“Chef” and Passion

I’m trying to get into my summer groove after juggling too many things at once since the school year ended (a summer course, friends from out of town in and out of Brooklyn, my dear mother) and it’s been more overwhelming than usual. I have a lot I want to write, more that I need to write, and the regular mix of summer reading. And I’ve willingly fallen into World Cup madness. It’s all fun (even the teaching), but it means I’m bouncing from thing to thing and trying to keep track of too many schedules that are not my own. I want and need to get back to a slower flow and my own rituals.

This is why, even though I was in for the evening and about to have dinner, I decided to see “Chef.” I knew next to nothing about it and hadn’t even paid real attention to the trailer. It’s just as well because I might have skipped it other wise. I’m ambivalent about Jon Favreau but find Sofia Vergara grating and can never get past Robert Downey Jr.’s smug-I’m-so-clever personae.

There’s nothing new about the story, and Favreau isn’t all that convincing as a father figure, even an ineffective one, but the movie is pretty perfect anyway. You can see the plot unfolding from the very start, but plot twists are not the goal here. In fact, knowing how it’s all going to unfold is what makes it so pleasurable. In the first place, it’s a gorgeous visual ode to the art and joy of cooking. It’s a movie for foodies but also for anyone who has ever enjoyed the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. It’s a road trip about towns and neighborhoods that could be trite but manages to feel authentic. I also loved seeing a story about men being friends and bonding without making adulthood (or women) the enemy.

The few times I’ve seen Sofía Vergara her performance seems to be all about how sexy and exotic she is. It’s as if no one knows how to show her in any way but over-the-top-how-is-that-even-possible beautiful. But here she is a kind, wise compassionate woman who also happens to be over-the-top-how-is-that-even-possible beautiful. She’s a more mellow version of what we usually see, and she’s even more beautiful because of it. Downey should always play sly assholes. He’s really good at it.

So see the movie for all these reasons. And see it because it’s funny and easy to slip into, and the soundtrack is terrific. But you should also see it to remind yourself of what it means to feel passionate about a thing—passionate beyond all reason, to the point where it keeps you up nights. This isn’t a movie about dilettantes pretending to give a damn but about craft that has to be practiced and perfected in order for those lucky enough to have a thing to feel whole and complete. And it’s about enjoying that craft in the company of friends who understand and celebrate your thing and laugh with and at you when it’s all looking pretty bleak.

I needed that this evening as I get back to doing my thing.

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“Belle” in Context

If you’re like me, and you’ve spent the last 15 years or so reading and writing about nineteenth-century British literature, the release of “Belle” does more than just provide a moment of personal joy. The cinematic rendering of a real figure from the 1800s represents a moment when the ivory (ahem) tower and popular culture intersect to produce a film that, even with its flaws, is set to change the way we read, understand, and, more importantly, imagine the period. I didn’t choose to study nineteenth-century British literature and culture in order to think about race and representation, but my work to understand the ideologies behind and underneath canon formation led me there, and in my book project that thinks about how women’s bodies function as the site for ideological debates, black women’s bodies have popped up so often that I decided they needed their own chapter—right there between a chapter about Jane Austen’s courtship novels and a chapter on Mary Shelley’s indictment of imperialism. In other words, I’ve been thinking and writing about all of those invisible Belles that do not yet have their own narratives. And, as someone who brings pop culture into her classes so often that terms like “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are practically useless, I’ve been particularly curious about why we had Zombie Austen before we had Black Austen.

BelleWhile “Belle” has not marketed itself as an Austen adaptation (Amma Asante describes it as a “Jane Austen-style period romance”), the film brings to mind Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park. Asante’s film tells the story of a young woman who could easily have been Fanny Price’s doppelgänger. Dido Belle Lindsay is a young woman with ties to the wealthy and the landed and, like all of Austen’s heroines, is wending her way through the marriage market towards a suitable and companionate marriage. She’s beautiful, charming, and feisty. She’s also black or, more specifically, bi-racial—the daughter of a slave and a navy admiral, and in the film her very presence in the household of the Earl of Mansfield is the spark behind his ruling on the Zong Massacre. What this means is that in addition to selecting the right mate, she has to do so while walking a tightrope of race and gender and the respectability politics that prompted Kelli Goff (bless her heart) to forget that this is still at it’s heart a film that holds up white supremacy and patriarchy, even at the very end.

