Piece 29: The Square Root of [Im]possible

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

There comes a moment in Netflix’s Jingle Jangle when Journey, our cute, curious, precocious young heroine, sings a soliloquy of sorts. Journey is doggedly determined not to be discouraged by her curmudgeonly grandfather Jeronicus. Instead, she insists that he can reawaken his inner inventive genius, and that she, who has inherited his creative acumen, can forge a mutually nurturing relationship with him where previously there has been none. Journey trusts that she can help Grandpa J, as she calls him, rebuild this life and reputation as a fabulous toymaker. 

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Evening has just fallen, and Journey is looking dreamily out the front window of her Grandpa J’s storefont and home. Journey seems to ruminate on the challenge facing her: that she’s sought out her grandfather in order to deepen the connection she feels to him through their shared sense of wonder and curiosity. But despite Journey’s infectious sense of awe and wonder, and even despite her ability to see what Jeronicus himself no longer can, her beloved Grandpa J remains unmoved, having been emotionally distant and self-isolated for so long since grieving the death of his young wife, that he no longer dares to try to create what he once could.

Journey, nevertheless, persists.

She sings to herself and to us of all the possibilities she can see that no one else can. Of the dreams she holds onto for herself. Of the glory that lies in her own ability to believe she can rise above the obstacles in front of her by tapping into her own uniqueness and strength. 

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As a person with a name that’s difficult for some people to pronounce, I’ve had to insist on more than one occasion that a person who is new to my life make the effort to learn my name’s pronunciation rather than shortening it to suit their own preference not to try. So I can’t help but love Jeronicus Jangle’s name: a delightfully melodious mouthful of alliterative syllables. Jeronicus protests quietly throughout the movie at others’ shortening his name to “J” or “Jerry.” I noticed and appreciated that Jeronicus was named intentionally by his creator, all the more so since the movie is an instant classic that will soon expand its reach, as it is being adapted for the stage as well.

When I began watching Jingle Jangle a few days before Thanksgiving this year, I was aware only that it was a Christmas movie with black people in it. But shortly after the movie began its first musical number, I began to discover countless more reasons to love it. Jingle Jangle is grand, vibrant, soulful, and universally relatable – and at its center resides a deeply connected, if briefly estranged, black family. It possesses a fresh, imaginative plot; gorgeous, thoughtful costuming and styling; an upbeat soundtrack reminiscent of groovy, nostalgic R&B tunes; and not least of all stars a beautiful young black girl who loves inventions, employs math as her superpower to troubleshoot inventions, fiercely loves her family, and becomes the glue that reunites a father who had been estranged from his daughter.

For me, Jingle Jangle proves what’s possible when talented, experienced black creatives are granted the time, budget, and resources they need to bring their imaginings to life: we get the representation we long to see.

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When you watch Jingle Jangle, I hope you will move a step beyond passively taking in all the joy and beauty it offers to ask yourself when you last saw such lovingly crafted black characters on screen, how many heartwarming holiday movies uplift a wholesome image of a black family, and what it means for girls to see themselves represented as talented and determined and curious and bold.

I hope you’ll enjoy the movie, just as I did, and that you’ll keep coming back to this space so we can continue exploring all the possibilities that arise when we work to unlearn racial bias and cultivate peace in our communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 28: Soul

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Like many American parents of a certain age, we are Disney Plus subscribers. So when Disney announced that this year’s Pixar offering, Soul, would drop on this platform Christmas Day, we penciled it in as a film we would take in as a family during our holiday break.

I felt all at once excited and expectant to see this newest Pixar creation (all four of us have been fans of their films); nervous to see how  Pixar’s creative team displayed their  first black protagonist; and cautious due to having seen several thinkpieces floating around regarding criticism that big movie companies don’t tend to let black animated characters remain human for the length of their feature films. Having viewed the teaser-trailer for Soul before I first saw the aforementioned criticism, I was pretty sure the black character would not remain  human the entire time.

