Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…
Acts 10:34-35 (NRSV)
…and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth,
Acts 17:26a (KJV)
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Given how clichéd the romantic genre has become, we could regard the title of director Sanaa Hamri and writer by Kriss Turner’s film as a self-imposed challenge. I am happy to report that they and their charming cast rise to the occasion, embedding important questions about interracial relationships in what otherwise would be a conventional date movie. This would be a good film to pair with a discussion of Crash, the former adding a light touch to balance the seriousness of the latter. In the Summer issue we reviewed a similar film that stood 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? on its head, Guess Who?, although this film is really closer in mood to Far from Heaven.
Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) is such a highly competent senior financial wiz that she has advanced far beyond being the token African-American at her all white firm—she is about to advance from manager to full partner. Daughter of parents at the top level of black society in Los Angeles, she is currently so consumed by her work that she has neglected the social side of her calendar, although her close friends keep trying to fix her up. Her intention is to meet and marry an IBM, which in her non-military parlance means Intelligent Black Man. Imagine her consternation when a friend fixes her up with a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker), and he turns out to be a white man. He is totally comfortable with this, but she is not, so she walks away after less than five minutes of awkward conversation.
However, she has just bought her first house, nice and comfortable, but with an overgrown backyard that looks like it should be added to EPA’s dumpsite clean-up list. The one thing that now interests her about Brian is that he is a gardener, no, a landscape architect, so she takes out the card he had given her and calls him to look over and see what he can do with her yard. He, of course, has all kinds of creative suggestions, and soon is there every day—and, wouldn’t you know it, soon is turning that creativity toward Kenya as well, pointing out how she has traded her natural hair arrangement for a longer and straighter one in keeping with white expectations.
There are some usual formulaic scenes, such as getting caught and then kissing in the rain, but these are offset by so many insightful ones that the film emerges as that rarity of Hollywood films, one that makes the viewer more aware of some of the issues that continue to keep us apart in a racist, classist society.
I write “classist” because, as in Far From Heaven, which itself was a skillful reworking of the old Douglas Sirk film that attacked classism, All That Heaven Allows (a more apt title which would be All That Society Allows), classism is as much a part of Kenya’s family as reverse racism. When her brother Nelson (Donald Faison) brings his current girlfriend by to see her new house, he refuses to shake hands when Kenya introduces him to Brian. A moment later he replies to her quiet remonstrance by saying what should be obvious to her, “He’s the help.” We see where he is coming from in the scene at which the McQueens sit at a table and watch the latest batch of young black debutante’s formally presented to society at a formal cotillion. It is a pleasure to see the understanding dawning on Kenya’s face at how foolish and frivolous such a thing, with all of its attendant snobbery, really is.
Earlier, as Kenya and Brian become a couple, and he accompanies her about, various of the black men make observations privately to Brian with barely concealed disapproval. Not only is Nelson upset by her choice of a companion, but her parents also are very cool to Brian. At a stand-up comedy club the black comedienne, declaring that she never would date a white man, makes putdowns about white men that must have been a test of Brian’s patience, though he sits there and smiles.
Later we see that that patience does have limits, as he and Kenya argue in a grocery store about her always “talking black” when they are together. She wants to tell him about the disrespectful way she had been treated by a client that day, but he is tired and edgy, and does not want to listen. Very telling are the looks of support that several black customers offer to Kenya as they argue in the aisles and at the checkout counter. (Rarely does a film explore racial attitudes so bluntly!) They go their separate ways, with she meeting a true IBM Mark (Blair Underwood), kind and considerate and very wealthy.
Will Kenya and Brian get back together? Silly question, of course, as this is a Hollywood romantic comedy. But it is made by a director and a writer who are interested in more than just entertaining us. It is in what they show happening along the way to that Happy Ending in which they bring “something new,” and something very welcome to the genre. Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker are perfect for their parts, with such great “chemistry”, as film publicists call it, between them that we easily accept all of the formulaic parts of the film out of gratitude for the insightful ones. The more I think about it, the more I believe that this light little film has as much to teach us about racism, especially from the viewpoint of well off African-Americans, as the more serious Crash.
1) What other films depict a main character who is as totally focused on a career as is Kenya? What must they learn in order to become more rounded human beings? What makes Kenya’s situation even more complicated?
2) What did you think of the way in which her new client reacted to her? Do you think that sexism, as well as racism, was a part of the client’s problem of accepting her recommendations? What do you think of the many mentions of “the black tax” by the blacks? The film does not bring this up, but how is Affirmative Action also a frequent problem for African-American professionals in becoming respected in their fields?
3) Maybe not so significant, but a neat touch: when Kenya exhibits great fear of a spider, what does Brian send her as a gift? How does the book later show that she is opening up to him and his values? Indeed, in what ways do we see Brian as an agent of grace in the film>?
4) Continuing with Brian, from what does he release Kenya? How are her brother and mother Joyce McQueen (Alfre Woodard, in a very unusual role for her), also captives? For those with lots of time, it might be interesting to work up a “back story” of how Brian became so liberated himself.
5) What do you think of Brian’s comments about the color schemes of Kenya’s house and clothing? In what ways does she need a touch of color?
6) How does the argument in the grocery store bring out the fallible nature of Brian? A realistic, revealing touch? How difficult do you think it is for two people from different racial backgrounds to blend their lives? Do you think it is the Big Issues, or some of the small assumptions, opinions, and experiences that are the most difficult to work through? How does this film, as viewed from a black perspective, go far beyond old white liberal films, such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or Driving Miss Daisy?
7) Good scene: Kenya is with two of her African-American friends, and one tells her, among other things, “At the end of the day it’s not about skin color, but about the love connection…” 8)Another encouraging scene: Kenya gives her unwelcome advice to her bigoted client, and when he demands another opinion, is sent out of the room; and then as little later her white boss comes in, congratulates her for sticking to her guns, and gives her the advance news that she will be voted into partnership. Good to see that some corporations are free of racism, isn’t it?
9) How does Dr. McQueen’s advice to his daughter show that he has gained in wisdom during the course of the film? (Or his earlier comment to his wife, “The boy’s just white,” her father tells her mother. “He’s not a Martian.”) What does the film say about our moving toward Dr. King’s dream of “the Beloved Community”? Are all the obstacles on the white side of the racial divide? What can you and your church do to move our society toward that vision?