Beyonce, Dreamgirls, drag, and the imperative of whiteness

Since the film version of the extraordinary 1981 Broadway musical ‘Dreamgirls’ appeared last December, critical acclaim for the film has been tremendous. One of its stars, Beyonce Knowles, is, at this point, nearly universally known. She first emerged in the public consciousness in the group Destiny’s Child. The group began in Houston, Texas in 1990, driven by the ambition of Beyonce’s father, Matthew Knowles.

Of the three members of Destiny’s Child, Letoya Luckett was the darkest of the three women. When various feuds began to erupt within the group, Luckett was one of those who left Destiny’s Child. Beyonce Knowles and her ambitious father made sure that his daughter and neice were given preferential treatment. By favoring Beyonce, Matthew Knowles and Beyonce effectively forced Luckett, a childhood friend, out of the group. It is no coincidence that Beyonce, the woman with the lightest complexion, would subsequently go on to have a tremendously successful solo career. Her latest album ‘B’day’ is a platinum selling success par excellence.

When one sees ‘Dreamgirls’, in which predominantly light skinned Black women go on to great success, it is necessary to point out that the film, and the musical, are based loosely on the rise to fame of the The Supremes, perhaps Motown’s most succesful artists. The 1980 Broadway musical on which the film is based, starred Jennifer Holliday in the leading role. Jennifer Holliday is not a super-thin, bone rack like the women in the film. She is also a darker skinned Black women. I don’t mean they look like Kate Moss, but they do not look like Jennifer Holliday.

The makers of the film used Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You” vocal to advertise the film, yet never once consulted or asked Holliday to be involved in any part of the project. This speaks volumes about how the public wants to see skinny, light skinned Black women who ostensibly worked their way up from up from a small teenage vocal group to become international superstars. After all, is this not the white American dream par excellence—if you’re good enough, no amount of structural forces of oppression can hold you back.

Another recent Black film which relied on the deeply American, white “self-made man [sic]” narrative is Will Smith’s dismal ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, an index of the near impossibility of the development a progressive Black film culture under the present circumstances.

The elision of Jennifer Holliday in the making of the ‘Dreamgirls’ film points up the enormous success of Holliday’s “I Am Changing’ song from the musical. This song became a drag anthem, and is still played today in LGBTQ clubs. Holliday, in fact, enjoys a modicum of success of the ‘drag circuit’, alongside Donna Summer (“Bad Girls”), Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”) and The Weather Girls (“It’s Raining Men”)

Finally, the aforementioned dream of American whiteness lies at the heart of the success of The Supremes, upon which both the musical and the film are based. There is an unfortunate tendency among music fans and critics to view Berry Gordy’s Motown as a utopian musical culture. However, Gordy was first and foremost an entrepeneur. He created his label, Motown, on the Fordist economic model. Motown, like the automobile plants on the other side of Detroit, was an assembly line. It was, for the 1960s, the apotheosis of music as pure commodity.

Certainly, great music emerged from Motown. But is was premised on the whiteness of economic models of mass production. Berry Gordy did not want to release Marvin Gaye’s epochal, profoundly political 1968 album, “What’s Going On” because he felt it was too political and too experimental.

Given my analysis of the ‘Dreamgirls’ film, it is no longer possible to see the film as apolitical. The conditions of possibility for both Beyonce’s rise to fame and the critical success of the film are particularly nefarious and ‘silent’ instances of the immense political power of whiteness and homophobia within contemporary Black popular culture.

Critics could argue that singling out Beyonce and the ‘Dreamgirls’ film for a stringent critique is to ‘make’ too much of yet another Hollywood film about Black people rising to success as self-made stars. My fear is that enjoyment of popular culture often results in a sacrifice on the part of audiences who don’t want their entertainment ‘spoiled’ by politics. Nevertheless, the political lies at the heart of popular culture and simply cannot be ignored.

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