When I watched the preview/trailer for Mr. Church, my first thoughts were, “Oh! Eddie Murphy!” followed quickly by, “He’s playing a servant, which for a black guy reminds me of slavery. This feels wrong,” followed by, “Crap! Another trailer that reveals the whole movie.” And, if it weren’t for my incredibly strong desire to see Eddie Murphy in a role that can only be categorized as drama, I probably wouldn’t have seen it.
However, Murphy was enough.
I don’t know how many spoilers this will contain. I don’t really think about things like that. Consider that fair SPOILER ALERT.
When I went to see the movie it was with the bias that I didn’t care for the idea of a black man taking care of two white women. And it’s not because I’m racist. I don’t think I’m racist. I’ll leave that to you. I didn’t like it because I thought it would send the message that back people serving white people is okay, which would then validate slavery or economic disenfranchisement.
After the movie got out I found that relationship still troubled me. Then, I flipped it around in my mind. What if it had been a black family and a white man coming and helping out? “Oh, then it’s the white savior complex, as though black people can’t help themselves!”
What struck me was that the only difference between the slave narrative and the hero narrative was race. In other words, the situation could be either, which means it’s actually neither and any leaning in either direction is actually imposed by the viewer, in this case, me.
Of course, the feminist in me now makes the argument, “Why does the mother and daughter need the help of a man at all? Why can’t they just take care of themselves? While I fully support the fact that women are equally capable of most tasks as men, and more capable of other tasks than men, the idea that some people need help from other people at some times makes us stronger as a species, not weaker.
And the story of Mr. Church reveals that not only does Mr. Church give to the two ladies what they needed, they give to him the thing that he lacks. So, rather than being a story of charity or of hero, it’s a story of symbiosis, which again I think makes us stronger.
Mr. Church is an amazing movie, not because it doesn’t deal with the race issue because it does. There are two ways to talk about racism in a meaningful way:
1. Talk about racism directly. See: Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Mississippi Burning, Glory, Amistad, etc.
2. Show what the world could be in the absence of racism. This version is so rarely done because it’s so hard to do well, usually erring in the direction of some person coming into the situation to highlight the difference between our problematic world and the ideal world. See: Star Trek TNG.
The more I think about Mr. Church, the more I think it’s a profound discussion on race relations in a time we need it most. It breaks down the us/them barrier in a way so powerful it can easily be seen as ignoring them.
Oh, and Eddie Murphy is great. I hope he takes more dramatic roles.