Soul-less

I was skeptical about Pixar’s Soul. I love animated movies, but watching the trailer and seeing the Jamie Foxx-voiced lead, Joe Gardner, morph into a little glowy orb thing gave me a stomach ache. Soul looked as if it would be yet another animated movie in which a BIPOC character spent a major portion of the film not visible as a BIPOC character but as an animal, or an object, or whatever.

I read a little about the film before seeing it – very little because I hate spoilers. (There are, in fact, spoilers coming up, so be forewarned if you haven’t yet watched the movie and hate spoilers.) I did that recon because I wanted to know what other folks were saying about this “mighty morphin’ BIPOC” crap. Some were sharing the same disappointment and concern that I felt after seeing the trailer. Others were talking about how hard the filmmakers had worked to not fall into those traps. I remained skeptical.

I read excellent pieces by Monique Jones (Shadow and Act) and Andrew Tejada (Tor). I even found a Change.org petition.

I knew I was going to watch the film, but I still had a stomachache about it. My bits of research did nothing to resolve my doubts. A good friend called with a rave review – so beautiful, what a great story, such amazing animation. I still had doubt. I raised the issue, and they said they didn’t think it really applied to this film. Which actually made me more doubtful.

Okay, before was just a casual heads up. This now is an official SPOILER ALERT. If you keep reading, you’re absolutely getting spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So I watched the film. And it is beautiful, and the animation is amazing, and the story is good … ish.

Yes, Joe Gardner turns into a little glowy orb thing pretty early on in the film, really early. And I gather from some of the pieces I’ve read since watching the film that I’m supposed to be charmed by the fact that – after a brief time in the “soul world” – I get to see the Black man on screen again and see him for the remainder of the movie. I’m supposed to be charmed … or perhaps lulled into acceptance/acquiescence/inability to see what’s actually going on. Yes, I get to see a Black man on screen again …

Except not. When the body of the Black man returns to the screen, the man himself – the magical essence that makes him Joe – is in another character’s body and Joe’s body, the Black man’s body is inhabited by … wait for it … a white woman. I’m serious. We do get to hear the Black man because his soul winds up in the body of an animal. We get to see the Black man’s body – moving awkwardly and with the voice and thoughts and ideas of a white woman. Just typing it makes me tired.

All of the significant moments the Black man experiences in this section of the movie – which is, of course, the bulk of the movie – are  worked through and experienced by the character called “22” who’s voiced by Tina Fey. If you watch the trailer, most of the moments in which “Joe” is shown having a moment of joy or a significant realization are moments when Joe is actually not Joe. All of those moments and realizations are happening for 22. Yes, Joe – in his furry, animal form – is there to observe these experiences, but he is removed from the direct experience himself. This is most telling in an important scene sham-Joe (Joe’s body without Joe’s soul inside) has with his mother. It would mean so much more for Joe to be the one speaking, for Joe to be the one having that moment of understanding with his mother, for Joe to be the one embracing his mother. Instead, real-Joe gets to watch 22 have a beautiful moment. When real-Joe acknowledges his mother at the end of the scene, of course she’s not paying him any attention because she’s focused on sham-Joe and, even if she were looking at real-Joe, all she would hear would be animal noises because real-Joe’s soul is bottled up in an animal.

And then there’s the fabulousness of 22 deciding not to give Joe his body. Yes, the white woman decides that she’s quite comfortable living in Joe’s body, thank you very much, and isn’t interested in returning it to him. Yeah, that.

Joe does get back into his body and gets to spend some time on screen as Joe’s-soul-in-Joe’s-body. There is a return to the soul world in which we, of course, lose Joe’s body again. And then comes a brilliant bit of original writing, a kind of plot point we’ve never, ever, ever seen before: Joe decides to give up his body all together to help 22. It’s clear that I’m supposed to be moved by Joe’s sacrifice. Joe is that good, that giving, that heroic. No. I mean, I was moved … to being totally pissed off. Joe is going to sacrifice himself so that a white woman can go enjoy her life? Really? Haven’t enough Black bodies been sacrificed? Even just in the past year, forget about decades and centuries of history.