In the trailer for the film, we see the young Belle transported from a port town to a large estate in much the same way that Fanny Price is transported from Portsmouth (a slave port) to an English estate that relies on the products of the slave trade. Belle faces a stern benefactor, but Harold Pinter, who portrays Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” has been replaced with Tom Wilkinson, who Austen fans might recognize from his turn as a dying Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility.” The questions that Austen’s heroine Fanny faces about her place in the family (somewhere between servant and sister) are here in the film. Belle, like Fanny, has to choose between two men—a moral man with virtually no social or economic capital and a man whose view of her is, let’s just say, problematic.

This is not to suggest that “Belle” is simply a remake of Rozema’s adaptation or Austen’s novel. Misan Sagay’s screenplay is its own beautifully crafted narrative and Asante’s direction shows the kind of restraint necessary for a story that could so easily slip into the sentimental and overwrought. Seeing this movie was like watching an essay in moving images. More than considering it an Austen adaptation and/or a period film that paints by the numbers, I see it as a true palimpsest that reminds us of the Austen we know while inviting us to understand what she only hints at in her novels. It presents relationships between women of color and white women that are both tense and affectionate. It draws explicit connections between the marriage market and the slave trade, something Mary Wollstonecraft does in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It offers a lesson in how inheritance laws trapped both women and men. It shows the limits of sentimental progressive politics. And it does so by placing the fate of a woman of color at the center of its narrative to reveal the limits of picture perfect perfection.

We’ve seen alternative narratives that shift the focus from white main characters to a person of color (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargosso Sea, the prequel to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and its multiple film adaptations come immediately to mind), but Austen’s world has remained white in the public imagination, even though, in Emma and Persuasion, the issue of the slave trade is not entirely invisible. When we do encounter people of color in Austen’s world they are in contemporary adaptations. The most popular are Amy Heckerling’s almost flawless “Clueless,” set in a modern high with a multi-racial student body, and Gurinder Chada’s much less successful Bollywood Adaptation “Bride and Prejudice” (full disclosure: In the bottom of some filing cabinet sits my own attempt at a modern adaptation of Austen I co-wrote while driving across the country one summer. It’s called “Emma Jones.” Everyone in it is black. It’s not very good. Let’s leave it at that). To even introduce race and slavery into Austen is such a tricky prospect that Rozema had to prepare audiences for her Mansfield Park by making explicit that her intention was interpretation not fidelity.

Those who defended her film from critiques and rants of Austen purists did so from a place of well-intentioned but historically inaccurate indulgence, accepting that Rozema is projecting late twentieth-century politics back onto the nineteenth. But an adaptation likes “Belle” makes clear that what we now know allows us to re-imagine a world that Austen would have known but that would not fit into the courtship rituals she always satirized and sometimes endorsed. The specter of a racialized body in Austen’s world of manners would change the social alchemy of her novels. If her goal was to satirize courtship rituals, slavery didn’t lend itself to a lady’s humor or wit. It’s worth remembering, however, that British white women wrote about slavery and abolition during Austen’s time. In fact, depicting the horrors that slavery visited upon women and children in particular became rather fashionable among women writers of the time. They weren’t poking fun at its practitioners and defenders; instead they either went towards the completely sentimental (see Hannah More) or the pragmatic (see the interracial marriage in the first edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda). We can count Mansfield Park as Austen’s contribution to that conversation and “Belle” might well complete it. As I often remind my students, Austen chose to make explicit what makes life at Mansfield Park possible.

