Jack Pearson, America's Favorite Dad, shows how a good man and a good father can be totally ignorant, and sort of a d*ck.
This Is Us isn't sugarcoating the tough questions in Season 4, whether that's regarding Cassidy Sharp's (Jennifer Morrison) PTSD, the reality of teenage parenthood, or Randall Pearson's (Sterling K. Brown) adolescent struggles as a black adoptee in a white family.
In the last episode, "The Dinner and the Date," two difficult dinner conversations about race and class, taking place in two different decades, overlap. The episode teased out this season's surprisingly complex themes about interracial families and socioeconomic clashes. Helming the show's unique turn is writer Kay Oyegun, who continues to elevate its creative and thematic sophistication by bringing fraught conversations to the attention of the show's 12 million viewers. Namely, how can a white family help their adopted child of color figure out his identity?
In a series of flashbacks, we witness the night Jack (Milo Ventimilgia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) Pearson invite young Randall's favorite teacher—and the only black instructor at his elite private school—Mr. Lawrence (Brandon Scott) and his wife, Trish (Skye P. Marshall), over to dinner. Simultaneously, in the present, we see Randall (Sterling K. Brown) inviting the parents of his adopted daughter's would-be boyfriend over for dinner to plan their children's breakup. Deja (Lyric Ross), the daughter of a drug addict who's experienced homelessness and abusive foster care, has served as a stark contrast to the privileged upbringing Randall had and the one he's giving his children with his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). Now her first love interest, Malik (Asante Blackk) is an earnest, kind, confident 14-year-old who understands Deja in a way no one in her upper middle class family has been able to—and he happens to have an infant daughter.
This Is Us 4x07 Promo "The Dinner And The Date" (HD) www.youtube.com
So the two conflicted dinners mix the cringe comedy of socially awkward conversations with the serious gravity—and deep, deep flaws—of Jack's comment to Mr. Lawrence: "I can't teach my son how to be black."
Mr. Lawrence's response is perfect and well-acted: a mortified snort. "Oh don't...don't do that," he chuffs, before going to his car to retrieve a book of black conscious poetry that he intended to give to Randall. Instead he gives it to Jack, who takes the collection of Langston Hughes poetry to young Randall's room, and the two bond over Randall's favorite poem, which he's already memorized.
Whether or not you're like me and hate to admit you've ever shed a tear over anything short of battery acid straight to the eye, young Randall's recitation of "I, Too" is the kind of formulaic pathos and prime time pageantry that great tear-jerkers are made of. That is to say: Yes, I f*cking wept, you cretins, and if you didn't, then you are a Black Mirror robot dog.
In its totality, this is Hughe's "I, Too" poem, and what follows is why I, Jack, and most of America caught a bug in the eye or something when young Randall recited it.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
The driving force of tension at Mr. Lawrence's dinner at the Pearson's is Jack's palpable feeling of being threatened by him. During last week's episode, "The Club," Jack struggled to articulate why he was intimidated by Randall's affinity for Mr. Lawrence. Driven partly by over-protection and probably part shame, he said that Randall is getting older and asking more complex questions "about his place in this world" and that there are things he "can't show [his] son." He even made the faux pas of telling Randall, "I don't see color, I see my son," which he quickly realized was, however well-intentioned, very off the mark, as Randall replied, "Then you don't see me, dad."
So with Mr. Lawrence and his wife sitting at his table with his children, Jack continuously makes passive aggressive remarks challenging Mr. Lawrence's right to introduce Randall to new parts of culture, like the local black arts festival that Randall asks to attend with his teacher. Jack interrupts to say that the Pearsons can all go "as a family" and leave Mr. Lawrence to go "with his friends." The tension builds until Rebecca meets Jack in the kitchen to inform him of the absolute obvious: Randall is his son; Randall will always prefer him to any other male role model in his life; but if Jack makes Randall choose him and sacrifice having other important figures who could help him learn who he is, then Randall will suffer for it.
This is Us 4x07 Sneak Peek Clip 2 "The Dinner And The Date" www.youtube.com
It's a clear cut, direct, and honest depiction of a good man and a good father (Jack is inarguably America's Favorite Dad)—being completely ignorant, and sort of a d*ck. Jack is threatened and worried that he is fundamentally lacking as a white father to a black son—not from any racial prejudice, but from insecurity in himself as a parent. He recognizes that race does matter to the world that will receive his children as adults—grievously so, in fact. He has a very human, self-protective instinct to deny and resist that reality, but he senses that doing so would be harmful to Randall in some vital way.
So really, his stumbled comment, "I can't teach Randall how to be black," is his best articulation of that anxiety and his acknowledgement of that terrible, sad fact. And he senses, in some itchy, nebulous way, that if Randall doesn't learn how to respond to the way the world will treat him, and if he doesn't learn the history of how people who looked liked him were treated, then Randall will be ill-equipped to face the world. Or, more accurately, Jack would be keeping him away from something that he needs in order to live a fully conscious life.
That's how we get to the scene in young Randall's bedroom, after he's just declared his favorite poem to be Langston Hughe's "I, Too" and recited it from memory in front of Jack, who promises that they're going to read the entire collection of poetry together.
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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