One Layer Deeper is a look at pop culture from a multicultural and global perspective. We look at movies and TV projects and dig “one layer deeper” to talk about some things you may have missed.
In this edition, we look at the new film “Chevalier,” a quirky little movie called “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu” and actress Eva Longoria’s new series on Mexican food! Let’s dig in!
The biographical drama from Searchlight and Element Pictures details the rise of Joseph Bologne, the first major composer in Europe of African descent. The film stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph Bologne, fresh off his role as B. B. King in “Elvis” and Christian in “Cyrano.” “Chevalier” also stars Samara Weaving as Marie-Josephine and Lucy Boynton as Marie Antoinette.
Bologne’s story isn’t very well-known, so let’s give you a primer: The first thing you’re probably wondering is why is a movie about Bologne called “Chevalier.” His full name is Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Loosely translated, the last part of the name means Knight of St. George. The “Saint-Georges” comes from his father, who we will talk about later. The “de” is the French version of “O” or “son,” as in O’Connor or Richardson, and is used to designate a nobleman’s son.
The “Chevalier” portion is French for knight, and that title is where the film focuses its story: Bologne earned the respect of the French nobility and was knighted, thus becoming the Chevalier of the Saint-Georges family.
Bologne’s father was Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges (quite the mouthful). He was the grandson of a Dutch Huguenot and was a plantation owner and slaver in Guadeloupe, a French colony in the Caribbean.
The elder Saint-Georges was married but fathered a child with his wife’s enslaved chambermaid from Senegal, who was only 15 years old. In an act that was uncommon for the time, Bologne’s father gave him his last name and sent him to Paris, France to be educated.
This is where Bologne’s notoriety begins as he excels at everything he does.
The movie sets the scene of pre-revolution France, Paris in particular. Race relations intertwine with class issues and tensions are at a breaking point.
Bologne is not only a skilled violinist, but he’s skilled at combat and an excellent swordsman. At one point, he’s part of the king’s personal guard. His love for music distracts him from the business of war and combat.
Note the world events encircling Bologne: 1776 marks the declaration of independence of the North American colonies from Britain, and in the following years, France’s involvement in the revolution.
France would have to contend with its own revolution in 1789 as well as subsequent revolts in 1791 by enslaved people on its colony in Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti. Bologne finds himself involved in the French Revolution, as well as Haiti’s struggle for independence.
The backdrop of the political climate is important when considering Bologne’s achievement in music. And that backdrop is important to understand when a romantic relationship ultimately leads to the demise of his music career. Also, Bologne navigates his status as an immigrant both in France and then in Haiti.
In both circumstances, he fights alongside the French army to quell the revolution, and one must wonder if he becomes such a fierce nationalist in order to overcompensate for his immigrant status. We look forward to this offering and the treatment of the story.
The backdrop of the political climate is important when considering Bologne’s achievement in music.
‘The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu’
This spunky film tells the story of a woman who immigrates to the United States from China and builds a family and goes on an adventure with her granddaughter to relive old memories.
The director and writer Anna Chi sets out to tell a tale of an epic, stereotype-bashing road trip while recanting the family’s journey in the United States. She assembles a cast of veteran actors such as Lisa Lu (Lily Wu), Archie Kao (David Wu) and Adrian Carter (Brian Carter), while introducing us to newcomers like Rochelle Ying (Emma Carter).
We pick up the story of Lily Wu, the title character, celebrating her 88th birthday in a nursing home. Pretty soon, we realize she has a plot afoot and she, her granddaughter and caretaker are about to set out on an adventure.
‘Grandmothers are all the same’
When we first meet Mrs. Wu, she has biting commentary for her children and the people surrounding her. It seems the only one she’s nice to is her granddaughter, Emma, with whom she has a special bond.
Everyone in range of Mrs. Wu’s snarkiness chalks it up to the fact that she is a Chinese mother.
“That’s just how they are,” everyone seems to accept.
