Cinelou Films, 2016
Susan McMartin and Bruce Beresford
📷 : Licensed from Adobe Stock
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Sometimes Hollywood can shoot itself in the foot with genre categories. Perhaps because this film stars Eddie Murphy, Mr. Church is classified partly as a comedy despite being a purely dramatic story based on the writer’s own life, growing up in sunny Los Angeles. Set in the 1970s, the film depicts what was to be a short-lived working arrangement between a chef and McMartin’s family that blossomed into a long-term and meaningful relationship.
Mr. Church is a little-known movie starring Eddie Murphy as the title character, in which he plays the reserved, personal chef of a young girl named, Charlie, played by Brit Robertson (Under the Dome, Big Sky) and her mother, Marie, played by Natascha McElhone (Designated Survivor, Ronin). Mr. Church reads literature, and he cooks with olive oil, cumin and arrowroot while enjoying the sounds of big band jazz music on the turntable.
In addition to the 1970s backdrop of bus shelters, vintage public transportation, and the clothing of the day, Marie’s modest two-bedroom apartment is bathed in soft natural lighting that occasionally shines brightly through the windows, contrasting with the dark wood entryways and doors. This gives a cozy and simple family feel to the home that makes it inviting, almost as if Mr. Church was being welcomed into the space as a member of the family.
Boundaries matter to Mr. Church though. While he makes subtle efforts at the outset to endear himself to the little girl who begrudgingly lets him cook for her and her mother, he makes it clear that his personal life is off-limits as her curiosity increases about who he is and where he goes when he is elsewhere. In response to her probes, he impatiently shouts, “You have me from morning to night. And what I do when I leave here is my time.” Interestingly, this adds intrigue to this aspect of the story and keeps the audience wondering as well: just who is Mr. Church? Where does he go and what does he do when he is not cooking for the family?
These boundaries are typical of family boundaries. Indeed, the film’s feel and subject matter bring to mind another little-known work called, Under One Roof. Airing in 1995, the short-lived, weekly television series starred James Earl Jones, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and Joe Morton, in a story about three generations living under one roof in their two-story Seattle apartment building.
The show contained tough conversations, gentle moments, and even heart-to-heart talks with a teenage foster son, Marcus, played by the late Merlin Santana, who struggled to adjust to being a part of the loving family of seven. It featured family meals together where kids wanted to sit next to their favorite people. It included a teenage daughter, coincidentally named “Charlie,” who had to be put in her place on occasion, as her mom reprimanded, “Don’t you walk away from me while I’m talking to you or you’ll be really buggin’.” And finally a husband insisting that his wife not feel guilty for going back to school and completing her degree: “Doing something for yourself doesn’t mean that you’re being selfish.”
Not just limited to shared genes, a family’s binding elements include boundaries, checks, and balances. As with Mr. Church, Marcus is not related by blood in Under One Roof, but his range of interactions with family members signals yet one more connection to what becomes a long-held family bond.
While unrealistic that a Black chef in a predominantly White, lower middle-class neighborhood would not have encountered some microaggressions while riding the bus or shopping for groceries, I was pleased by the absence of such scenes because of its bliss. Apparently, the filmmakers saw little need to interject language and sentiments of race into the film, likely because the exchanges would have detracted from the purity of the story itself. It begs the question, though, if a story should be presented with complete and accurate historical context, or if filmmakers have tacit permission to strip away extraneous but ugly information that can add noise to the film and disrupt its themes. The approach depends on what the filmmakers want to convey.
Mr. Church is a story about family rather than history, revolution, or social transformation. Does the fact that the Black Power Movement and news around the Patty Hearst kidnapping are also occurring in California at the time mean that these events should be weaved into the film to keep the story authentic? Even though this would extinguish my bliss, I would argue that not doing so to some extent is problematic given the tumult of the period and the shared location—even if the scenes were limited to a passing television news report or the headline of a local paper lying around on a table. This would be sufficient to get a sense of the story’s context and provide some insight into Mr. Church’s thoughts and experiences.
With these additional images, Mr. Church would not just be a man the audience admires because of what it sees, but he could also be a man the audience understands because of some of the experiences he lives and that continue to shape him. This is the depth missing from the depiction of Mr. Church that could have been filled not necessarily with lines, but with context. Perhaps though, containing the film’s scope to the relationship among the characters is fair. But even this falls a bit short.
The story is heavily narrated by Charlie, who offers candid observations about Mr. Church: “I never once saw Mr. Church use a measuring tool, just his hand, fork and knife.” She even reveals resentments of her mother: “[Mr. Church and I] each had our duties. … My one and only job was to bathe Momma–and I hated it.” However, Charlie reveals very little about her social life. When she goes off to college and returns home for a break, the audience learns very little about her time on campus, which was the site of a great deal of social activism. What was life on campus like for her? Surely Mr. Church’s interest in jazz suggested a strong interest in Black culture. How can Charlie’s campus experiences not be shared with the person close to her, and whose life was likely affected by the social issues of the day?
The absence of conversation creates a bit of a chasm in the story and disrupts much of its continuity–though, to be fair, not so much that it detracts from the story about the ties that bind. At a point in the film, Charlie says about Mr. Church, “People act strange around death. There are those who talk about everything but the person who died. There are those who only talk about the person who died. … And then there are those who say nothing at all–because they don’t have to.”
Maybe this is the message the filmmakers seek to convey. While political and social climates typically serve as backdrops for film, stories such as this one about family are, or at least can be at times, insular. Respecting boundaries, saying nothing or very little at all, can convey volumes about what people mean to one another. Hmmm, sounds like family bonding.