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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 19, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Jumping the Broom, "World's Dumbest"

About the movie Jumping the Broom, four words are really quite enough: Best. Wedding. Movie. Ever.

And yet, when have I ever stopped with "enough" words?

This is an ensemble movie with an all-black cast -- usually a signature of a Tyler Perry movie. But there is no Madea in this show. Delightful though Madea (and Perry's other signature caricatures) usually are, they never quite belong in the same movie as actors attempt to portray more realistic characters.

The writers -- Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs -- have written a far more believable and natural script than Tyler Perry has ever achieved, though to be fair that is probably owed to Perry's roots in live theatre, where he plays with and banters with the audience as if he were actually a humorous lecturer and the scenes of the show were merely illustrations of the points he wants to make.

Tyler Perry's commercial success has opened the door for African-American domestic comedies; now other filmmakers are walking through that door and doing work that by some measures, at least, is better. The actors in Jumping the Broom are given more measured, less melodramatic dialogue, and while there are fewer laughs than in a Tyler Perry movie, there is more heart and truth.

This is the story of a wedding between Jason Taylor, a man who has raised himself to some measure of wealth and position from his roots in a humble neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Sabrina Watson, whose mother comes from old money and whose father is a man of international finance.

At first the movie seems to be about the two mothers -- and in matriarchal black society, it is only appropriate. Jason's mother, known to us only as Mrs. Taylor (Loretta Devine) is a tough-minded widow who is not merely skeptical but openly hostile to the Watsons, assuming -- correctly -- that they think they are better than she and her kin.

But Mrs. Watson, played by Angela Bassett, is every bit as hostile and protective of her family; her family's propensity to break into French whenever they wish to say something rude is unbelievably offensive, and the Taylors take offense.

Still, this is not just a movie about a war between dragons. In both families there are old injuries and secrets too long unspoken, and the war brings them all out. The writers walk a delicate balance -- in black society, even if a matriarch is completely in the wrong, she must be treated with respect, and they took care to keep the men in the movie sympathetic by never letting them humiliate these two dragons.

Now let's speak openly about the blackness of this comedy. Where Perry sometimes relies on in-jokes that white people usually do not get (I have found that black audience members are usually quite happy to give me quick explanations), these filmmakers understood that great movies reach beyond the boundaries of any one community.

You don't have to be an Elizabethan Englishman to understand Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and you don't have to be African-American to get what's going on in Jumping the Broom. On the contrary, the script makes everything clear to everyone, so that while the film is absolutely true to black culture, audience members who do not know that culture from the inside are invited to see the universal human values in this powerful story.

There are many laughs, but the actors never seem to play for laughs alone; they are, first and foremost, real people, which is why, by the end, the story is so very satisfying. Even where the plot seems inevitable if not predictable -- they will get married, of course, however rough the road -- the way in which they come about is believable, and the writing never seemed to me to be a servant.

Ultimately, this is a story of good people who are trying to do good -- as they understand it -- and by the end, their understanding has been greatly deepened and improved. So is the audience, to a degree, but mostly we are delighted, entertained, amused, and impressed with stellar performances and well-written dialogue.

This is a comedy where clowns like Martin Lawrence and Cedric the Entertainer would have nothing to do, and I must say that is one of the best things about it. There are fewer cheap sight gags than in My Best Friend's Wedding (which I now regard as the second-best wedding movie ever), and its healthy dose of sexual candor is balanced with genuine religious feeling and serious commitments.

This is a movie I will see again, happily, and I hope you'll see it, too.

*

The June/July Reader's Digest had a delightful section on "The World's Dumbest Criminals, Celebrities, Lawsuits, Tweets, and more!" Their prediction that I'd "laugh," I'd "cry," I'd "feel so smart" was amply fulfilled.

Nowhere did I feel smarter than on page 125, where they listed "Umm ... Dumb Words." Apparently they swallowed whole a listing from Lake Superior State University's 2011 "List of Banished Words."

Now, it would be hard to imagine anything dumber than for any university to presume to "banish" words. Words are created through consensus of the speakers of a language, and they rarely submit to authority.

Even in countries like France and Spain, where an academy makes fiats about which words may or may not be used in print, the futility of the French ban on English loanwords like "le weekend" has made a joke of such rulings.

If any institution in the English-speaking world should ever have authority over our language, I suspect Lake Superior State University would not be among the first 500 choices for that role.

One might suppose that the Reader's Digest was including Lake Superior State University among their list of "dumbest" for even making the attempt, but no -- Reader's Digest was actually inviting us to heap scorn upon those who use the "banished" words.