With all this in mind and heart, I snuggled up with my husband and our younger son to watch Soul last night.

**Spoilers ahead**

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The basic gist of the movie is that Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), the highly anticipated first black lead for Pixar, is a middle school music teacher who dreams of being a legit jazz musician. He wants to follow in the footsteps of his late father rather than accept the permanent teaching position he has been offered at the movie’s start. Joe therefore jumps at the chance to audition for a jazz quartet. In his excitement once he lands the gig, he falls into a manhole and wakes up as a human-body-less, blue teardrop-soul heading up a stairway toward a glorious light to which he isn’t ready to surrender. So, Joe jumps off the stairway, lands in a celestial cloud land of pre-born souls, and spends the next ninety-odd minutes learning afterlife and pre-life rules, mentoring and being mentored by a pre-born soul named 22, and ultimately deciding to volunteer ending his human life so that 22 can live for the first time.

Soul was not what I’d hoped. The core of my issues with the movie can be captured in three main points: 

  • 22 is voiced by a white woman. Some defenders of the movie have argued that even though Tina Fey provides 22’s voice, the character itself is genderless, sexless, raceless. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to criticize 22’s voice. However, the fact that 22 uses a middle-aged white woman’s voice to irritate people is a throwaway joke executed early in the movie. But the fact remains that within this plot, we are supposed to be aware of who 22 sounds like, even though 22 is not human – let alone a white woman.
  • During one of the film’s climactic moments, Joe (in the body of a cat) chases 22 (who is in Joe’s human body) and calls out, “You stole my body!” Let’s pause here. The movie has made an explicit point of attaching “middle-aged white woman” to the character of 22. Pixar has received months of hype and anticipation, maybe even a few accolades for its first black lead character in Joe Gardner. The viewer needn’t reach for the racial dynamics of the movie; they are laid bare for us. What this means is that when I find myself unable to separate voice and race from the character, I am simply paying attention to the story in front of me – not looking for problems where they don’t exist. Therefore, I cannot help but cringe at a line yelled by a black character and voiced by a black actor, at an admittedly genderless character voiced by a white woman, that is literally about the theft of the black character’s body. So much of the emotional weight I bear as a black American is married to this country’s fraught history of stolen land, stolen bodies, and shattered promises of a better life. Truly, we need only to turn to the internet to find a current example of a white woman trying to take from a black person something that does not belong to her. To leave this line in Soul is therefore either a disastrous, tone deaf oversight that indicates there were not nearly enough creators of color on the film’s decision-making teams, or it’s an insidious intentional slight the audience is meant to overlook or not care about.
  • After securing his own return to Earth – fulfilling his own mission – and beginning to live out his dream of being a professional jazz musician, Joe is not content. His mind is on 22, whom he will ultimately decide to trade his human life for, once he has returned to the heavens to check on her emotional state. We witness Joe rescue 22 from her lost soul state, hand over the Earth pass she flung at him in the last act, and then when 22 is still hesitant, escort her on her path to human life. So it ends up not being enough for Joe to actually fulfill his lifelong dream. Instead, he has to rescue the white-woman voiced preborn soul who tried to abscond with his human body. Only then, once he has looked imminent death in the face once more, is he able to find peace. In other words, Soul enmeshes its first black protagonist in a story that employs the oft-overused, never-needed, chain-rattling ghosts of the white savior and magical n*gro tropes.
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I have here shredded the very soul of Soul, I know. And such an intense critique can be easily dismissed as hyper-vigilance or a too-tight focus on expecting films to be flawless or politically correct in their representations of black characters. 

Neither is true.

Rather, it’s entirely appropriate for paying audiences to request that filmmakers give us their best and not table scraps. We pay to be entertained – month after month, year after year, movie after movie. Disney and Pixar profit because we pay for their products. And last I checked, the Disney Plus automatic account debit is never taken out a second later than it should be. So if Pixar is going to wait twenty-five years to give paying audiences a black protagonist, we can damned well insist they give us a thoughtful, human story – just as they have with all the white protagonists before.