Back in October, Kristen Acuna wrote about the work the filmmakers did to avoid racist tropes:

“We were unaware of that [trope] as we started, but we certainly became aware,” Docter, who’s also Pixar’s chief creative officer, said […]

“My hope is that when you see the whole film, there is plenty of Joe on screen,” Docter continued. “I think we have over 50 percent on Earth that follows Joe’s life, his places of where he goes, people he’s with, and then the other part is in the soul world.”

Yes, sham-Joe is on screen for the majority of the movie. Sure. But sham-Joe is just that. We get to see a non-Black person move through the world wearing a Black man’s body like a costume. We see sham-Joe interact with the Joe’s friends better than Joe has interacted with them. We see sham-Joe live Joe’s life more fully than Joe. It’s pretty aggravating.

There are other annoying things about this film. There’s the ham-fisted microaggression of another Black man being mistaken for Joe – He’s Black, get it? That’s comedy! – and then being terrorized as a result of that botched identification. And the entire story arc of the hunter from the soul world who comes to earth to capture Joe is problematic. The character, Terry, is a little too slave-catcher-y for my tastes, bringing to mind John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet.

Soul frustrated and disappointed me, but I have to acknowledge that some parts of this movie are pleasing. Some of the ideas about how our souls develop and how our personalities are shaped are great — at turns funny, a little wrenching, thought-provoking. Some of the animation is stunningly joy-inducing. When Joe (real-Joe) plays the piano, the sequences are gorgeous. His hands, especially, are everything I could ever want and more. I read about how Docter worked hard to capture pianist Jon Batiste’s playing style so he could create it for Joe, and I give him full marks and extra credit for the finished result.

Those pieces of the film that are stellar actually make me more annoyed with the film as a whole. The time and attention taken to create them is clear. The filmmakers wanted to be sure to get them right, to wow us with just how right they got them. (The simply perfect animation of a samara fluttering down from a tree and into sham-Joe’s hand is quietly extraordinary, beautiful.)

All that care and attention … and not once did someone think it might be a mistake to have the body of a Black man inhabited and controlled by a white woman? Even if, as Docter said in interviews, the filmmakers were unaware of the issue of Black animated characters disappearing from center stage almost as soon as they arrived, surely someone in this current world we live in should have seen the tone-deafness of having a white woman take over the body and voice of a Black man. We’re years into the constant barrage of news stories showing white people white peopling, showing Beckys and Karens raising the alarm when they see Black men doing nothing more egregious than talking to their wives at local brunch spots.

And yet, the care taken to create Joe’s beautiful piano playing, his gloriously long and graceful fingers, his nearly tangible joy in the music … that same care couldn’t be extended to the embodiment of the primary character?

Soul isn’t a “Black movie,” isn’t a film that delves into the Black experience. It is, instead, a movie about learning to value yourself and your time, about living your life fully. It is a movie about all of that, and the central human character is a Black man. His Blackness isn’t key to the unrolling of the storyline. His Blackness simply is. And that’s great. Black characters written as multi-faceted beings going about the business of living their lives, unburdened by the stereotypes they’ve been written into forever is excellent.

Soul isn’t a Black movie, but it is, too. It wants to take advantage, with a kindly nod and wink, of the double connotations of its title. And it for-sure wants credit for the gentle dive into showing some aspects of Black community – the barber shop, the tailor shop. So, not claiming to be a Black movie, but … trying hard to be one all the same.

Whether Soul is considered a Black movie or not, Joe’s Blackness can’t be ignored. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet learned, colorblindness isn’t real, and pretending to be colorblind is insulting, is racist, is hurtful and damaging. True acceptance of others isn’t about being able to magically not see the things that make them different from us. It’s about seeing those differences and having them not make a difference. So Joe’s Blackness, while not a plot point of this film, can’t be ignored. Joe’s Blackness is. We want to be able to watch his everyman story play out, and we need to see that his Blackness is in good hands, that the filmmakers understood their responsibility for Joe’s Blackness.

They didn’t. At least not fully, not enough to see some glaring missteps.

Docter said he was unaware of the disappearing-animated-BIPOC problem. And I find that easy to believe. BIPOC folks have been aware because we’re the ones it’s happening to, ours are the faces and bodies that are being disappeared. Docter has had the cozy privilege of not having to pay attention to such “details.” He has been able to simply watch and laugh as a frog or pigeon or llama or whatever bumbles along through the film instead of the BIPOC character whose story is supposedly being told.