They are mistaken, for without exception, it is the Reader's Digest which is dumb for buying such claptrap.

For instance, LSSU's list would ban the phrase "the American people," with the explanation "Aren't all Americans people?"

No, I must reply, but not all people are Americans, and since "American" in this context serves as an adjective, "the American people" serves to distinguish us from, say, "people" or "the Mayan people." The phrase "the _____ people" is a common one, and there is no less reason to plug "American" into the adjective slot than any other identifier.

Fortunately, however, when I look at the LSSU website, I find that this phrase was nominated by mere civilians, not by lofty academics, and there is apparently no effort to assure that the nominators make any sense at all.

Likewise, someone wants to ban the film term "backstory" on the grounds that "a perfectly good word already exists -- history."

Well, not really. Backstory has a specific meaning: the events in a character's past which explain his present actions. His history (actually, biography would be more appropriate) would include vast amounts of irrelevant information. Backstory is a precise term that is in constant use in the world of film because there is constant need for it.

In fact, this is a principle of language formation that would-be word-banners never seem to comprehend (because, presumably, they are "dumb"): There are no needless words. If a word is not needed, it falls into disuetude (like, for instance, disuetude) and nobody understands it anymore. It dies.

Terms that are in common use are there for a reason. "BFF," for instance, is mocked on the LSSU site (and in Reader's Digest), but one must remember that its usage has shifted from the world of sincere 13-year-old girls ("best friends forever") to more cynical older people who use it ironically. But the irony utterly escapes the LSSU correspondent who nominated the term ... because she is, alas, "dumb."

The word "epic" has gone through a vogue as a replacement for "awesome," and so it is overused and trivialized, but so what? This is a self-punishing offense. Some words survive such overuse ("cool," "wonderful") and others become ridiculous or quaint ("groovy," "keen"). Who would be so "dumb" as to try to ban a term, when it serves so well to identify unoriginal people?

Then someone goes after the term "man up" as "A stupid phrase when directed at men. Even more stupid when directed at women."

After so many years in which men have been told not to act like men, I rather like it. "Be tough," the phrase is saying. "Take it," "Do your job," "Stop whining." Quite a lot to pack into a mere pair of words. Nothing "dumb" about it.

Plus, I like the overtones of telling a child to grow up into an adult role. This is what carries over into the phrase's use with women. Besides, it's also a term worthy of the best feminist tradition. Haven't feminists been demanding that women "man up" all along?

They also go after "viral," and I admit that I'm also weary of hearing things described as "going viral." But the phrase has an honest history, and accurately describes a phenomenon that exists only on the internet. To say that a video, news story, or picture has "gone viral" conveys something that can be said economically in no other way.

One might as well complain about the overuse of the term "epidemic" -- it isn't overused when you use it to describe an epidemic. There is no term for going viral except "going viral," and so to ban the phrase is to attempt to ban talking about the phenomenon.

But the truth is that there is nothing so "dumb" as to expect language to obey the preferences of any particular group of people. I recently heard someone disdain the phrase "the single most important" as completely redundant. "If something is the most important then it is, by definition, single," the complainer would have us believe.

Such complaints merely reveal the complainer's ignorance of language. We need intensifiers to try to raise an idea out of the soup of ordinary conversation. If you say, "This is the most important idea to emerge in the past year" your listeners are likely to tune it out, or reduce it in meaning to "This is an important idea," because of so many similar claims.

Adding the word "single" is like adding "very" -- it tries to push the idea a little harder in order to get more of the listener's attention. "This is the single most important idea to emerge in the past year" is more emphatic, and a perfectly legitimate thing for speakers of a language to do.

That's why we have such redundancies or absurdities as "the most unique artist working today" or "that's a whole different thing" or even "that's a whole 'nother thing." This is simply how language works to try to combat overuse, by tacking on intensifiers.

I remember when our youngest was just learning how to speak. She came in from outdoors on a winter day and announced, "It's soakin' cold outside!" She had heard the word "soakin'" used as an intensifier with "wet," and shifted it to intensify "cold" as well. Why not?

After all, the French took the intensifier "step" (pas) from phrases like "Don't move a step" and began to apply it to all negatives -- "Don't eat a step," "Don't speak a step."

If that wasn't absurd enough, pas has become so ubiquitous that it is not longer necessary to include the negative (ne), so that to say "don't" you have merely to say pas.

"Step" has become the universal negative. Absurd? Indeed -- yet that's how words shift usage over time as languages evolve.

So what's really "dumb" is to waste time calling people who speak differently from your preferences "dumb."


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