupported, and your facts seem randomly chosen.

To your final point, I wasn't trying to discredit your thesis, I simply disagree with it. These films are not similar (that includes cultural affect). You have to paint with a broad brush before you can even begin to draw a comparison. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but if you do disagree, at least put forth a compelling argument and support your claims without equivocating.

Yobachi said...

It doesn�t matter where it�s posted, what does that have to do with anything? If I didn�t make that comparison, then how is what you said a response to what I said? My argument is my argument no matter where it appears; I specifically say in the thesis that Dreamgirls is not on Color Purples level as far as quality of film, so you repeating me doesn�t argue against the point of my exegesis, it�s a distracting straw man tactic that ignores the point of my exegesis.

Your defense is like saying if you put a rose in a glass it�s no longer a rose, it�s now ice. Yet, that fails, because �a rose by any other name still smells the same�.

You Say:
�It is an insult to every competent artist to separate the "cultural affect" they achieve from the skill that they use to achieve it�

Nonsense, it has nothing to do with it, and this is just an emotional argument. Another logical fallacy where you�re now appealing to emotion and your feelings rather than doing an intelligent, objective examination. The effect is the effect. If you don�t think it will effect the culture the same (which it may not, I didn�t say it would; I asked the question) then fine. The effect has to do with how people respond to them in the culture, which is eternal; not your external, cinematic critique.

You�re basically just arguing how they affect you personally and not the greater culture, in their respective times.

I�m done. All you do is argue with logical fallacy and refuse to stick to the issue. You�re just arguing which movie you like more rather than examining the question of cultural effect.