I can play along and believe that Docter didn’t know about this pattern of erasure. But it’s also true that he was made aware of the issue and still didn’t take enough care to avoid errors like the ones written into this film.

And yes, as part of his efforts, Docter brought in Black folks – writer, director, various consultants – to work on the film. Soul was already three years into it’s five-year development. It’s great that Black folks were brought in to work on this film The fact that there weren’t already Black folks involved is a red flag, but it’s also true the lead character wasn’t a Black man in the first versions of the story … I want to believe that the moment the character became a Black man, someone looked around the table, saw all non-Black faces and said, “Oh, we need to do something differently here,” and set about to shake things up.

Kristen Acuna’s article about the effort to avoid racist tropes includes this comment from Kemp Powers, a Black filmmaker who joined the Soul team:

“This film is that first effort. Keep in mind, I was invited on as a writer and then made a partner as a co-director. And, it’s a sad reality that there haven’t been many Black people in general in positions of power in animation,” Powers noted. “Just in the couple of years that I was at Pixar, I watched the number of Black animators and Black story artists increase. I just love the fact that rather than just talk about it, Pixar was moved to action and I can speak to that having witnessed it.” (Acuna. Insider, October 2020)

It’s easy for me to believe that much (all, I really should just say all) of the gorgeousness of the portrayal of Black people in Soul exists because of the inclusion of Black creatives on the film crew. Still, I was left feeling that those creatives were brought into the production to serve, in part, as shields. When folks like me raise concerns about the movie, those creatives will be shoved in our faces and we’ll be reminded that they — the some-of-my-best-film-crew-friends-are-Black Black folks — thought the film was okay, so we must just be overreacting and seeing bias where there isn’t any. Again.

Soul is beautiful, and it has a lovely message in the end. It also left a bad taste in my mouth.

Labor (Union) Day

I have been working “official” jobs — the kind that give you a check with all your taxes siphoned off — since I was 17: first as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks the summer before college, and then during freshman year in my first work-study job in the library at my school. In nine days I’ll be 57, so that’s 40 years of sometimes-gainful employment. I worked other jobs before college — babysitting kids in the neighborhood, collecting for my brother’s paper route — but Treetops and the Esther Raushenbush Library were the first formal paid gigs of my life.

Forty years of cobbling together enough money to live on, to pay back my student loans, to take myself on vacation, to indulge my fountain pen habit.

No one ever taught me anything about working when I was in high school. I wasn’t on a vocational track, so I didn’t learn any saleable skills, and it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might have to find a job one day. I wasn’t on a vocational track, but my guidance counselor was still taken by surprise when I walked into her office saying I was ready to apply to college. I have no idea what people thought I was going to do with myself if I had no skills and wasn’t going to go to school. Crazypants.

Working was important to my family, buy my parents were too busy actually working to impart much wisdom about working. When I left for college, my mom asked that I study something that could help me get a job after graduation. I … had no idea what that meant. My answer to that request was to take a chemistry class, of all things. A class I dropped in the first month and back-filled with a class on Renaissance and Reformation England … because that was sure to lead me to some kind of quality employment. That ill-fated chem section was the only course in four years of college that I chose with the idea that I would one day need to get a job. It’s a wonder I’ve survived at all. Seriously.

In 40 years I’ve had any number of jobs, some good, some solidly crappy. I’ve learned that there are things I can make myself do and things I absolutely won’t make myself do. I’ve learned that I can put up with bullshit and take advantage of others’ stupidity. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have the good fortune to meet some of the best people of my life on the job and that when the job goes away I’ll be lucky enough to hold onto some of those gems. I’ve learned that I could be someone’s boss and be sexually harassed by them but not trust myself enough to believe what was happening. I’ve learned that the 90-day wait for health insurance to kick in on a new job can be the longest three months of my life.

In July I started a new job, a job I sincerely hope will be the last job I ever have. There’s so much to do in this job and so many ways I can imagine being productive, being challenged, being pleased at this job that it’s easy to see myself staying until I’m ready to not be working anymore.

At orientation, a representative from the union came to talk about membership and why we might want to join. The other new hires looked at the union cards and asked if they could think about it before signing up. I handed my completed card to the rep.

“You’ve already decided.”