Of course, people of color have been present in British prose from at least as early as the seventeenth century, but on college syllabi and in the public imagination they are far and few between: Othello (1604), Oroonoko (1688), Equiano (1797), and Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (1848). In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism  scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives. In his new edition of the 1808 novel The Woman of Colour: A Tale Lyndon Dominique lists 50 long prose fiction and plays from 1605 to 1861 that include characters of color, roughly half of which were published during Austen’s time. We have been seeing new editions of some of those stories at a steady pace. The 1994 edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda shows a black servant on the cover. Edited by Katherine Kirkpatrick for Oxford University Press, it presents the original novel with the interracial marriage of Juba an African servant and Lucy an English farm girl (Edgeworth was pressured to remove the marriage). In 1999, the same year of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” Oxford University Press released a new edition of Adeline Mowbray a novel published in 1804 which features a West Indian woman and her son as saviors and companions to the title character. In 2002, just before I finished my doctorate, the Broadview edition of Wuthering Heights issued. I was planning my history of the British novel class and when arrived it had a Moor on the cover; not the desolate landscape of my well-annotated Norton edition but an actual Moor and I remember writing a colleague: “When did we go from Laurence Olivier to Laurence Fishburn?” The cover of the 2008 edition of The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) is a detail from a painting in the collection of the Earl of Mansfield. The painting is titled “Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray”—the two young women in Asante’s adaption. In the novel, “Dido” is the name of the heroine’s black servant.

Austen adaptations have remained in a liminal space similar to the one Fanny occupies when she can’t return to the squalor of her home in Portsmouth but can no longer remain at Mansfield Park if it means adhering to her uncle’s wishes. They have stayed somewhere between the all-white period adaptations and the modern multi-racial ones—more Gwyneth than Lupita. But “Belle” marks an important change. It makes clear that while it’s certainly possible to go on pretending there were no black people, at least in the background, of Austen’s world it’s no longer interesting or even a nuanced representation of the time. The “dead silence” of Mansfield Park is filled with questions, speeches and declarations, and if you know the history of the abolitionist movement in England you know that beyond happily ever after, Belle’s presence represents concrete social change that echoes in a twenty-first century Britain that is paying more and more attention to its history of slavery. Much of this national self-reflection has been prompted by the fact that 2007 gave England a chance to think about the abolition of the slave trade. In 2006, The Church of England apologized for benefitting from the slave trade. The International Museum of Slavery opened in Liverpool in 2007. In 2013, The Independent reported the results of a study that showed in stark terms how much slaveowners were paid during and after the abolition of slavery. The arrival of the first black Marchioness in 2013 prompted a series of articles making clear that the peerage has a multi-racial legacy.

The storytellers are either catching up or leading the way. Despite Heathcliff being described as a “‘dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar” he had always been cast as white in film versions of the novel until 2011 when he was portrayed by the black British actor James Howson. Then there’s Longbourn by Jo Baker . It turns its attention to the servants who make the lives of the gentry in Pride and Prejudice possible. In this representation of those beneath the stairs, Baker introduces the kinds of characters we might meet in “Belle,” and her portrait of those figures is compelling and clearly informed by a post-abolitionist reading of Austen and her world. To present social change as the work of a young woman of color, to have the body of a British woman of color as the fulcrum for legal pronouncements nudges us to reconsider race and gender in the nineteenth century and perhaps even in our own. I mean that literally. The first black marchioness who caused a bit of a stir last year? Her first name is Emma.

For Nora and My Inner Sally

I sometimes feel sad when celebrities die, very sad, but I don’t join in public grieving. Even when great people pass, I am mournful but rarely feel bereft.* I lost interest in Ephron’s movies over the years. Her characters can’t bear the weight of my feminist-womanist-Marxist gaze. But when I saw she died I was crushed. I started crying immediately and called my mother. She has no idea who Nora Ephron is, but I called her anyway because that’s what you do when you lose a friend.

She certainly wasn’t a friend in the usual way, and I had no interest in meeting her, but her heroines—quirky, high maintenance, hopeless romantics—managed to get through my cynicism. And I don’t care if it’s a cliché to say it: I love Sally. Love that she is uptight and a bit of a know it all. That she orders so much on the side.

Sure I loved Claire Huxtable and Murphy Brown and Julia Sugarbaker. Still love their sass and their strength (sometimes I watch old clips of Julia Sugarbaker just to stiffen my spine). But just like there’s always been a part of me that is Mary Richards, there is a part of me that is Sally and that woman in “You’ve Got Mail” on the Upper West Side.

