Sunday, April 11, 2010

"THE LADIES' NO.1 DETECTIVE AGENCY": A reflective review

Don’t know who Jill Scott is? Try this vid and follow up with more.

You’ll see she’s one of those full-figured singing Americans. But to take on the role of “Precious” in “The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency” she had to gain weight AND wear padding to achieve an African woman’s “traditional” figure. Luckily, she was already Black. Anika Noni Rose is the first Disney Black Princess, at least her voice was, since the “The Princess and the Frog” was a cartoon. She’s also a singer but slender as they come, and a fine actor as she demonstrates in her role as the secretary with high scores and high standards in this lovable series. In some ways this is “Anne of Green Gables” for grownups, the saga of an orphan fighting to be recognized for her true self.

Which is not to say this is sugary. Two strands running through the action are AIDS (which is killing the secretary’s brother and which orphaned “Wellington,” the little boy who insists on surviving on his own terms) and domestic abuse. We don’t see the abuse, but rather the tragedy and the undeniable and hard-to-resist obsession with someone irresistible who is also destructive. Colin Salmon, the ex-husband, is so handsome that . . . well, Helen Mirren casts him as her lover and he was nearly the first black James Bond. As it turned out, he was in three Bond movies, but not as .007. And he plays one helluva mean trumpet. I think REALLY, not dubbed.

“The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency” is a BBC series filmed in Botswana. More than that, it is a little community of shops and their owners in an outlier part of the city where baboons still come to town. To say it is colorful is an understatement! The buildings, the clothes, the interiors all sizzle in the most saturated and vivid of hues. The shirts of the gay hairdresser alone are near-psychedelic in the most sophisticated and top-of-the-line way. Not having read the books, I’m dependent on others who say that this hairdresser was added: I’m very glad. He’s, um, colorful in himself. In fact, the whole splendid outdoors and wildlife of the country is spread out before us in a way no book could quite achieve.

Remarkably (this whole phenomenon is remarkable), the author of the original series of books is a “traditionally-figured" older male, white, law school professor, Alexander McCall Smith from gray Edinburgh. He did spend time in Botswana to set up their law school. In a video interview he assures us that the main similarity he has to Precious is that they agree one-hundred-per-cent when it comes to ethics, which is his scholarly speciality. Ethics, of course, is rather different from law but much more closely related to justice, and the “crimes” involved are better described as “human problems,” since these mysteries (rather like English “cozies”) are as far as possible away from the demented perversions and twisted gore of “Wire in the Blood.”

The two main characters are definitely stylized, especially the eager and strait-laced Anika Noni Rose’s “97%” secretary with her erect posture, stuttering walk and war on chickens. The natural and roundabout locutions of politeness in a slower society than ours is honored with many greetings, inquiries as to health, and farewells. In particular the bar scenes were wildly excessive by my standards, but I know almost nothing about such places even in Montana. I was blown away by the platoons of fabulous actors in small parts, some of them near slapstick, like the unfaithful husband who “comes on” to Precious, and others utterly straightforward, like the manager of the SOS orphanage.

It’s interesting to reflect on the strategy of semi-comedy when dealing with the ethics of minorities, whether American Indian or urban ghetto or southern rural. I recently had a lively phone conversation with Greg Keeler, poet and professor at Montana State University, about just what John Tatsey was up to when he wrote his column from Heart Butte for so many years at the end of the Fifties. Mike Mansfield used to read them into the Congressional Record and they were gathered up in an anthology called “Black Moccasin,” John’s Indian name.

There’s a selection in “The Last Best Place,” the Montana lit anthology, just ahead of a famous essay by Leslie Fiedler, who raised Cain in Missoula with his theories and drove Walter Von Tilburg Clark out of the university. (This was told to me personally by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.) Keeler, if I understood him, thought that Tatsey was deliberately taunting white people by writing tongue-in-cheek accounts of what they thought was typical of Indians. Fooling whites. Tatsey himself said, “I write the news that really takes place and happens. I won’t make up any lies, just the truth: I’ll back up anything I write.” Because I taught in Heart Butte a couple of years and lived in Browning off and on for fifty years, the people mentioned in the Tatsey excerpt whom I knew include Richard Little Dog, Francis Bull Shoe, Stoles Head Carrier, Carson Boyd, Peter Red Horn, and -- of course -- Earl Old Person. John Tatsey was simply adopting the slightly rueful and mocking tone of people who have it tough and survive through humor. It’s more of a cowboy campfire approach than a philosophical position, unless you’re Irish. Maybe Keeler is Irish.

Anyway, the point is that tales about people of modest means in an exotic locale, whether it is Botswana or Heart Butte, can be taken as universal insight into human beings or as some kind of funny folk tale. John Tatsey was writing from inside the stories, though he considered himself a bit of a cut above the others. Alexander McCall Smith is writing from an outsider’s point of view, albeit a sympathetic one. Major contributions were made by Minghella, a warm-hearted co-writer and director who loved Africa (“The English Patient”) and by the cast itself with their extraordinary dignity, What takes this BBC series out of the comic book context is Mma Romatswe’s openness to difference and determination to find solutions that are fair to all concerned. In this way she tells us how to understand the stories. Sometimes simple stories are very complex. Do not be distracted by the charming cartoons that frame the titles.

1 comment:

Feed Store Girl said...

For a number of years I worked with and loved West Africans, both in Montana and in Mali.

Whenever I need to remember what is important in life, I turn to the stories of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I am reminded that relationships are primary and that all is hardly ever what it seems.