Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express the commitments of their communities.
This past spring, I thought it would be fun to spend a leisurely afternoon with a good friend, seeing the movie Jumping the Broom (now available for home viewing). The film features some of my favorite actresses, Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine, and I like going to movies that show African-American romances, families and friendships if they aren’t too stereotypical or offensive. My trusted Entertainment Weekly assured me that this would meet my criteria: “Yes, there really is a way to make a boisterous, dramatic comedy about African-American life better than Tyler Perry does….You’ll laugh — a lot — but you’ll also shed tears of recognition at this funny, salty, strife-torn look at the agony and ecstasy of family,” said critic Owen Gleiberman.
But after the opening scene, I knew it was not going to be a pleasant afternoon.
The movie starts with our heroine, Sabrina Watson, having regrets the morning after a one-night stand. The man she is with is on the phone talking to another woman. Sabrina is humiliated and starts praying to God to get her out of this situation with her dignity. If God helps her get out, she promises to abstain from sex. Sabrina vows to only “share my cookies with her future husband… and God, because it’s obvious I don’t know how to spot a human being, could you please make it clear who you want me to be with?” She wants God to make it very clear. In the next scene, she hits her dream man with car and remarks upon God’s sense of humor. I was not laughing.
As someone who, for the past few years, has been examining moral agency in light of women’s experience, I was offended and disappointed by Jumping the Broom. The moral decision making exhibited by movie’s main female characters’ lacks trust in their own voice. More often than not, they abdicate their own agency, placing decisions in the hands of men or God. When the women do make decisions, they are questioned and either overruled or forced to face the disastrous consequences of their choices. In other words, when they choose for themselves, they are wrong.
Viewers are led to believe that Sabrina’s decision to allow God to choose her future husband has paid off. She is soon engaged to Jason Taylor (the man she hit with her car) and they are having a wedding at her family’s home in Martha’s Vineyard. This is where most of the story takes place, as the film centers on the days leading up their wedding. As the couple finalizes plans for the ceremony with her minister, played by T.D. Jakes (who is also one of the film’s producers), the Bible verse she wants read is rejected in favor of one the minister suggests.
Determining which elements represent the couple’s values and which ones are a “cultural necessity” and therefore will be included in the wedding becomes more of an issue as the story progresses. Whether or not the couple will “jump the broom” is up for debate. The film presents the issue as a conflict between the “upper crust sensibilities” of Sabrina’s family and the “straight-out-of-Brooklyn” sensibility of Jason’s mother, who jumped the broom and wants her son to do so also. When Sabrina decides to incorporate the broom at the end their ceremony, it seems to represent her acceptance of her mother-in-law in her life, her desire to make peace with the woman, or perhaps her willingness to see her mother-in-law’s point of view. I interpreted it differently. I saw the situation as one in which a woman is being asked to compromise her reasonable position in order to make others happy and to subscribe to the dominant tradition in her culture. Sabrina states that she does not want to jump the broom because it is a tradition she does not relate to. Jason agrees with her at first, but when his mother protests, he wants to do it because although he “does not care” about the ritual, it would please his mother. Sabrina was questioned about the decision, pressured to change her mind, and in the end, happily does so.
Jason’s widowed mother, Pam Taylor, is not nearly as much a people-pleaser as Sabrina. She is a woman who does make her own decisions and therefore suffers for them. She provokes several arguments between members of the two families, but her worst decision is to reveal a secret she has learned about the bride’s family. Although Pam has prayed and read her Bible before this action, her brother Willie Earl is insistent that her actions were not guided by God. The implication is that if she had really listened to God, she would not have made a bad choice. Throughout the movie, Willie Earl and Pam’s best friend Shonda act as her moral conscience. Pam’s own moral judgment is clouded by loneliness and fear of losing her son. I would have loved to see this woman make a decision that not merely reactive. I would have especially loved it if her family and friends address the legitimate emotions that provoked her poor decisions instead of lecturing her. She needed compassion, not a sermon about her failings as a single mother.
Finally, although Shonda performs the function of moral conscience for Pam, there is little deliberation or decision making for herself. The moral dilemma of this minor character is whether or not to engage in some sort of relationship with a younger man who is pursuing her. She does not seem to be interested in him throughout the movie, despite finding him attractive. Of course, for the sake of a happy ending, she gives him her email address to keep in touch after he steps up and kisses her, presumably demonstrating his manhood.
There are other women in the film- Sabrina’s friend Blythe, her aunt Geneva, and wedding planner Amy—who are depicted with similar flaws in their agency. They are caricatures of familiar stereotypes: the young, single woman whose standards are too high; the aging single woman who gives suitors the brush-off; the white woman who is both intrigued and confused by black culture. The film’s men help these women see their flaws and soften their harsh postures.
Despite a few scenes where women authentically bond with each other and support one another, I left the movie feeling that the writers and producers either don’t know real black women or they dislike them. Why else would they portray the women’s decision-making abilities so negatively? As a black woman myself, the messages I took from this morality tale are: (1) I do not know what I want. I might I think I do, but in these cases what I want is not what is best for me. Therefore, (2) decisions are best left to God alone, a man who represents “Him,” or my closest male companion (brother, husband, fiancé, son) (3) When it comes to religious and cultural rituals, it is best to go along with what will make most people happy. These ceremonies do not need to reflect my specific identity because maintaining cultural norms is more important. No wonder I felt depressed and angry after leaving this “comedy.”