Wednesday, January 31, 2024

American Fictions

On a whim, I decided to take in a movie one afternoon last week. I had spent the morning preparing some projects for completion, and after feeling accomplished, I pulled out my phone to check movie times. One of the promises I made to myself for my 50th birthday was to make space to do for myself, so I sped home to complete a few more tasks before making my way to the theater.

In making the choice between American Fiction (2023) and Origin (2024), I went with American Fiction because I had to miss an advanced free screening of it last month. I'm sure that was due to some pre-holiday family obligations, so I figured that it might have less time left in theaters (even with its Oscar nominations). I had read the buzz about this movie sometime last Fall after it took awards at some film festival, and was intrigued by the premise of satirizing white liberalism and its patronizing impact on Black art.

Now before you read further, I should warn you that this piece will contain some plot spoilers. Therefore, if you haven't seen the movie, read the book Erasure (2001) by Percival Everett from which it was adapted, and/or haven't read this review, for example, then I suggest that you come back another time. However, in the spirit of rooting for everybody Black, I do recommend seeing this film. Unequivocally! Now that I have said that, yes, I am about to offer some critiques, so strap in if you are so inclined to read on and learn why it provoked a visceral emotional reaction from me.

It is about 10-15 minutes into this film that we get to the subplot of three adult children having to confront the realities of caregiving for an aging parent. As someone who has been living that life for more than a decade, I immediately recognized the family dynamics as similar to my own. In the character of the older sister Lisa, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, I saw (here comes the spoiler as I rip the bandage off) when she DIES unexpectedly, I got stuck in my feelings and never recovered.

What if that happens to me? How would my untimely death impact my husband and daughter, two brothers and their families, and my parents? If art truly imitates life, then my best guess is that I will be forgotten as soon as the ashes scatter. As I watched the drama unfold between two egomaniacal younger brothers who don't miss a beat in moving on with their self-destructive lives without their sister, I ate my truffle buttered popcorn-flavored feelings and watched what felt like a possible alternative ending to my own life.

Yeah, it cut that close to my bones; it was personal and profoundly sad. So much so that I texted a friend to playfully scold him for not telling me that in advance that American Fiction would probably make me cry, and his response was a sardonic echo of my original text. Sensing that he either intentionally missed my point or was being an ass, his response is partly why I feel compelled to vent about how shitty it is, in what was otherwise a brilliant film, that no one seems to be all that broken up about the abrupt and sudden death of the person who had been managing EVERYTHING for her family to the point that it literally KILLS her!

Before you metaphorically reach out to pat me on the head and urge me to calm down it's just a movie, let me point out the irony of a film that indicts the way society prefers to see Black lives presented (flat, stereotypical, and tragic) and how it does the exact same thing in its depiction of Black women. In the course of exploiting several Hollywood tropes to their humorous heights and tragic depths, this film offers a layered story within a story within a story allegory of so many "fictions" we choose to believe. In other words, it is The Colored Museum (1986) meets Hollywood Shuffle (1987) meets A Strange Loop (2020) with some of the better episodes of black-ish (2014-2022) mixed in. Brilliant.

Beginning with Monk (the always mesmerizing Jeffrey Wright), the tortured, lonely genius and his brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), the gay black sheep of the family, both of those representations hold the center. There are supported by several stock minor characters: the cheerful (funny) gays, the noble Latinx allies, and the various versions of white liberals. As each successive white character appears, I chuckled at how they could have been plucked from a shelf in a bookstore labeled "prototypical white liberal" (which correlates to a scene in the film that occurs right before it delivers that first emotional gut punch). And then finally, there is the Chorus: five Black women who consist of two Black best friends and three selfless Black matriarchs who are all flat, stereotypical, tragic...and expendable. 

Of course, that may be just my opinion, and I recognize that might be another veiled reference to the entire point of this film. Traditional Black narratives written and produced by Black men often relegate Black women to the sidelines in service to the story. Rarely do we get full-dimensional wives, mothers, or daughters in these stories because the narrative is usually centered on the Black experience through the lens of its Black male protagonists. Seemingly aware of this blind-spot, in the scene where Monk is complimented for his ability to write fully developed female characters, it just so happens to follow within minutes of his sister's hasty heavenly departure. This struck me as kind of an obvious little white lie given that is the opposite of how the Black women in this film are treated. 

