What will the next Great African-American Movie look like? What will it be about, and who will make it? As if in answer to these questions, the past few years have seen the emergence of a new black prestige picture, a breed of studio-driven, Oscar-ready fare that runs parallel to a whole subgenre of independents aimed squarely at black viewers. Presenting a counterpoint to the T.D. Jakes adaptations and Tyler Perry comedies, films like Ray, Dreamgirls, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Great Debaters, and Talk to Me focus on historical or socially conscious subject matter, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating the black community’s contribution to mainstream American culture. But like the rest of each year’s Oscar hopefuls, it’s been (at best) a mixed bag, both commercially and artistically, and as usual the triumphs have belonged exclusively to actors rather than filmmakers.
Since black artists have been dominant in popular music to a degree they never have been in the film industry, it seems inevitable that the new black prestige picture has often taken the history of African-American music as its reputable, thematically rich, and commercially viable template. (Look out for the upcoming Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and two Marvin Gaye biopics, all reportedly in the works.) In Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records, a smart, ecstatically performed remembrance of the 50s and 60s Chicago blues label Chess Records, the genre has finally found its touchstone. The film follows the blues from its early days as folk music, when it was treated with anthropological curiosity by institutions like the Library of Congress, to its evolution as the popular form that gave birth to rock ’n’ roll and R&B. Unlike Dreamgirls’ idiotic take on the Motown story, it charts the relationship between black artistry and American commercialism without turning a blind eye on white exploitation, or becoming puritanical about “selling out.”
As a showcase for black performers, Cadillac Records is as much of a bliss-out as Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and as much of a collaborative achievement. Instead of adopting the model of the biopic, with its fetishization of lone pioneers, the film assumes the form of a variety show overflowing with talents and idiosyncrasies. The diversity of flavors on display extends beyond the music to the characters themselves, which means that the quiet charisma of Muddy Waters, the anger of Little Walter, the spooky self-possession of Howlin’ Wolf, and the zaniness of Chuck Berry are not viewed as interchangeable. Already, the lion’s share of acclaim has been showered on Jeffrey Wright, whose portrayal of Muddy Waters has earned him long-overdue recognition as one of the best things going for contemporary American movies. But by far the biggest surprise on the male-dominated roster is the film’s top-billed woman, delivering one of the outstanding performances of the year.
How has Beyoncé managed to reverse the downward trajectory of her movie career in one 20-minute appearance, forever erasing comparisons to unfortunate divas-turned-thespians like Madonna and Mariah Carey? And when are the critics going to notice? If her previous attempts at acting found her glassy-eyed and sheepish, Cadillac Records (which she executive-produced) offers an opportunity for the kind of redemption few could have expected or even wished for her. She certainly didn’t strike most fans and purists as the ideal choice to play Etta James: many asked if the young star’s thin frame would fill out to the great blues singer’s full figure, or how a soprano could possibly substitute for a contralto. Also, up until now, no one would have mistaken Beyoncé for a bona fide blues or soul vocalist, since her exhilarating performances are almost always in service not of emotion but of an outrageous, unapologetically plastic persona.
Perhaps the key to this unlikely match-up is that, despite the differences in the two women’s voices, both singers offer worldviews that are fundamentally secular and frequently profane. It’s hard to imagine either artist being hailed for possessing “the voice of an angel,” à la Sam Cooke, or the “voice of God,” like Aretha Franklin. Etta’s low-pitched, rough-textured vocals are rooted in the earthiness of blues, while Beyoncé’s pretty, flighty tone exemplifies the slickest of commercial black pop. These women represent the lineage of African-American music before and after soul’s golden age, and seldom incorporate the gospel-inherited transcendence and religious engagement that became a major factor in the genre’s history.
Making her entrance an hour into the film, Beyoncé imitates Etta’s thick-hipped strut with Oscar-baiting fervor. The smirk and backtalk couldn’t have been much of a stretch for a woman whose alter ego is named Sasha Fierce, but from the beginning, the signs had me wary of yet another tough, long-suffering, ultimately one-dimensional black female character—the type that continues to pervade our movies. Within the constraints of her limited screen-time, Beyoncé is forced to conceive of Etta in a handful of clichéd contexts associated with this problematic archetype: pouring out her soul in the studio, confronting her past by meeting up with her estranged white father, revealing her self-destructive streak in an overdose scene. Beyoncé readily embraces this time-worn caricature, demonstrating the speed with which it can elicit sympathy and goodwill from an audience, but somehow she also makes it her own. Like an Etta song, she sets you up to feel pity, then throws your convenient response back in your face.
In the film’s climactic number, Beyoncé seals the deal with her rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a tune that sounds less like a Chess record than a country-soul classic. Watching the scene unfold, I remembered the first time I fell in love with the song a few years ago and realized what a master of understatement Etta could be. For what is probably her finest recorded performance, she turns the amplitude down on her powerful voice, even keeping it subdued in the few moments when she belts out, and renders the beautiful lyrics (complete with stuttering repetitions) as an intimate confession rather than an open-throated catharsis. In the canon of songs about helpless, poisonous love, Etta’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” belongs with Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain”—it’s a whisper, not a howl. Such subtlety would seem to make demands that Beyoncé’s incurably theatrical singing style could never deliver on.
Yet, as an actress and a singer, she finds ways to make her interpretation both faithful and fresh. Sung directly to an impossible, already-married love interest, label founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), the performance begins from the point-of-view of the male, gazing at Etta from behind with his puppy-dog eyes. From the start, the pace and phrasing of Beyoncé’s vocals follow Etta’s with surprising fidelity. Then, as the camera inches forward, eventually framing the singer’s face in close-up, the scene builds in intensity, climaxing with a sneer at the corner of her mouth, and a few defiant, gut-wrenching wails. It’s clear her version is not the original’s moan of resignation, but an enactment of all the bitterness and resentment on which Etta James based her take-no-prisoners persona. And just as Raphael Saadiq did this year in his album The Way I See It, Beyoncé transforms a meticulous recreation of a vintage sound by laying her unmistakable vocal sensibility on top of it, allowing us to hear for ourselves how she borrows and departs from her musical ancestor.
After the disastrous Dreamgirls, Across the Universe, and Mamma Mia!, it’s a relief to find a director who knows how to craft a solid musical number, how to move us subtly but decisively from the spoken world to the sung. The success of Cadillac Records is due in part to a structure that is modeled after the songs it celebrates. Character, atmosphere, and entire emotional worlds must be constructed in a matter of minutes, so that the musical performance can triumph over the predictable narrative. Like the rest of the film, the scene banks on the greatness of the music, but lives or dies on the strength of the performer. By the time Beyoncé is finished with “I’d Rather Go Blind,” she has achieved what neither Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles nor Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash could manage: a respectful embodiment as well an expansion of a mythic figure. She takes us across a curiously underexplored frontier, where the emotional and physical abandon of an R&B performance becomes both the means and the substance of great melodramatic acting.
Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at New York University (NYU). He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.