DREAMGIRLS is a big, boomy musical, energetic and well-crafted. But it has something else on its mind as well. The latest in a series of Broadway shows translated to the big screen just in time for Oscar nominations, it benefits from casting actual singers: Both Beyoncé Knowles and erstwhile American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson are brilliant, whether belting songs, fine-timing comedy, or conveying heartbreak.
While its plot is never surprising, Dreamgirls highlights the cost of ambition within an industry in which race and gender shape opportunities and expectations for artists, producers, and consumers. Effie's insistent "blackness" limits her commercial appeal, and her story, reeling from joy to tragedy to triumph, exposes how such limits are a function of both blatant and subtle forms of racism. Whether peole navigate, internalize, or confront it, they're always affected by it in some way. When, for instance, Effie learns that Curtis is not only dropping her from the group but has also been sleeping with Deena, her stunning number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" (with the poignant lyric, "You're gonna love me"), speaks directly to the film's most compelling theme: that broader U.S. culture and politics have long exploited, feared, and loved black culture and politics. In this potent, gorgeous, and devastating moment, Effie declares her need and her defiance. Here, the movie shows how history and art pervade our present.