No Safe Space For Blackness
On Sunday, my mom and I went to go see Jumping the Broom, which is nominally a comedy and which is, more importantly, a movie starring a predominantly black cast that's not directed by Tyler Perry. The discussion we had beforehand revolved around rewarding Hollywood for actually making the thing, regardless of quality; seeing a mediocre romantic comedy became a chance to send a message that there are audiences willing to see movies starring largely minority casts. It outdid the similarly programmed Something Borrowed, so in some ways, it may have worked.
Unfortunately, it also required us to sit through a treacherously terrible movie. The movie was produced by megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes, which means that it's not a bad comedy. It's a bad sermon with some poorly timed jokes thrown in. The core plot of the movie focuses on the relationship between Sabrina (Paula Patton) and Jason (Laz Alonso). Sabrina begins the movie by asking God not to let her "give away her cookies" anymore after waking up in the apartment of an otherwise committed man following a one-night stand – and yes, by "cookies", she does mean her vagina. She takes a vow of abstinence until marriage, and then almost immediately meets Jason by hitting him with her car. Because he's her soulmate, he tends not to mind the fact that she just rammed an Audi into his ass, and six months later, they're engaged.
Despite the inability of either lead to deliver a line in a way that isn't either annoying or focused on the absolute intensity of their injury-based love, we proceed to their wedding and meet their families. It's a standard premise: her family is a bunch of snooty elites, and his family is a bunch of working-class commoners. Culture clashes ensue, and things generally turn out okay, I suppose.
The hard part here isn't the banal plot. It's how the movie treats these competing models of blackness, and ends up coming to a determination that both are flawed. Sabrina's family and friends are a broad stereotype of bougie blackness, impossibly attractive, needlessly materialistic, and consumed with melodrama. Her parents are in a loveless marriage, and her friends are snobbish jerks; they've rejected the slave tradition referenced in the movie's title (and at one point, her mother even declares that the family used to own slaves, because it was in no way necessary to the plot).
Jason's family, on the other hand, is a walking pastiche of hoodness, from the uncle who's been married four times to the mother that doesn't know what various foods are; it's the mother's incessant meddling (after praying on it, of course) that ends up nearly destroying the wedding. The movie is supposed to serve as an endorsement of abstinent commitment and faith in a Christian God, but what it becomes is a broad critique of How Black People Live.
Sabrina and Jason are both upwardly mobile young people who have well-paying jobs doing things in large buildings, but they rush into a marriage based on her self-esteem issues and career path (she's moving to China in two months, so they have to get married). Jason is a confused, bland man whose main contribution to the plot is proving that people who come from little means can gain success. The rest of the cast is a group of jealous, horny, possessive assholes of various stripes who all cling fiercely to the things that give them a specific cultural identity. The only person who seems happy and healthy is, of course, T.D. Jakes in his cameo as the wedding pastor.
It's hard enough to find positive, normal portrayals of black families, even if the families have flaws. It becomes that much harder when we fall into the Perry/Jakes trap of portraying all black people as irrevocably flawed until some sage reminds them of the true path, whether it be Jesus or a cross-dressing narcissist who's richer than God. There are two undercurrents here: the first is a wait for another black leader, another Martin or Malcolm; the second is a fundamental discomfort with the lives of black folk. There's an image of socioeconomic normalization in the white community, where everyone can aspire to an uncontroversial middle-classness, but that doesn't exist with nearly the same certainty in the black community.
What comes out of that uncertainty are movies like Jumping the Broom, where a discomfort with the ability to remain authentically black at any level results in a critique of blackness at every level. The disturbing undercurrent of this is that it turns Perry into Jakes into something more than entertainers; depending on your viewpoint, they either become prophets of the banal or predators feasting on the uncertainty of black adaptation. Neither are particularly beneficial to black people, but following them makes you feel like you're doing something, even if it's just outdoing a terrible John Kraczynski romcom.