Monday, June 30, 2008

Make our bed and we'll say our grace

Back in April, Mi Cuñado, the SoCal boy raised on movie culture, was shocked --shocked-- that Mi Hermana and I had never seen Coming to America. He tried to convince me that it was, in part, a unique take on the immigrant experience. Sometimes I can never tell when he's kidding (like when he said he might caucus for McCain because on closer inspection his immigration stance is "stronger"). But that's cool.

At any rate, turns out he was pulling my leg about Coming to America. Again. I think. . . .

As is well documented, I am not the biggest fan of any story involving a romance plot with a prince or princess, mythical or real: all of my defensive heckles about classicism and gender imbalances are immediately raised. Sometimes the genre is clever, but most of the time it just reinforces unhealthy socioeconomic hierarchies and the stereotypic gender roles that go with them.

This one wasn't all that different. As a royal-heir-escapes-pampered-life-to-find-self-and-future-spouse tale, it's the saaaame storyline as Enchanted and The Prince and I and a host of other stories. The only difference is that in Coming to America the mythical kingdom is the always-vague "somewhere in Africa," and all the people in the movie are black. Only difference. (Unfortunately, that difference might lead some to automatically categorize the film as immediately intellectually inferior or aimed a "specific" audience.)

Coming to America wasn't wonderfully hilarious, but it wasn't bad. I liked it. The viewer does have to take the slightly offensive (but tongue-in-cheek?) depictions of "Africans" in light of the fact that the fairy tale genre does the same thing with "Europeans." It does get booster points for satire, though -- especially for making fun of McDonald's! Also, the scene where the Queens residents steal the prince's suitcases and the unsubtle shot of blood on the walls in the apartment that Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall eventually rent cracked me up more than they probably should have.

Mi Cuñado was perhaps speaking with a grain of truth, though, when he attempted to pass off the film as one sympathetic to the immigrant experience. As a fairy tale movie, it follows the genre's standard formula. But if you look at it instead through the lens of the "fairy tale" of the American rags-to-riches story, it's much more fascinating. And what is the American Dream, which includes American immigration experiences, but a type of fairy tale? One that, as one of my college professors used to reiterate and reiterate and reiterate, "we tell ourselves about ourselves"?

The first plot line viewed this way is the most obvious: the prince and his equally spoiled servant, no matter how educated or important in their country of origin, are frequently the butt of jokes, discrimination, and targeting in America, and with few credentials recognized in a new country take on jobs scoffed at by "regular" Americans. The second American fairy tale is the McDowell's restaurant owner, who builds his Golden Arches-like restaurant from nothing and wants his daughters not to have to struggle like he did. Lastly, woven throughout the story are snippets of homeless guys getting unexpected donations, poor residents opportunistically making off with the prince's suitcases, and tons of references to "hot" or stolen items bringing a "better" lifestyle.

Money always equals "success" in any version of any fairy-tale story, which is cynical but perhaps a tad realistic in any capitalist economy: money buys security and food and warmer clothes and safer schools and better health . . . The Disney-fied analogy brings freedom from a curse, an overbearing stepmother, fabulous clothes, and an ever-after that is happy generally only if it is in an isolated, suburban-like manor. This is half of the reason I'm skeptical of fairy tales. (The other half is how women are expected to act, but then that was obvious.)

So as fairy tale stories go (however "fairy tale" is interpreted), I liked this one better than most. The overall story arc was predictable and boring and irritatingly sappy. (It was also one huge reminder of the terrible fashion trends of the '80s, and why it's okay to hide old photographs.) But the better moments were in the details.

Or rather, what the viewer can project onto the details... Maybe Mi Cuñado knew that. ;-P

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