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Pop Diva, Soul Sister

A predictable matchup of glitz versus guts, `Dreamgirls' embraces a stereotype it could have broken.

January 28, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

JENNIFER HUDSON, Golden Globe winner, Oscar nominee and wailing embodiment of the American dream, is today's hottest new star. Arguing against that is like arguing against the weather -- literally.

Various writers have described Ms. Hudson's turn as Effie in the film version of "Dreamgirls" as more than a mere performance: It's an act of God. To quote from recent reviews, Hudson "blows away" the bigger stars in the cast, "tears the screen apart" and "takes you sky high"; she is "grandly shattering," "explosive" and "pyrotechnic." Hurricane Effie's eye wall, the pop aria "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," is propelling audiences to their feet nationwide.

Contrast this with the tepid reception for Beyonce Knowles -- the most powerful young woman in popular music today -- as the blase alpha Dreamgirl, Deena. This top-billed role has earned Knowles barely any public notice; even a trumped-up feud between the superstar and Hudson quickly fizzled, drenched by the rapturous Hudson hype. But there's more to the battle between Effie and Deena than the victory of an underdog. Beneath this feel-good story lurks a century's worth of assumptions about self-expression, femininity and race.

Effie versus Deena, translated into top-of-the-lungs gospel soul versus meek commercial pop, narrows the range of black female expression to a pair of cliches. Hudson makes Effie human, projecting sassiness, rage, pride and desolation. But Effie is also a stereotype -- the authentic black "sister," built from working-class values, earthy humor and the raw artistry of blues and gospel. Deena is even more flat, the race-negating black princess sneakily beating out the supermama.

This split reinforces the worst habits of thinking about "real" black artists as rough-hewn, over-emoting and probably destined for tragedy. Such misperceptions have deep roots -- it's what drew white blues fans in the 1960s to obscure Delta itinerants instead of the sequin-gowned, smart-talking women singers who really popularized the blues and, before that, forced geniuses such as Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson to sometimes pose as corn-shucking country folk. It's one reason why black artists who don't fit the mold -- from Paul Robeson to Charles Mingus to, yes, Diana Ross -- have been cast as troublemakers.

Aren't we past these stereotypes now, even if we weren't when "Dreamgirls" first appeared on Broadway in 1981? In the year of Barack Obama's likely presidential candidacy, shouldn't a pop-culture "triumph" like this film offer a more complex view of black culture and creativity?

Deep-rooted differences

IN "Dreamgirls," the divide between Effie and Deena represents not just a vocal approach but a way of being. Effie is no-nonsense and psychically free. Her body gives her problems (like Oprah, she fights the fat) but makes her trustworthy; her Svengali, played by Jamie Foxx, is drawn to her because she reminds him of the sisters who raised him. She is grits and cornbread, a living home truth. And she sings straight from the gut.

Deena, conversely, is ethereal, subdued, blank beneath a soft veneer and, most of all, repressed. Her beauty guarantees her mass appeal, but it's somehow untouchable (she can't persuade Foxx's Curtis, who abandons Effie for her, to have a child with her -- while fruitful Effie secretly bears Curtis a daughter). Deena is not only insufficiently black, she's barely human. White wine is the only thing she apparently puts into her small, lovely gut. Only when she adopts Effie's stomach-wrenching singing style does she find freedom and herself.

It didn't have to be that way. Unlike the big Broadway stage where "Dreamgirls" originated, film excels at capturing the power of intimate gestures. Deena might have been brought to life by better songs and a rewritten part. (Effie could also have done something other than roar.) But to present Deena as Effie's artistic equal would have killed the film's plot. And it would have also challenged the still-too-common view that Motown's boss, Berry Gordy Jr., and his ultimate princess, Diana Ross, not only destroyed Florence Ballard, the founder of the Supremes and the inspiration for Effie, by booting her from the group, they corrupted black music in the process, by bringing it to the mainstream.

As any good history (and many have been written) will confirm, that's not exactly what happened in Detroit. First, Ballard was not necessarily a better singer than Ross. Her forceful style was similar to many singers of the day. Call Ross a weaker voice, but she's also a more distinctive one, her dreamy style drifting between innocence and enticement, peaking in some of the purest expressions of yearning pop has ever heard.

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