January 7, 2018

Parents, sacrifice, and cinema

There was a moment in Lady Bird, when Christine heads to college with nothing but her two suitcases, that I started to tear up.

At the end of the summer after high school graduation, I packed up everything I owned, including a quilt and some pillows, into to suitcases and flew to Washington DC to start my college life. The cost of airfare was prohibitive for my whole family to come with me, and taking time off of work to drive down wasn’t financially possible for my parents, so I hopped on a plane and landed in DC ready to start a new chapter, on my own.

We don’t realize the sacrifices our parents make when we are living through them; we don’t notice the hardships they put themselves through, the stress they need to absorb to make sure you live a life that is better than theirs. It took a long time for my parents to be financially stable in this country—in the meantime, they did whatever they had to do to make sure I got the experiences I needed and wanted in order to become who I wanted to be. As a young boy, I sometimes interpreted their reluctance, hesitance, or discipline as disdain; I realize now that many of their decisions were borne of constraints, and the things we do for the people we love despite the pressures and constraints we face.

I wonder what it says about me that the lasting sensations from the past three movies I’ve watched have all been about family. Perhaps I’m growing nostalgic as I age; perhaps the physical distance between my parents and I is growing heavy on me like it never did when I was younger. Or perhaps, now, I’m just noticing all the things that parents do—in life, and in the movies—for their children, every day.

The thread of parental sacrifice is clear in Lady Bird, and resonates as the emotional heart of the film. Laurie Metcalf deserves the accolades and praise she is getting: in her, I see my father, doing everything he can for me, but knowing that I will only understand the reason for his decisions decades later.

We watched The Last Jedi on Christmas Eve, in between an abundance of family events while we were out on the west coast. While the parent-child dynamic is most obvious in the Kylo Ren story, it is most poignant in the lack of story that is Rey’s parentage. Rey is nobody, from nowhere” and this is her strength: she uses that to build her own family, to identify her own parents”—elders who can guide her to become who she needs to be. She is a nobody from nowhere who becomes a somebody; it is a tale of aspiration for those of us who had humble beginnings but strive to make the world around us a little bit better every day.

That is the legacy of parents and family in The Last Jedi: that we are not defined by the places from where we come, but instead by the people who shape us. In many cases, this is our family; where that family does not exist, we find and create our own.

Lady Bird and The Last Jedi, for all their emotional poignancy, were light and easy compared to Mudbound, a title apt for a film that drags you into the morass of racism that we still are stuck in today. The racial dynamics—the systemic prejudice against families of color that hinders their advancement, the overt hatred of white people who feel threatened by good and hard-working people of color, the bystander-effect of those who disagree but do nothing to stop the atrocities—from the post-war era have not disappeared today; they manifest themselves in different ways.

Mudbound, however, is more than just a film about race—it is about family. It is about learning about respect and diligence and autonomy from our parents, and also learning where they are wrong so that we avoid making their same mistakes and thinking in the same way. Mudbound is a story about parents making sacrifices, some good and some bad, and about trying to understand, as we grow, what we will learn from each of those decisions they make for us.

My parents made immense sacrifices for me, and made decisions that were in my best interest that I am only realizing now just how hard they were for them at the time. (If only I was to have had that insight at the time, how much I would have acted differently.) We are shaped by our caregivers, by our families; we are made into whole people by their presence and absence.

Cinema tells these stories of parentage in ways we don’t always notice. These days, I notice more and more.