I was not allowed to see “Dancehall Queen” in theaters back when it came out in 1997. Even today, if I still lived at home, I doubt my mom would let me watch 96 minutes of what ex post facto can only be described as softcore ebony porn.
As in, imagine my surprise when I popped in the DVD and realized “Dancehall Queen” was not the sequel to “Mamma Mia.”
Directed by Rick Elgood and Don Letts, the film follows Marcia (Audrey Reid), a single mother of two making a living by selling beer outside of a nightclub (read: “dancehall”) in Kingston, Jamaica. One fateful night she decides to throw away her pitiful existence to become a “dancer” known as “The Mystery Lady” and win the ultimate title: Kingston’s Dancehall Queen.
Empirically, the task isn’t too hard. Besides warm Kentucky Fried Chicken and her two wholesome daughters, Tasha (Anika Grason) and Tanya (Cherine Anderson), Marcia likes nothing better than bathing in glitter, putting on her bronze spandex bodysuit (à la Lady Gaga) and gyrating on stage (à la Beyoncé).
But Marcia is under a lot of shit. First, her best friend Sonny dies within the first ten minutes of the film. Then the golden-toothed, red-headed murderer — named “Priest” (Paul Campbell) — begins to threaten her brother, Junior (Mark Danvers). At the same time, this guy Larry (Carl Davis) makes a move on Tanya, who happens to be his (15-year-old) goddaughter. And then there’s the regular bathroom catfights Marcia gets into with fellow dancers.
Or something like that. I only understand so much patois, i.e. the film was in English as much as any intro math class at Yale is in English. Subtitles were most definitely a requirement.
Still, the worrisome part of “Dancehall Queen,” is not the absurd language or the shaky camera work. It’s the extended ass shots.
Marcia is supposed to be en route to asserting herself as a woman and throwing off the shackles of an oppressive and misogynistic society. But how does she do it? By wearing booty shorts that are two sizes too small and thrusting on stage to Chevelle Franklyn’s 90s reggae outfits for a good 35 minutes of the movie. By encouraging Tanya to “make uncle Larry happy” so that her daughter can “have the education [she] never had.” By sleeping with uncle Larry — because Tanya won’t anymore.
One third violence, one third family drama and one third Jamaican reggae — sprinkled with pedophilia and shamanism — “Dancehall Queen” is one of those movies that only gets away with it because it’s not set in the United States.
Or as the back of the DVD case puts it: “Dancehall Queen is a modern day Cinderella story, with no Prince Charming, but one very strong woman, backed by a pulsing reggae soundtrack and the scintillating sights of Kingston, Jamaica.”
It’s a dancehall thing.