Gentle readers, I hereby plug something that’s given me an inordinate amount of pleasure recently: HBO’s mini-series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” I’ve been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s mystery series of the same name for many years–they’re an understated, graceful and wise look at life, with an unforgettable heroine: Precious Ramotswe of Gaborone, Botswana, the lady detective of the title.
The series is a gentle, often witty, portrayal of modern African life–a stark contrast to the atrocity reports from the 24-hour news cycle, or the grit and violence of South Africa’s recent Oscar winner Tsotsi. From the soaring vocals of “Botswana wa Tsabakela” in the opening credits to the brilliant desert light that bathes every scene, the series is an unashamed love letter to Botswana. In fact, Botswana is such a central character that author Alexander McCall Smith–who was born and raised in Southern Africa–insisted that the series be filmed there, using local talent for its film crews, extras and bit players.
American R&B singer Jill Scott is a revelation as Precious Ramotswe. This series may be the first time I’ve ever seen a “traditionally built” black woman entirely avoid the “sassy sista” stereotype. In a lovely, subtle performance, Scott’s every word and gesture speaks to her character’s innate decency, compassion and love of justice. It reportedly took two years to cast the role, and when he first saw the Philadelphian-born Scott in character, McCall Smith told her she was Mma Ramotswe “just as I’ve always envisioned her.” American actress Anika Noni Rose and Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msmati play Mma Ramotswe’s assistant and friend, Mma Makutsi, and her ever-patient love interest, Mr. JLB Matekoni. There are multiple cameos by notable English and American actors, including CCH Pounder, Colin Salmon, Paterson Joseph, and His Handsomness, Idris Elba (again playing a suavely evil crime boss). The one false note for me was the addition of a gay hairdresser character not in McCall Smith’s books–who, while charming, is straight out of gay sidekick central casting.
Although this quintessentially African story was produced and written by white filmmakers, there are no Caucasian characters. No white folks drop in to “educate” black Africans, or admire the nobility of indigenous cultures or give us hokey warm fuzzies about racial harmony. The small-town mysteries of life in Mma Ramotswe’s Gabarone are mercifully free of the usual Western stereotypes and agendas.
The series is also an homage to the extraordinariness of ordinary women. Alexander McCall Smith wrote of Precious Ramotswe: “There is no real person on whom I have based these books, but there are many women in Botswana who are very much like her – tolerant, kind, and possessed of a dignity that defies cynicism. Again, I think that people throughout the world want to believe in such a person. Our age has a violent face; we feel the need of somebody like Mma Ramotswe who offers forgiveness rather than confrontation and recrimination. Such people are there; we need only give them the space to breathe, the chance to talk to us.”