Take Up, for example – a movie whose opening scenes still conjure tears. As the movie was made, it’s a beautiful, timeless story that teaches us about the depths of human connection and how you’re never too old to become a deeper, more caring version of yourself. But take a moment to mentally recast the film’s two lead characters – a lovably grumpy old man and a precocious young scout – as black. In so doing, you’ve lost nothing of the story’s beauty; instead, you’ve deepened it. You’ve added in layers of pain, separation, and even stigma – and you’ve maintained a beautifully redemptive story arc. We still soar into the heavens on the strength of a houseful of balloons. We still cry when Carl loses first the child he and Ellie had so hoped for, and later his lifelong partner and love herself. We maintain our memory of the grumpy neighbor on our block whom Carl reminded us of. We keep our wincing stare at Russell’s stubborn insistence on being a kid who gets to do what other kids get to do, even as he embraces independence and grows up. We still get to laugh at our own dogs every time they chase a squirrel in our backyard and we are reminded of Doug.

In truth, when we re-imagine a story we’ve already been given to make it a black story, we get more meaning, not less.

I hope that as you take in films and shows with your families as 2020 comes to a much-needed end and 2021 welcomes us, that you will pay close, critical attention to the stories we are being served. And to the disbelief we are being asked to suspend in exchange for assuaging the egoes of people we pay to entertain us.

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And as you watch, critique, and reflect, please sit with just one question: What does this particular character representation mean to people whom the character is meant to represent?

Keep watching and thinking, discussing and learning. And meet me back here next time. We will keep working together to construct peace in each of our lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 27: I Go To Prepare A Place For You

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

At the end of the movie Harriet, the images on the screen receive an overlay of several consecutive strings of text. These snippets tell the audience how Harriet Tubman spent her final years, which family members eventually joined her and lived out their days in freedom, and how many souls she rescued from bondage by leading them through the Underground Railroad to freedom.

We learn in the final moments of the movie that Harriet Tubman’s final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” In appropriately dramatic slow motion, as Tubman’s final words linger on the screen, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman turns and looks into the distance one final time, before entering the home where she will presumably reside until her death.

When I think about the life Tubman lived – dedicating herself wholly to liberating of her people from the brutalities of bondage, I am awestruck. 

In her childhood, Araminta Harriett Ross seemed a child like any other: a little too inquisitive at times, and prone to neglecting or half-doing work she didn’t think had value. 

But work she did – until one day she was struck by a weight thrown across the room to try and prevent another enslaved person from running away. This weight hit Tubman in the head, knocking her unconscious and causing an injury that resulted in her living with seizures and pain the rest of her life. It was these seizures that brought Tubman prophetic visions and dreams that would eventually lead her and others to freedom. 

As a film, Harriet is equal parts history, hero origin story, and fiction. For instance, there are two characters who feature prominently and don’t appear to be based on any real-life figures in Tubman’s life. One of them, a burly black character who helps to “hunt” Harriet down, is a particularly troublesome fictional character to insert. Why insert this black man as a villain when bondage itself should have been villain enough? Then, too, is the accuracy of Tubman’s slight stature, her mysterious way of staying safe as she traveled into and out of slaveholding territory numerous times, and the brief amount of screen time given to Tubman’s indispensable military service. And there’s an unmistakable largeness about Tubman’s character that very much paints her as a supernatural heroine: her visions, her steadfastness, her death threats to “cargo” that expressed a desire to turn and run mid-escape – which would have endangered the entirety of the given operation.

