Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein.
"Henry Joseph Church could have been anything he wanted. He chose to cook." This line, spoken by Charlotte Brody, narrator of and character in the new melodrama Mr. Church, makes up both the opening and closing words of the film. The sentiment is, in itself, problematic, but no less problematic than the 104 minutes of pablum sandwiched between it.
A précis before we proceed: The film, written by Susan McMartin and directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) is set in Los Angeles and spans the 1970s to the late '80s. The titular character — Henry Joseph Church — is played by Eddie Murphy in what has been billed as his triumphal dramatic turn. Mr. Church, as he is called, is a domestic cook, which makes the film fair game for this column. (In fact, the film’s original title, when it was written by McMartin 10 years ago, was Cook.)
It’s a rhythm well-known to generations of Black cooks for whom institutional racism had made most other modes of employ unattainable.
Mr. Church has been given as a gift, so to speak, by the late lover of Marie Brody (Natascha McElhone, at her saintliest) to cook for her and her child, Charlotte "Charlie" Brody, until Marie passes away from terminal cancer.
At the behest of the late lover, for whom Mr. Church was also a cook, Mr. Church shows up at the Brody’s modest abode, turns the radio to jazz, and dons an apron for this nice white family. He makes things like fluffy pancakes with fruit salad, grilled pork chops, and grits for breakfast. When Charlie returns from school, there are tall icebox cakes awaiting her and Mr. Church at the counter, all smiles, just so happy that little Charlie enjoys his work. He is resolutely deferential, referring to Ms. Brody as "ma’am" and sagaciously parries her early attempts to get him to leave. Charlie, a spritely little girl, took a nasty dislike to Mr. Church early on, but his excellence at making French toast is rivaled only by his great forbearance of the young girl. And eventually his steadfastness, dogged loyalty, and inexhaustible selflessness converts Charlie.
The rest of the narrative flows from this basic selflessness. Marie Brody dies. Mr. Church is sad. "Even his weeping is graceful," notes Charlotte. Mr. Church pays for Charlotte’s education at Boston University, with savings incurred by Marie Brody’s couponing. While at school, Charlotte becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Mr. Church offers her his house to live in, and later becomes a co-caretaker of the child, Isabel.
What does he do at night? He plays piano at a jazz club called Jelly’s and, when he’s not serving food, often returns home staggeringly drunk engaged in imaginary conversation with his abusive pastor father. But these moments of sadness are, he says, private. Charlotte is to remain blissfully unaware, though she noblesse obligingly yearns to help him. "I wanted to let him know he could tell me," she says. Evidently it does not occur to her that perhaps he doesn’t want to.
Throughout his years of servitude, Mr. Church provides all the meals, rising before the rest of the house to prepare breakfast, running out during the day to buy groceries, and returning home to cook dinner. It is a rhythm well-known and familiar to the generations of Black cooks and maids for whom institutional racism had made most other modes of employ unattainable. But not Mr. Church. He could have been anything he wanted to be.
Towards the end of the film, Mr. Church dies. Can you believe it? He had an enlarged heart.
The fact that a film so startlingly blithe at best and bald-facedly racist at worst was made at all is both confounding and infuriating. It’s another installment in the playbook of the magical negro, that stock character defined by his numinous wisdom, infinite patience, and near saint-like equanimity. (As director of Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy, Beresford is at least in part the progenitor of the cliché.)
In times other than these, perhaps, Mr. Church would be simply a somewhat ham-fisted tearjerker to be forgotten as soon as it blinkered out from the projection room. But these are our times, #OscarSoWhite times, a moment when whiteness, white privilege, and the way white people like McMartin and Beresford — and me — relate to blackness and Black people needs to be examined. (Required listening: the week-long project on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show entitled Facing Whiteness.)
More insidiously, the character of Mr. Church represents a reconstruction of the mammy stereotype, the trope of a smiling Black domestic who lives to serve his or her white employer. One wishes one could not see a through-line from the grinning blackface mammies in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 work of racist propaganda Birth of a Nation, but this movie proves that the thread of this emollient little fiction is still being spun, with an almost unbroken continuity. The Association for Black Women Historians could be speaking of Mr. Church in this open statement about 2011’s The Help:
The Help's representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy — a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.
But kudos to McMartin — for she crossed gender lines in her stereotyping. TAFBW noted of The Help that "most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood." In Mr. Church, there are only four Black characters: one is driving a limo, one is a benevolent jazz club owner, one, shown in pictures but absent as a character, is Mr. Church’s abusive father, and one is the saintly drunk Mr. Church himself.
It would be enjoyable but frivolous to nitpick at the superficial aberrancies of Mr. Church. Are we meant to believe $5,000 could really be saved by the use of coupons? But these are just dings and dents in a hell-bound lemon. The machinery by which this film chugs presumes an absence of personhood for the Black cook. Mr. Church is selfless for he has no self at all, and there are myriad instances where this non-personhood is reinforced. He is there merely to serve. His own desires (as Martin Buber might say his "Thou-ness"), the thought that he might not simply cook food but partake in it, that he might not set the table but sit at it, are unconsidered. He is a void, whose contours are known only by the whiteness he touches.
Might Mr. Church have friends, colleagues, a spiritual life, ambitions, privacy, lovers, days off, a life of his own?
And as for that Black world from which, perhaps, Mr. Church came, that too is terra unimagined. There is no universe — mental or physical — outside the kitchen. Did Watts burn a few years earlier? Not in the world of Mr. Church. Do Black people exist other than as cooks, drivers, and jazz musicians? Not in this world. (This extends to the writer and director, who are both white, too.) Might Mr. Church have friends, colleagues, a spiritual life, ambitions, privacy, lovers, days off, a life of his own not oriented toward the North Pole of servitude? Nah. "He was like the moon," says Charlotte, "cool calm and always there."
This is a fairy tale told in white space, like a Little Prince illustration but less endearing. And this land of make believe is the only world in which Mr. Church could truly have been anything he wanted. He chose to cook, or rather, he chose to be a cook. Twixt the two is a universe of difference, and their conflation — that he might not cook for himself and be for himself, but rather is what he does for others — is the toxic ozone that hangs over this flick. He chose to serve and is happy to do it, that’s the line Charlotte believes. For the rest of us, that blithe bit of poppycock irks as the self-soothing myth a child might tell herself. So why is it being submitted for consideration unchallenged? Worse, not only is it not unchallenged, but this little white lie is the scaffold on which the entire structure is built.
One could, I suppose, simply dismiss Mr. Church as only a subpar film, the last hurrah, one hopes, of an old Australian man with a hard-on for Black servitude; a moment of reflection for a writer so blinded by sepia tones she can’t see Black and white; and the high moral price an actor is willing to pay in order to be considered for an Oscar nod. But the gesture of unthinking privilege and the belief that intention ablutes all extends well beyond the credits.
When we think, for instance, why so few African-Americans attend culinary school or have restaurants of their own, we might do well to reflect that Jon Favreau was Chef and Eddie Murphy was Cook.
Rating: Zero (out of five) stars
Mr. Church is in select theaters now.
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