Love thyself, Phat Girlz

Breaking stereotypes about body image is not quite enough to make Soros Nnegest Likké's premier film a success.
Diane Bryhn | Apr 20 2006 | comment  

Instant success, as the saying goes, normally takes 10 years. It took Soros Nnegest Likké, the writer and director of Phat Girlz, 15 years to direct her first movie. It is a comedy about Jasmine Biltmore (stand up comedian Mo'Nique), a plus size woman’s journey toward reaching her dreams. Much like Likké, Jasmine has to plod through the valley of discouragement before climbing the peak of success. In the movie it was Jasmine attaining the love of a man and having her own fashion line; in real life it was Phat Girlz’s opening night for Likké. 

The movie opens with Jasmine and her friend Stacey stuck in a department store with no dates. They spend days and nights sulking over ice cream and burgers, blaming all bad things on their expanding waistlines.  However, when Jasmine wins a trip to a spa in Arizona, they learn that size does not matter. As Likké told the San Francisco Chronicle, "The bottom line is, love yourself -- fat, skinny, short, tall, whatever. Love yourself."  

If Jasmine did not have such low self-esteem, she would have accepted the love of debonair Nigerian doctor Tunde’s (played by Jimmy Jean-Louis). Instead she sabotages the relationship by going home and gorging herself on junk food. Only when she finally gives up the notion that she must be thin to be happy does she rise to the top in love and fashion.

Does Likké’s Phat Girlz rise to the occasion? The movie did as expected for a first time movie, garnering US$3.1 million at the weekend box office, enough to cover costs, although now it has slumped in the charts. The movie offers a few laughs and does cross over to all demographics with the appeal to the overweight or the less-than-perfect, which includes most os us.  

Jasmine finds her man.But the story line is too black and white -- the plus-size world versus the thin world. The story line tries to sink the hoary Hollywood cliché of skinny-blondes-hav- more-fun by showcasing plus-size women. But it substitutes the equally dumb cliché that sex-liberates-women (with the accompanying sex jokes). Nevertheless, the movie is lighthearted enough and showcases strong loyalty to community, family and friends.

Oddly enough, the no-brainer premise of the film -- that plus-size African-American women are filled with self-doubt -- is quite wrong. In fact, 70 per cent of them are satisfied with their weight, whereas 90 per cent of European participants in a survey of women’s body image were dissatisfied. Adding this would have defeated the movie’s premise, but it would have been nice to have a more nuanced story.

The film is obviously targeting African-Americans. In my cinema in midtown Manhattan, about 85 per cent of the audience was black. This can be attributed to an aggressive viral marketing campaign. Likké’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters sent out a mass email appealing to friends-of-friends to show their support by quoting Likké: “It took 3 years to get this story from script to screen and now it is here.  This is a huge accomplishment indeed and a blessing from God.  The Lord is truly faithful!  I hope you will be inspired by my testimony that PERSEVERANCE PAYS.”  This touching appeal ended up on various blogs. Producer Fox Searchlight also exploited  the social network to the fullest.

The off-screen story of Likké and the heavy promotion resulted in decent box office returns the first weekend, but it is doubtful that it can keep up the momentum.  As much as you want to love this movie for its great lessons about body image and self-esteem and its off-screen blood, sweat and tears story, it is a made-for-DVD moment at home with your girlfriends.

Diane Bryhn is a freelance journalist in New York.

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