Harriet offers a beautiful mirrored-glass window into the soul of black folk. We look out and see her beauty and purposeful carriage, and we walk quickly to invite her essence into our hearts. But through the mirrored glass she cannot see us: the innumerable inheritors of the Promised Land in which she always believed but yet did not see. I feel deeply that through Tubman’s life story, we are allowed to glimpse the glorious legacy of black American resilience. Her faith, her deliberate consistency, her absolute dedication to a freedom-conveying vocation, embody the foundation of black American spiritual life: we are pressed but not crushed, and our spirits remain tethered to a love for and desire liberation brought to our kin.

For this reason, I hope you will watch Harriet this week. I hope you will marvel at the divine purpose evident in Tubman’s life, and let resonate within you deep gratitude at the spiritual inheritance she left for us all.

During this time of year, my Episcopalian heart feels a sense of longing. In Advent, I turn my heart and mind to the coming of the incarnate Christ. It is not therefore lost on me this week that when Tubman uttered on her deathbed, “I go to prepare a place for you,” that she was borrowing from the Christ in whom she believed and trusted. Tubman knew then, as we do now, that our present labors are not in vain but rather serve a purpose and a people whom we may not see but who will nonetheless reap the benefit of our present work.

As you watch the film and reflect on the inner longings of your heart, whatever they may be, I hope you will consider the following questions:

  • What do you long for, in the deepest place in your heart? Is it peace in your home, community, or the earth as a whole?
  • Where does your work connect with that deepest heart longing? If you are unable to connect to that sense of longing in your daily income-producing work, how can you incorporate pursuit of your heart-work into your off-work hours? 
  • When you consider who your heroes are in life today as well as in history books, what anchors them? What sense of purpose motivated them? 
  • Are any of the people you consider heroes people who don’t look like you? Why do you think that is? How can you expand your ideas of people and actions that are heroic to be inclusive? How might you benefit from doing so?

Like many of you, I am ready to see the tail end of this year on its way out the door. I hope that 2021 brings us times of health and peace. Let’s keep doing what we can to construct the peace we want to see in our lives by meeting back here to keep reading, watching, listening and acting – one piece at a time.

Piece 26: Dreamgirls

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

And we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time. 

When the curtain opens on the musical Dreamgirls, we meet three hopeful, gushing young women. Deena, Lorell, and Effie are dressed alike in slightly homemade-looking dresses, and fluttering about a 1960s backstage area of an auditorium as they prepare to go on stage for a talent show. Within a few moments, they will take to the stage and absolutely dazzle their audience. Effie is a vocal powerhouse, and when she takes center stage, neither the singing group’s audience nor the movie’s audience can turn their eyes away. We dance and sing with them, allowing the infectious beat of “Move Right Out of My Life” to express its groove through our bodies’ response.

And we keep dancing with the Dreamettes as they luck into becoming background singers for an already established James Thunder Early. We continue twirling and singing with the trio as they fake their way to the top with Jimmy, watching as young, innocent Lorell at first resists and then gives in to Jimmy’s advances. We are swept up in a whirlwind of R&B music that pauses briefly, only to illuminate that the band’s struggles to maintain success are due to white artists stealing and re-recording their music.

Eventually, the band’s struggles grow too large, and under the guidance of Curtis, their manager and Effie’s beau, the Dreamettes re-structure and emerge as a group all their own: the Dreamgirls, with Deena, who is soft-spoken and thinner than Effie, as lead singer. In Curtis’s professional opinion, Deena’s replacement of Effie as the face of the group is necessary for the group to be able to reach white kids and thereby expand the demographics of their audience. Curtis sees in the Dreamgirls what he never could see in Jimmy Early: the possibility of a racially integrated, incredibly lucrative revenue stream.

We the audience laugh and sing and cry and dance our way through the eventual dissolution of the group, the demise of Jimmy Early, the revelation of Curtis’s underhanded methods of ensuring his success, and the liberation of Deena from his stifling control. Finally, we cry with Magic, Effie’s daughter, as the movie ends with a briefly reunited quartet of Dreamgirls serenading us with the song that launched their success story at the beginning of their career. 

