What Harvey Weinstein recognized as the “Obama Effect” on American film culture makes this either the best time or the worst time to be a black moviemaker. Take your pick, because mainstream media commends any movie that exploits race topics (Kathryn Bigelow’s already forgotten Detroit was deemed “important,” and the lamentable BlacKkKlansman is hailed despite its incoherent political agenda), while even the mediocre work of black filmmakers is praised for no better reason than to perpetuate the media’s charade of groupthink open-mindedness.
It is the Obama Effect that explains the shallow acclaim for Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls. Regina Hall plays the film’s protagonist, Lisa, the middle-aged black female manager of a Hooters-like Texas bar called Double Whammies. She goes along with the establishment’s matter-of-fact sexism as well as the white owner’s casual policy of not having more than one black female on waitress duty at a time. Lisa’s not an activist; she understands how racism operates, and so it doesn’t faze her. She has work to do and a life to live — which means she understands America. This premise proves that Hall and Bujalski both understand America in a particular way — a double whammy that remedies the Obama Effect.
Hall and Bujalski collaborate on the most credible portrait of a black American woman’s travail in any film this millennium. The Texas setting is different from the Williamsburg hipster locale of Bujalski’s early Mumblecore films (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation) and the Lisa character differs from Hall’s widely admired comic turns in the Scary Movies series. A filmmaker dedicated to subcultural specifics and an actress striving for her career identity have found artistic common ground. They bypass the social stereotypes of the Obama Effect through this story’s Southern ethnic mix that big-city Northern media folk just don’t understand: Lisa mentors her team of young-lady waitresses, shares confidences with them, the same way she humors her good-old-boy customers and the white cops she depends upon to keep order.
The title Support the Girls suggests #MeToo-movement inanity but, better than that, it’s also the slogan Lisa puts on the empty coffee cans that her girls, in their off-the-books car-washing gig, proffer to leering customers. This realistic sense of female perseverance — not supplication — goes beyond prescribed political correctness. Bujalski’s original screenplay and Hall’s real-McCoy performance add up to a genuine appreciation of female endeavor: cagey Lisa, good-old-girl Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), and tough single mother Danyelle (Shayna McHale) show determination beneath their curvy moves and purposeful flirtation. Lisa, Maci, and Danyelle resemble the strong working-class women you actually know rather than the pink-pussy-hat-wearing, bourgeois stereotypes pretending “resistance.”
Hall’s Lisa exemplifies womanly experience; her workday disposition seems well practiced. When dealing with her confused boss Cubby (James LeGros), sustaining bonhomie with dykey customer Bobo (Lea DeLaria), or facing up to precarious homelife with her uncommitted Afro-Latino boyfriend Cameron (Lawrence Varnado), Lisa always compartmentalizes her emotions. Yet Bujalski makes sure we are aware of her emotional necessity; we see her stress along with her intelligence. Lisa is a creation of humane artistry; she outclasses those Obama Effect black females who have dominated recent film culture: the depraved mother-and-daughter ghetto freaks in Precious; the vengeful, psychotic maids in The Help; Lupita N’yongo’s existential victim in 12 Years a Slave; and, most recently, the ratched, buffoonish female behavior that has made Tiffany Haddish a TV and movie regular.
All those characterizations appeal to white liberal condescension and patronize black self-pity. Their disgrace comes from mainstream media’s routine neglect of black female class anxiety and everyday struggle, always turning individuals into causes. That’s how the Obama Effect works. A style maven at Vogue magazine attempted to normalize this misrepresentation when heralding “Donald Glover’s [TV] series Atlanta — part of a boom in lively, subversive African-American storytelling.” Bujalski and Hall go for recognizable social honesty, not the “subversive” trickery that makes liberals feel they are especially sensitive and ready for cultural revolution. Bujalski first left his East Coast hipster milieu to explore the regional conflicts of two white Texas sisters in 2009’s Beeswax. His viewpoint has expanded beyond films such as Moonlight and TV’s Atlanta, where vacillating narratives stay on the surface of even the most eccentric, attitudinizing characters.
It is Hall and Bujalski’s plain-spoken style, and the actors’ readable and appealing complexities (the girls accept the meat-market job search as a part of life), that makes Support the Girls feel authentic even though Bujalski fails to make the various character dilemmas converge, as Mike Leigh did in Career Girls and Robert Aldrich did in . . . All the Marbles. For all its good intentions, Support the Girls lacks a moment as memorable as when Vertamae Grosvenor, playing a harried black working woman in Bill Gunn and Ishmael Reed’s 1980 Personal Problems, confronts her freeloading houseguest with the dare, “You want a crazy bitch contest? You will not win!” Lisa could repeat that kind of utter sanity if Bujalski and Hall were not competing with the Obama Effect.
This film’s black female salute differs from the Rolling Stones song “Sweet Black Angel,” which paid p.c. tribute to Angela Davis as a figure combining FBI Wanted poster icon, political slave, and rebellious angel. The Obama Effect has prevented such naïve identification and affection. Bujalski and Hall have to work past the fake sympathy to find real empathy.
Only the final scene of Bujalski’s heroines howling at the sky seems contrived to appease those #MeToo folks back in New York. It reminded me that whenever I ran into Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, I used to always tell them that they should make a film of Kushner’s musical play Caroline, or Change about a black female domestic worker. (This was before Spielberg and Kushner went off the deep end into Obama idolatry in Lincoln.) Hall’s brown complexion and no-nonsense personality resemble Tonya Pinkin’s memorable performance in that show. Hall shows the same emotional resilience that defines a black businesswoman’s demeanor in the white-dominated professional world.
Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey are so preoccupied with making movies like the faux-historical Selma and the disastrous A Wrinkle in Time that they have misled our culture’s appreciation of female experience. DuVernay and Winfrey’s rotten films do not compete with the seldom seen, spontaneous female realism of Support the Girls. The Obama Effect encourages DuVernay and Winfrey to simply flaunt their own particular sphere of fame and fortune.
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