Three cheers for HBO’s No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a brilliant new show that captures Africa in all of its complexities, and its majestic sleuth, Jill Scott.
HBO’s continual success comes because it is able to maintain unbending faith in the human powers of art while remaining shrewdly aware of the public’s perpetual appetite for fluff, vulgarity, and bloated trivia. In The Corner and The Wire, HBO also led in the complexity of how Negroes were rendered, from high-minded, officious, and cynical all the way down to slimeballs competing for high positions in the drug world of absolute corruption.
In her form and confidence, Jill Scott embodies Bessie Smith’s proud claim of being a big fat mama with the meat just a-shaking off her bones.
Now, the cable channel has taken on Africa, bringing forward what makes the continent both troubling and inspiring. In Sunday night’s first look at the new series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, we see exactly what makes that land so intriguing. Like the old American West of cities and technology contrasted by ruthless desperados and wild Indians, modern African functions in two time periods. One can turn around in a modern African city and be right inside of our contemporary moment, then drive for a half an hour or so and go back to the Middle Ages. Out there in the bush, life is as rough as the skin of a horny toad, witchcraft is practiced and believed in, and the pervasive quality of unsanitary conditions proves that the germ theory has not made the cut.
So the truth is that black Africa is as savage as it is overwhelmingly beautiful, as backward in its superstitions and genocidal tribal hatreds as it is modern and sophisticated. That is too much for most to make anything out of other than an airbag full of indigestible atrocities or a fairy-tale continent of such impossible goodness that it becomes as inhuman as Marxist or racist simplifications.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, however, has on its side the same thing that Africans and every other people in the world know: Life is not self-destructive by any means. Life is always more on the side of itself than against itself, no matter how hard things can be or can get. If there is a way to prevail over destruction, life will find it, which may finally be its ultimate definition.
That affirmative sense of life pervades The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, perhaps most in the many special surprises of nuance and feeling offered by pop singer Jill Scott, one of those least diminished by the protracted adolescence that tends to characterize pop music and the people who make it. Perhaps naturally, her Botswana detective Precious Romatswe is a woman, not an overgrown child.
Scott does not come off as a conventionally conceived gigglebox made of blubber. In her form and confidence, this African sleuth embodies Bessie Smith’s proud claim of being a big fat mama with the meat just a-shaking off her bones: and every time she shook, sang Bessie, a skinny girl lost her home.
Black women in film or on television, exactly like black men, are rarely given an epic range of human feeling. Scott’s part provides room for the supple mind as well the variegated heart, and she brings it. Her accent is very good and the detective's moods have the particularity of Africa while remaining universal in the way that art intended to speak to the world does if its makers are good enough. This is particularly true of her relationship with her assistant, Grace Makutsi, who is conceived and played by Anika Noni Rose with extreme brilliance, ranging from a comic and suffocating primness to the almost tearful passion that comes of grand camaraderie. Rose is one of those phenomenal Negro American actresses who can do just about anything. She has certainly arrived at the right time. Forty years ago, Rose would have been lost in the shuffle like Gloria Foster and Abbey Lincoln were, or, even 20 years later, denied the majestic reception and the roles appropriate for a talent the magnitude of Angela Bassett's. But this is the Obama era and anything now seems possible.
It is fitting that this is the last work of writer and director Anthony Minghella, who was especially good at going where others had not. Under his direction, Kristin Scott Thomas became an alabaster hot mama and made it clear to us in The English Patient that all of the heat and scalding tenderness basic to a tormented romance had not ignored the hearts of highly refined English ladies. Now Minghella shows us an African woman and a black cast that does what the detective story is supposed to do: Treat the facts of life the way the blues does.
The false faces of life are removed so that we learn to live with the rot and malicious spirits while not succumbing to the cynicism of those who cannot embrace the truth of the brutality, the clumsiness, the deception, and the lies that always fall—if we are lucky—before the intelligence, the courage, the wit, and the unsentimental vision of the detective.
Two final observations: For all of the bellyaching about black people not fitting European standards of attractiveness, witness Nikki Amuka-Bird, in the part of a client correctly sure her husband is playing around. Amuka-Bird would have quite unacceptable in what one black woman who went to a Southern black college in the 1930s called "the heyday of the palominos." Then no one would have noticed she was dark-skinned and slender in such a remarkable way that the actress is surely one of the most beautiful women to ever appear on any screen at any time. But ours is the first one in which she might be noticed. A ominously unsettling cameo as an evil, charming, and magnetic man allows Idris Elba another chance to become an international heartthrob in this grand period of human redefinition in every way. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency comes bearing many gifts, none of which is harmful. Those gifts intensify our morale regarding universal humanity. Art, popular or not, can do little more.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, the New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.