The title track of the musical Dreamgirls croons that “every man has his own special dream, and that dream’s just about to come true.” 

What is unfortunately true is that in many cases, as in the case of popular white singers of the 50s and 60s, dreams that black singers had for the success of their careers were cut short due to white artists’ covering their songs without giving black artists credit or royalties. In other words, while Dreamgirls is a fictionalized story based loosely on the real-life story of the Supremes, the musical nonetheless highlights an indelible truth: during the 60s, white recording artists frequently took credit for black art.

In fact, girl groups just like our fictional Dreamgirls, played an important role in integrating pop culture. They were able to reach across and unite previously divided audiences. 

There’s another truth revealed here, too. For black Americans, we are often told in explicit and implicit ways when our acknowledgement and celebration of our blackness is welcome, and when it is not. We are sought out and lauded for athletic prowess and for entertainment, but when we access a facet of our identity that leads us into activism and advocacy, we are smacked down by the dominant culture – told to shut up and dribble

I see this tension at play in the musical history that Dreamgirls brings to light. I suspect that white culture resisted black music and black artists for as long as it did because the culture itself knew that accepting black artists as valid would mean extending the same acceptance to black people as a whole. This, too, is why at times black celebrities are told to stick to what they know: it’s a defensive measure designed to uphold white supremacy and withhold acceptance of black agency.

Too often, the product black people create – be it music, cinema, clothing, poetry, or something else entirely – is embraced by our country’s dominant culture. But we – the three-dimensional human beings creating the product – are left out in the cold.

This, the cold shoulder of our country’s dominant culture, illuminates why black Americans sometimes seem ultra-sensitive regarding cultural appropriation and cancel culture. Black Americans have labored decades and centuries to create and sustain an identity that celebrates and nourishes us – persisting throughout repeated, sustained racist policies like Jim Crow laws and voter suppression. Yet if we excel at performing in a way the dominant culture views as entertaining or valuable, the dominant culture demands we suppress our celebration of our people’s identity. On the other hand, if white people celebrate an aspect of black cultural identity, or if they speak out on our behalf, we are often expected to be appreciative only and never hurt or critical. 

It’s enough to make a person want to holler, and throw up both their hands.

This week, I hope you will watch Dreamgirls and be drawn in by its special, glittery magic. I hope you’ll see the beauty and richness of our cultural identity woven into the story. I hope that you’ll take time afterward to briefly research the actors on the cast list. Several actors from the original Broadway musical’s cast appear in the film, which is a treasure for those of us who grew up knowing this story and its songs because they provided a meaningful portion of the soundtrack to our childhood. I hope that as you learn about the cast, you’ll dig a bit into the real life person whom Effie was modeled after. In real life, that “Effie” didn’t get to have a triumphant comeback.

I hope, too, that as you take in Dreamgirls in all its glory, that you’ll take a moment to reflect on the aspects of identity that are lost when people groups are ripped from their homes and countries of origin. Let rest in your mind the idea that cultural identity is so important to many black Americans because we understand the struggle inherent in constructing that identity. 

I earnestly, truly hope that you’ll gain a new or renewed appreciation for the identity black Americans have hewn out of a fraught history in this country: working, building, loving, and celebrating our way to a joyous and rich shared identity.

And I hope you’ll consider these questions:

  • What parts of your cultural identity do you feel a strong emotional attachment to? 
  • How would you feel if someone who doesn’t share your culture gleefully displayed a part of it for themselves while simultaneously discouraging your own expression of your culture? 
  • How about if they profited financially from this display of your culture without crediting your culture as its origin?
  • Is it necessary to physically put on a physical representation of another culture in order to celebrate it?

Join me back again here next week, and we’ll brush off the shimmery, dreamy stardust from Dreamgirls as we continue building peace in our homes and communities and selves, one piece at a time.