“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be in a union. I feel like I can check something off my bucket list.”

Everyone laughed. The other new hires looked at me as if I was the weirdest, silliest, most careless person they’d ever seen. I just smiled, felt something settle inside me, like a giant, iron slide-lock slamming home.

It was true what I’d said to the rep. I have always wanted to be in a union. I just hadn’t ever said that out loud to myself before, hadn’t ever articulated the truth of it. There had been a few moments in the past when I’d talked a lot about my support for unions. I’d had a couple of jobs that had seemed on the cusp of becoming unionized, but in each case, it hadn’t happened. I was secretly jealous of my union-member friends. So, naturally, when presented the option of joining, I jumped right in.

The same was true with the choice of retirement benefits: sign up for a pension or choose the not-quite-a-401K option? Choosing the pension seemed so obvious, I almost didn’t do it. Surely I must be missing something because why wouldn’t I choose the pension? Why was there a need to consider other options? What wasn’t I getting about the equation? Of course I chose the pension. (It is actually true that I get to do both with this job, have a pension and sign up for retirement savings, so I really don’t get why anyone would choose not to have a pension.)

My parents were union members early in their work lives, but not for long enough to have long-term benefits from those memberships. Signing up for the pension plan and joining the union felt momentous to me, felt like things I should have been able to do 40 years ago when I started working. Somehow the idea of “work” for me, the idea of what a worker should expect from a job, included unionization and retirement income. And that feels super old-fashioned, and I guess it is, but it’s also real. And I didn’t know just how real it was until I got to sign those forms earlier this summer. No one “taught” me any of that, so where did it come from?

Driving in rural Louisiana about 15 years ago, I saw a billboard that showed a white hand clasping a black hand across a brilliant yellow background. The test read: Black and White Together — To Crush the Unions. What in the actual, mind-numbingly-against-your-best-interests fuck was that? I stared hard at that sign as we drove by, totally unable to fathom the logic of any worker anywhere wanting to break the unions.

Workers, unionized and not, owd so much to unions: the 40-hour work week, weekends, unemployment benefits, FMLA, the 8-hour work day, workplace safety standards and the creation of OSHA, Worker’s comp, sick leave, paid holidays, collective bargaining rights. And so. much. more. Unions are the fucking bomb.

And they also have a super-problematic history. My feelings about unions aren’t really based on all the great things workers enjoy because of union organizing. When I think of union membership and why it’s important to me, I think of my father. He and I certainly never once had a conversation about unions. But somehow — in that way that children understand things about the adults in their lives — I got the sense that his no longer being in a union was a sore point, that he thought his life and our life as a family would have been made better if he’d been in a union.

The more I learned about union history and the concerted effort to exclude Black people from organized labor, the more I understood the barriers between my father and a union job. And, while I have still grown up thinking unions are fabulous, I’ve also grown up with anger at their codified racism. In this context. joining a union as a Black woman becomes all that more meaningful. I join because I want and deserve the benefits of my union membership. But I also join for my ancestors who weren’t allowed to, who were systematically cut off from the benefits of membership. And I do it for the Washing Society and the Sleeping Car Porters, and for the members of every other Black labor union in this country’s ugly history.

I can’t explain why the other new hires at orientation with me didn’t jump to join the union. They were all people of color, but they were all a) non-Black POC and b) non-native to the US. So my history isn’t theirs, and the weight of union membership didn’t reverberate out from that blue membership form for them the way it did for me. Maybe. I won’t speak for them. I just know I am THRILLED to finally, after my whole life of working, be a member of a labor union. Achievement Unlocked!


(And yes the ILGWU song was embedded in my psyche. So, as much as my father and my history as a Black person explain my feelings about unions, this ad with its so-memorable song is another reason I was such a pro-union kid.)


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

One Sappy Sucker … Get Over It

I posted on FB after watching Netflix’s new rom-com, Always Be My Maybe. I said I’d watched it, loved it, and was setting up to watch it again. This tiny bit of completely unimportant and fairly uninteresting information so concerned a friend of mine that she emailed me about it:

“Were you serious with that rom-com bullshit? I mean, you? Since when do you get into stupid shit like that? If you were making a joke, I think I get it, but maybe we can talk and clear this up.”