Especially in my closet.

When I see pictures of myself from the past, in men’s ties and hats and funky scarves, I know that Annie Hall seeped in when I wasn’t looking. That phase passed (along with my Birkenstock phase, thank the fashion gods), but Sally (and her iterations) has remained.

So when I heard that Nora died, I thought of the pearl gray dress I bought earlier this year and the linen skirt with the side pleat that needs to go to the dry cleaners. I’m drawn to clean lines and, for the most part, muted colors. Given a choice, I will always choose tea-length skirts and ballet flats. I venture out from time to time, but even my favorite, bright red linen dress looks like something that Sally might have worn—if she could pull off such a bold color. There’s a sweetness to that style that I’ve always been drawn to.

I may live in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, walk by a huge portrait of Jay Z every single day, and sign e-mails to my colleague-friends “Omar,” but I also wore a twin set to a Trinidadian Cooler Fete, a fact that makes everyone who knows what that must have looked like laugh out loud.

And just last week, when I was overcompensating because I’m fairly certain the afro I’m sporting these days makes me look like a boy and I tried to balance it out by putting on a mini skirt and heels, I didn’t feel a bit like myself. It didn’t matter how great my friends told me I looked, the outfit was just not me. Even if the skirt was seersucker pink, and I wore it with a pink cardigan.

Sometimes “You’ve Got Mail” will come on, and I’ll roll my eyes and change the channel, but I always come back to see the taupe and grey linen dress with the cardigan and the skimmers. It’s a sweet scene with Ryan and Hanks in some garden. There are flowers and a dog. And I can just about get past the horrible politics of the story.

I’ve wondered over the last few years, as I’ve settled more comfortably into the many different parts of me—the Mary Richards and the Omar Little, the Julia Sugarbaker and the Clare Huxtable—if I still feel such a strong connection to Nora’s women. Then I look in my closet and know that I still do.

*(exceptions include Etta James and Lucille Clifton)

Regarding brown people in Newport…or the (supposed) lack thereof

After noting the lack of brown people in the town in my post yesterday, they started showing up all over the place—in cars, on skateboards, and in restaurants. Maybe Wednesday is a special day that I don’t know about. I was reminded of my favorite moment in the most recent film version of “Hairspray” when Tracy Turnblad announces, “I wish everyday was Negro Day!”

Do the Right Thing

I haven’t seen “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire,” but I’m going to. And if you’ve ever complained about the poor quality of American movies you should too. If you’re sick of “10 Things He Just Not That Into American Pie is New in Town,” then you have an obligation to, every once in a while, see a film that gets to you a bit by showing you the world of the kind of person you’ve probably never met—in this case an overweight, African-American teenager abused by both her mother and father.

I know. Tough sell, right? Everyone knows. This is not a feel-good-luck-at-us-we-elected-Obama-movie. It’s going to be hard. But give it a chance. With three big awards from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it has an impressive resume.

And, yes, you should see it because black films have a tough time making it to screen or being taken seriously when they do. Tyler Perry had to BUILD HIS OWN STUDIO to make sure he could make movies, and his films are huge blockbuster hits (seriously, his movies are regularly at the top of the box office, though they are regularly showing on fewer screens than “mainstream” movies).

I know what you’re thinking, “Tricia, I can’t relate to that story” and “life is hard enough; I go to the movies to escape.” But you don’t. You see movies about tough subjects all the time. Ricky Gervais was the wise-jester when he told Kate Winslet to do a Holocaust film in order to win major awards. He was right. And you do like movies with black people—namely anything starring Will Smith (and who can blame you?).

This is not that kind of film. It’s also not a Saturday night movie. Go to a Saturday matinee. And then plan to have a glass of wine in a lovely bar or, if your me, a proper cream tea. Who knows, your “escape” could make you more compassionate, more aware, more thankful for where you are. Supporting compelling storytelling is your responsibility as a movie goer (okay, so sometimes I get preachy. Sue me!)

Do the right thing.

When it comes out, go see it. And then tell me about it. And (maybe) I’ll treat you to “IronBatSpiderMan XI.”