You may have watched this and invoked your own ethnicity and did a comparison. We hear the same criticisms about Jewish mothers, African mothers, Caribbean mothers, Greek mothers and the list goes on. The trope is widespread and becoming overused, albeit based in factual circumstances.
What all the women in the trope have in common is a desire to hold on to traditional cultural values in a country not their own. Couple that with the ability to speak one’s mind freely after a certain age, and you get the curmudgeonly mother always criticizing their children.
Therapy in POC communities
There are a lot of actions in this movie that come off as odd behavior which are probably undiagnosed mental disorders. Mrs. Wu obsessively scratches her name into a rock. Years later, her daughter repeatedly sanitizes her hands.
What all the women in the trope have in common is a desire to hold on to traditional cultural values in a country not their own.
By themselves, they may seem innocuous, but a good therapist will tell you that these are signs of underlying issues. That neither of these women seek help from a professional is most likely a manifestation of the fact that communities of color view therapy as taboo.
When being seen as weak or called crazy are stigmatized, communities frown upon seeking professional help for mental disorders. Instead, manageable diagnoses go untreated and passed off as quirks.
Food as memory agents
Many cultures place food in a very high regard and center many of their traditions around the preparation and consumption of meals. As a result, food serves as shorthand for sentiments in many cultures.
We see spicy noodles, Irish soda bread, and dumplings as reminders of cultures and memories.
The look on the character’s faces when they talk about or think about these foods confirms the recall power they have.
The movie spends a large amount of time challenging stereotypes and being surprised when they are proven to be false.
The running theme is that one character fears their non-traditional worldview will not be well received, only to find out that the people they were concerned were far more open-minded: Emma is afraid to tell her mother she is interested in a boy outside of her race when her mother is married to a non-Chinese man. Karen is afraid to tell her best friend that she is gay. Emma and Karen misjudge a pair of bikers only to find out they’re nice guys and gay.
The message is heavy-handed and repetitive; we get the point.
It was lovely that Mrs. Wu’s caretaker, Charlotte, says that when she came here from Ireland and became a nanny to a Chinese family that she created her own “American” (US) family. It’s beautiful when the immigrant story is enough to bind people, even if they’re not from the same country.
Mrs. Wu tells Emma to be an ally to Brian because in their family and in their community, he is the outsider and needs her support. It’s an example of how we float in and out of the dominant culture.
“Let me go. Let me be free,” she writes on the side of a van. It was very interesting that Mrs. Wu writes it in Chinese, knowing that only a few people (the ones that needed to) could read it. She knew Emma could let her go, but her daughter could not.
Even though this project was clunky in places and the greener actors distracted from the plot, the intentions were good, and the lessons were sound, if not overstated.
Eva Longoria: ‘Searching for Mexico’
Next up is a delightful series from Eva Longoria. She serves as executive producer and the host for this trip into Mexican food culture and history. It’s called “Searching For Mexico” and could have easily been called “Finding Mexico.”
As in “The Disappearance of Mrs. Wu,” food serves as a memory agent but, in this series, it is front and center.
Longoria takes you to different parts of the country to show that Mexican cuisine is far more complex than tacos and burritos. She pays homage to the history of each location she visits and links the influences of the indigenous and immigrant populations that lend their heritage to the food’s style.
Even when discussing the ubiquitous taco, Longoria showcases the diversity within that food item.
As we follow Longoria, the country of Mexico unfolds and, for some, it may be the first time they see how truly diverse the nation’s regions are, and therefore the people who live there.
The first episode makes a point of also speaking about the different people who all immigrated to Mexico, and Mexico City in particular. This is crucial to the power of this conversation around food but also a critical shift in mindset for residents of the United States and Canada, where the popular narrative is that Mexicans are immigrants to other nations, as opposed to a nation welcoming immigrants.
That shift in the power dynamic is refreshing and elevates the people and, by proxy, the food they create.
The series is currently running on Amazon Prime and you can catch the first episode for free.
We hope you enjoy these three offerings. Until next time, keeping digging!