(She and I talked the following day and I let her know I was totally going to mock her in a blog post … and she isn’t exactly “cool” with that, but she knows, and I’m not using her name, and Anne Lamott said I own everything that’s happened to me, so …)

But, before I get to the mocking, however, I want to talk about the movie.

SPOILERS AHEAD!! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

Seriously, I am going to say stuff about this movie and other movies and if you don’t like spoilers, you should just stop reading now. Thanks for coming.

No, listen. I’m being for real. Spoilers.

You can scroll down to the next bit of big red text if you want to skip the spoilers and get right to my righteous anger, but you might see something as you scroll and then you’ll be pissed. Because … spoilers. This is your last warning.

So.

I knew I had a bias in favor of this movie from the moment I saw the teaser trailer. I like both lead actors (Ali Wong and Randall Park), and I loved that the movie was centered on POC. Even if it hadn’t turned out to be totally excellent, I was predisposed to be happy with it. So, total bonus that it’s super funny and clever and sweet and goofy and all that good rom-com stuff.

But let’s come back to the “centered on POC” part. To what I’m sure would be my friend’s horror, I love another Netflix romance offering: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (TATBILB). It’s entirely adorable and charming and the leads (Lana Condor and Noah Centineo) are winning and there’s the major perk of getting a little dose of John Corbett (Chris in the Morning!) for your money.

The book the movie is based on is by Jenny Han, and Lara Jean, the character Condor plays, is Asian American. I wouldn’t describe this movie as “centered on POC,” however, as Lara Jean and her sisters, along with one Black secondary character and one Black tertiary character are the only folk of color we see more than in passing. TATBILB is adorable, and I’m glad Han fought to keep Lara Jean Asian (studio execs wanted a whitewash).

Having Lara Jean fall in love with Peter Kavinsky — the cute, white dude-bro — isn’t exactly ground breaking. But having her Asianness be entirely a thing and yet not be a thing kind of is groundbreaking. White folks walk in the house and take off their shoes and there are no foolish comments or sight gags. When Peter tastes Kitty’s yogurt smoothie (from the Korean grocery), there’s no drama about its “foreignness.” It’s not “weird” food, it’s just something he’s trying for the first time. There’s no exoticizing of Lara Jean or her sisters.

Always Be My Maybe has some of these little touches. And then it has some excellent, more in-your-face bits, such as the fact of Marcus’s (Park’s character) band being called “Hello Peril.” The movie centers Asianness in ways that TATBILB doesn’t attempt. There are no white primary characters in Always. There’s a bit character who’s white, and there is, of course, Keanu Reeves (playing a ridiculously bizarre version of himself that is beyond fabulous), but that’s it. The absence of whiteness is a complete pleasure. When Daniel Dae Kim’s character starts dating someone else … she. isn’t. white!! He hooks up with Padma Lakshmi (because, hey, who wouldn’t?). When Marcus’ dad (played to beautiful, sweet-and-warm-hearted perfection by James Saito) starts dating someone, she’s not white!

This movie is steeped in non-whiteness, it is deeply, super-unapologetically-specifically Asian, and I am here for every second of it. There have already been plenty of wonderful reviews and think pieces from people who speak to this both better than I can and from lived experience. I definitely recommend reading those for a deeper dive. I will just say how much this movie pleased me.

Okay. That’s it for the spoilers.

Yes, spoilers are done … but my friend’s email and our conversation about it are still stuck in my teeth.

Her email is nuts. Let’s just be clear about that right up front. Nothing about the fact of my having watched Always Be My Maybe should inspire such a response. From anyone. Who the hell cares that I watch rom-coms? Seriously. Why should anyone care? And if you, for some unfathomable reason, do care … you shouldn’t care so much that you resort to colorful language … you shouldn’t care so much that you need the fact of my watching a Netflix movie “cleared up.” Maybe you thought I was made of stone, thought I’d rather claw out my own eyes then watch a romantic comedy. Okay, but would you ever need to react this strongly? If my ridiculous status makes you type the words, “maybe we can talk and clear this up,” the person needing to do some soul searching here is you. Also? It seems you’ve forgotten that I am in no way required to live my life based on any wacky notion about me that you hold.