Therefore, as screenwriter and director Cord Jefferson is surely winking back at us in calling out Monk's wealthy white patrons as modern-day versions of Charlotte Osgood Mason and Carl Van Vechten, his other choices feel similarly intentional. At various points, Monk dispatches every Black woman in his orbit with little to no sentimentality. When he moves his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) into the nursing home, there are no tears, no second thoughts, no long embrace goodbye; instead, the scene ends with his brother's hurt feelings over a homophobic remark. And there she is left alone in Boston even though Monk and his brother both live out West (and ride off together to the Hollywood Hills in the end). The faithful family housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), is married off, but not before it is casually suggested that she could be fired to save money. Is it really a coincidence that she happens to rekindle an old flame to save Monk from having to do the unthinkable? The promise of a meaningful romantic relationship with Coraline (Erika Alexander) is dashed by his insufferable ego. Of course, it is doomed from the moment when he jokingly asks for her name after he spends the night with her, and we (the audience) realize we were never formally introduced. Monk's duplicity with Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) all but ensures that they will be professional rivals, never friends.

Which brings me back to Lisa, the older sister (rather, it is my assumption that she is the eldest, because that is the birth-order responsibility I hold in my family). I couldn't help but to see myself reflected back from the screen, so admittedly, I might not be separating fact from fiction in my response to her demise. Yet, isn't it peculiar that from my seat in the audience, I had a more emotional reaction to the death of this fictional character than what unfolds onscreen? 

All of the signs of her impending demise are revealed in the short time we become acquainted with her: stress from a recent divorce, concern over finances, a dangerous job, and the prospect of caring for her mother without consistent family support. To cope, she mentions that she has resumed smoking. That she dies isn't all that shocking nor is the timing, given all of that build up (almost as if one could imagine her arteries hardening). It is the way everyone just moves on--gee, it sucks that older Sis no longer here to keep the lights on, remind Mom to put on her wig, recognize that younger brother is an impulsive dope fiend, etc., but we'll manage. They spend more time mourning their long-dead philandering father who committed suicide...

Indulge me for a few more paragraphs while I pivot from the film to address the parallels to my own life. At some point before my 40th birthday, I had a conversation with another friend about caregiving in the early stages of my Mom's dementia diagnosis. She shared a story about an aunt of hers who had been the family matriarch/caregiver until she died unexpectedly. While the family mourned her loss as they had looked to this Sister/Auntie to handle everything, miraculously they were all capable of doing for themselves. The selfless matriarch who had devoted her life to her family was dead while those whom she supported/enabled/stood in the gap for kept right on living. That story altered my thinking about much, including my decision to pursue motherhood and my writing. I thought my family would appreciate my sacrifices...until it began to feel more like they expected them. Then it dawned on me that I might wake up one day at 45 years old as a bitter, possibly divorced woman with no family of my own. Or dead like my friend's aunt, or like the fictional Lisa.

Thankfully, I'm not dead yet.

But now that I am 50 years old and see similar patterns emerging, including being the Momager of my daughter's life, I am serious about remembering to take time to care for ME in the midst of caring for everyone else. That is exactly how I ended up at the movies that day because I was carving out time for myself after a particularly stressful week of dealing with a broken furnace, negotiating home health care issues, rescheduling doctor appointments, attending Zoom meetings, and being a Girl Scout/Dance Mom. Later that evening when I was out grocery shopping for healthy snacks and food for my parents, I picked up a second bouquet of flowers. Because damn if I'm going to drop dead and not have any flowers to enjoy while I am still able to smell them!

I'm not suggesting that it is Cord Jefferson's responsibility to circle back to a minor character's subplot to address the mythology versus the reality of the Black Superwoman. In a more perfect American fictional world, that would have been Sintara Golden's literary contribution instead of more baby mama drama. Far from accusing Jefferson or Percival Everett of dropping the ball, it is more accurate to suggest that they dropped some heavy hints that there is so much more to Black lives than slogans and advertising campaigns. That, and the tongue in cheek digs that Tyler Perry is neither a Black everyman nor is his Madea character every woman...and both of them need to stop crowding out other Black voices. 

There is room on bookstore shelves, on stage, and on screen for Black stories that explore the full range of our humanity, including our health disparities and outcomes; the challenges of caring for our elders; and the mistakes we make in raising our children. As we learned from Issa Rae, it doesn't all have to be that heavy--we can mine our bad relationship choices, professional setbacks and stumbles, and our dysfunctional families for five seasons of hilarious material. To paraphrase the late great author Toni Morrison, if there are stories that we want to see that haven't been written or filmed yet, then we must put in the work to see that those projects come to life. 

I feel those words as clearly as I felt sorrow for a fictional dead woman, so the universe must be trying to tell me something. Stay tuned...