'Phat Girlz' Triggers Debate in Black Community

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Nnegest Likke.

Phat Girlz director Nnegest Likke. Internet Movie Database hide caption

itoggle caption Internet Movie Database

Nnegest Likke, the writer and director of the movie Phat Girlz, talks with Ed Gordon about the film's bittersweet box office numbers — it cost $3 million to produce, and it's earned close to $6.5 million.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. We'll get to our roundtable panel in just a moment, but first we wanted to look at the issue of support of black films and positive images. Earlier this month, we spoke with comedian and actress Mo'Nique about her starring role in the movie Phat Girlz. She plays a self-assured, aspiring fashion designer who's trying to find love and acceptance as a plus-sized woman.

(Soundbite of movie "Phat Girlz")

Ms. MO'NIQUE: (As Jazmin Biltmore) So as pretty as you girls are, if you've got to clown somebody else just to feel good about yourself, then you must feel pretty damn ugly inside. And if that's the case, do me a favor. Stop hatin', 'cause I'm plump like a roast and thicker than most.

GORDON: Since the movie's opening on April 7th, the film has grossed about $6.5 million. Many believed the movie was going to make a bigger splash than it did. The film's writer and director, Nnegest Likke, said she was disappointed with the box office numbers and hoped that black America would have shown more support for what she says was a positive black story. After reading a number of criticisms about her movie, many written by people who didn't even see the film, she wrote a response letter to the website decrying the lack of support her film received from people of color. The director explains why she spoke up.

Ms. NNEGEST LIKKE (Director and Writer, Phat Girlz): What I didn't want was people to think I was complaining, per se, but I did want to be very clear. And I wouldn't say the black community, that wide. I would say the silent majority, I would say, which didn't get the numbers, you know, into the $15 million range, at least with such a positive message. I appreciate the people who came out and supported and loved the film. I think a lot of people prejudged, and that's the disappointing part.

GORDON: How much do you believe there's any credence in, perhaps a better job of marketing could have been done here?

Ms. LIKKE: I can't even testify to say that the way it was marketed is "wrong" or not. I felt like if it didn't appeal to the masses, that I was confident that word of mouth--movies like Thank You For Smoking, which opened in a very limited release got a huge word of mouth from its audiences, which were primarily white America. And white America, when they go see a film that's not marketed really wide or whatever, they hear about it. And they tell each other, and they go.

GORDON: When you think about what some of the other movies have made, that certainly are less significant on the idea of trying to showcase a positive experience for blacks, is it the idea that perhaps those of us who pushed this aren't getting it? Perhaps we're missing the idea that maybe, maybe the audience doesn't want to see that?

Ms. LIKKE: That was my initial emotional reaction. I mean, here's a film, on so many levels, that was a first. You know, a lot of women are plus-sized. And I have to say that, as a filmmaker, I was not trying to make a film to promote fat or being overweight. The character happened to be plus-size, but that wasn't what the film was about at all (unintelligible).

GORDON: It really was very much a love story.

Ms. LIKKE: Oh my God, black love. I thought that blacks were really as starving as I was to see black love on the screen--black romance. Not just a comedy of romance, but a real romance.

GORDON: Well, Nnegest, here's the good thing. We know, particularly for the African-American community, there is a huge life in the secondary, and that's the DVD market. And so let's hope that people start to hear you in interviews like this and start to understand that it may not be at first blush what you thought. But know this, you've come a long way in doing what most don't even get an opportunity to do. And we just want to thank you for coming on and sharing your words with us today. We appreciate it.

Ms. LIKKE: Thank you, Ed. Can I close by saying I feel incredible blessed to have had this opportunity, and I love my people. And I do want to continue to make films that nourish our needs and our desires and our wants, and I do hope the DVD does well. And please don't buy it on bootleg. Go see it on-it's still in theaters actually, so you can still see it in the theaters. And if you don't catch it in theaters, get it on DVD.

GORDON: All right. So the brother that comes into my barbershop every Saturday with that big bag, I promise I won't buy it.

Ms. LIKKE: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: All right. Thank you.

You can hear my interview with comedian Mo'Nique, the star of Phat Girlz, by going on our website at NPR.org.

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