More importantly, how has this woman been my friend for a significant amount of time and not figured out one of the most foundational truths about me: I am pathetically sappy and a total sucker for love stories. I love romantic comedies. Love them. Love them. LOVE. THEM. Are they all I watch? No, of course not. Do I spend all my time talking about them? Again, of course not. Have I watched every rom-com ever made? Hell no. But do I watch a fair number of them and enjoy them, including some of the ones that are contrived and trope-y and aggravatingly dated? Yeah, pretty much.

I am a big sappy sap. I own this. I wear it proudly. Okay, maybe not always “proudly.” I didn’t, for example, run around telling anyone that I was binge-rewatching TATBILB. I mean, it’s a teen rom-com, for heaven’s sake! But binge-rewatch I did. That movie is too adorable to leave alone.

When we spoke, I let my friend know that I found her email both ridiculous and annoying as fuck. Unsurprisingly, she was defensive in the face of my annoyance. She was so shocked by my displeasure that she felt compelled to explain herself.

The reason she couldn’t accept my rom-com love? She thought my time wasted on Always would have been better spent raging about racism and other injustices. It’s what I do, you see, what she expects from me, and how could I look away from the horrors of our world to lose unrecoverable moments on frivolous crap?

Yeah.

So here’s the thing. I do spend quite a bit of time raging about injustice. That really is something I do. Sure. But does that mean I can never experience joy or love or the appreciation of a cute baby dancing or a puppy falling into his food bowl? I mean, what the hell? Also, I don’t actually exist to perform my pain for other people’s edification or enjoyment. At least not all the time. And more also? What the fuck?

I talk a lot about my anger and often reference that moment in the first Avengers movie when Bruce Banner says he’s always angry. That remains true. I really am always angry. Even when I’m not actively or visibly raging, there is an ever-molten core of rage roiling in and through me. All. The. Time. Even when I cry over sappy commercials or laugh out loud at funny stories or enjoy the mess out of a clever and charming rom-com.

My friend, I almost don’t want to say, is a white woman. She is a white woman full of righteous, indignant anger and outrage at the state of the world. She also regularly posts pictures and stories about her beautiful child, pictures and stories of her enjoying vacations in sunny climes, pictures and stories of delicious meals she is about to consume. While she does click “like” on many of my rage-y posts, I have never actually seen her post anything rage-y, have never seen her post about the things she feels righteous indignation about … not even in the simplest form of sharing my or other folks’ righteously indignant posts.

All of this says to me that, in this woman’s worldview, she has the right to be casual in her activism but I don’t. She has the right to have pleasures in her life but I don’t. She can move through her world smiling but I can’t. I exist to keep my oppression and rage on display for her because her reading my words and clicking “like” is the farthest she is willing to go in acknowledging ugliness in the world. And if I step back from the precipice even for one evening, she somehow loses something … possibly her ability to think of herself as a good white lady.

I have no time for this and said as much when we talked. It was a prickly conversation, as you might imagine. She insisted she wasn’t saying I didn’t have the right to enjoy myself, she just worried because it seemed to her I was losing sight of “the goal.” I asked her what she thought the goal was, and she said, “your liberation.”

For real. My liberation. Which will obviously never be realized if I manage to experience any pleasure in my life. Of course. Ugh.

I asked her why it was okay for her to never post about the same things I post about, and she had no ready answer, seemed surprised by my question. I hope that the response in her head didn’t begin with, “But I’m not Black…” but I will admit that I have some strong suspicions about this.

I am not her only friend of color. I met her through a friend of color, and she seems pretty solid and comfortable in that woman’s close circle, which is almost all WOC. I wonder if she behaves this way with those women. I have to imagine she doesn’t. A few of those women would surely have come for her long before now. So why do it with me? Or maybe one of them has given her a sound reading, and her takeaway from that was to not say these things to them but to me? Well, I am definitely not the one … and, if she didn’t know, now she knows.

Sigh. I hope our friendship survives this, but I really don’t know. I hope our friendship survives, but I need her to acknowledge that she understands what was wrong with her perception of me and the way she’s been comfortable using me. And I need her to at least be on the up-slope of figuring that out before we talk again. Maybe that sounds harsh, but I can’t have that kind of toxicity so close to me.

I enthusiastically recommend watching Always Be My Maybe, even if you’re not a diehard romance lover. There’s just so much to appreciate there. It might just win you over. ❤


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.