No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Jill Scott’s compromised crossover appeal

Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe; image courtesy of avclub.com

If we lived in a just world, Jill Scott would be a superstar. She’s got presence, people. It was obvious to me she was a star when I saw the music video for “A Long Walk”. It was probably obvious to her friends who encouraged her to pursue acting in the early 2000s. This has culminated in several television and film roles, most notably in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? series and HBO’s 2008 series No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The camera loves her face, she’s got a great voice, her eyes draw you in, she’s got a movie star smile, and her easy gait suggests someone magnetically comfortable with who she is. Actually, that’s probably why she isn’t as famous as her star power seems to demand.

That said, I think there’s something to be said for celebrities who demonstrate mainstream crossover appeal while remaining somewhat under the radar. While I wish fringe appeal wasn’t all but guaranteed to a confidently fat black woman in our wrong-headed media culture, I think there’s something great about someone at once seeming true to themselves while radiating star power with eminent potential to permeate beyond a niche audience.

But you know what? I still call bullshit on Scott’s peripheral celebrity. Because her performance as Precious Ramotswe in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency could have catapulted her to stardom. It’s not a game-changing procedural. Often the dialogue, apparently lifted directly from the Alexander McCall Smith book series on which the show is based, is leaden and the characters are quite broad. But it has a lot to recommend and could appeal to a mainstream audience with little effort. Despite some shortcomings folks seem to have no trouble overlooking in other procedurals that aren’t as good as The Wire, I found the show to be pretty likable. Scott’s performance has much to do with that. However, you wouldn’t know it, because the series opened to positive reviews but ultimately got no love come awards season. So maybe I can convince you, or your mom, or that coworker who loves Burn Notice, or the book club you’re in that read the books to catch up with this seven-episode series. I’ll do this in list form. I’m swiping a bit from a friend’s personal blog, because the entry encouraged me to watch it. But see? It just goes to show you that I’m not alone in being taken with Jill Scott and wishing more people recognized her considerable talents.

1. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency stars a confidently fat black woman playing a confidently fat African woman. Yes I’m repeating myself. I wish I didn’t have to. But that’s pretty remarkable. And unlike her character in the first installment of Why Did I Get Married?, at no point is Ramotswe apologetic about her size or shown eating as a means to pathologize her figure. She often sets people at ease by mentioning that her figure is “traditional” and conventionally attractive to older beauty standards within African culture, but I think she also just really enjoys her body. Yes, I wish she didn’t always have to remind people that fat women are super-sexy. I’d imagine Jill Scott feels that way too.

2. Ramotswe inherits land in Gaborone from her somewhat distant deceased father and decides to use it to help people (particularly women) in her surrounding community with legal problems and matters of the heart. Her reasoning is that women always know more about what’s really going on in their neighborhood than their male counterparts, who are usually in charge. She’s also dedicated to her job and really cares about providing a service to her community. She’s also a complicated woman with unresolved business with her ex-husband, a surreptitious attitude toward marriage, and the affections of a sweet car mechanic (JLB Matekoni, played by Lucian Msamati).

3. Ramotswe’s tightly-wound assistant Grace Makutsi is wonderfully played by Anika Noni Rose, perhaps best known for her work in Dreamgirls and The Princess and the Frog. Makutsi prides herself on superlative organizational and administrative skills, often noting that she scored 97% on her secreterial school exit exam. She also lost positions at more lucrative offices and law firms because she takes her job more seriously than some of her class mates, who view their work as stepping stones to becoming the boss’ mistress or next wife. Though the women encounter personality differences and struggle to keep the agency afloat, their professional relationship develops into a close friendship as the story develops. Also, if we’re looking for a black female nerd, I elect Makutsi for consideration. She’s also got a geek chic wardrobe that could give Glee‘s Emma Pilsbury a run for her wardrobe department’s money. If there’s a blog or a tumblr devoted to Makutsi’s style in the spirit of What Claudia Wore, I’ll gladly subscribe.

Work, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose, pictured with BK, played by Desmond Dube); image courtesy of hbo.com

4. Yes, some of the supporting characters are rendered as flat and cartoonish. Makutsi suffers from this, as does BK (Desmond Dube), a gay hairdresser who runs a salon neighboring the agency. However, the actors beat the page and fill in their roles in surprising, poignant ways.  Sometimes, the scripts meet them there too.

5. The series was filmed in Botswana. There is such a difference between location shooting and filming it at a studio (for a counterexample, hazard to watch five minutes of Outsourced, which fails at attempting to pass Studio City off as an Indian marketplace). Apart from employing local actors (which might allay anxiety about a predominantly white production staff), the city itself expands and deepens to create the show’s distinct sense of place. The women pursue their case work and go about their daily lives in it and in doing so, Botswana’s dimensions and complexities continue to reveal themselves. Charles Sturridge, Tim Fywell, and the late Anthony Mingella draw upon the cityscape’s distinct look and feel to create a larger universe in which these stories established themselves and unfold.

So seriously, there’s only seven episodes and Jill Scott’s delightful. What are you waiting for?

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5 comments

  1. Pingback: Hey, go listen to the new Adele album! « Feminist Music Geek
  2. JDene

    I loved the show and, unlike the author of this article, did not feel the script was “wooden.” I felt the dialog was charming and was refreshing. I hate the way so many movies and series change the essence of the original novels because some movie executive or producer thinks they know better than the best-seling, award-winning novelist. Simplicity does not mean wooden. The divergence from the typical Hollywood detective shows is a welcome relief!!!

  3. Barbara Soloski Albin

    This is a great article and I think you really know Jill Scott’s abilities. I have been trying to get a second series for almost 4 years now. We just started a new site since HBO is gong to let the series go. They will show it one more time for BHM in 2013. Join us at https://www.facebook.com/BringBackSeries2OfTheNo1LadiesDetectiveAgency Jill Scott is the Real Botswana Diamond, a great actor, singer, writer, entertainer, etc. Thanks for your article, I posted it on the new site.

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