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Jumping the Broom

May 7, 2011
Jumping the Broom

It has been pointed out that the primary tension in American life is not race, but class. This is not to say that race isn’t an issue, but that many of its problems are also those of class, and as race slowly — very slowly — fades the issues of class become more and more prominent. In light of this, Jumping the Broom is in large part a meditation on what it means to be African-American at a time when African-American culture is more and more visibly diverse, and class differences begin to emerge within it.

Now, I must again give my standard disclaimer that I can’t say I have any direct experience with what it means to be African-American; my perspective is strictly that of an outsider. However, these concerns are not new or unique to the African-American experience. We are, after all, still only a matter of decades past the divisions between “lace-curtain” and “shanty-town” Irish, and jokes still circulate about the former being distinguished from the latter by the fact that they move the dishes aside before urinating in the kitchen sink. Class becomes an issue for any group as it integrates more and more thoroughly with the wider American culture.

Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) and Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) meet in Manhattan. She’s a lawyer on a fast career track, and he’s a vice-president at Goldman-Sachs. They immediately hit it off, and after five months of a whirlwind romance, he proposes to her. But this is all prologue.

Sabrina comes from money; her mother Claudine (Angela Bassett) comes from money, her father (Brian Stokes Mitchell) is an investment banker, and they have an expansive estate on Martha’s Vineyard. Jason’s fortune, on the other hand, is hard-won. His mother Pam (Loretta Devine) works for the postal service in Brooklyn and his father has passed away, putting Jason’s upbringing squarely into the middle class — not impoverished by any means, but not without its sacrifices. And what with the speed of their courtship, the obvious clash of cultures has not had a chance to come up before the wedding.

Which wedding, of course, will be held on the Watson’s picturesque estate. Pam’s introduction to Sabrina and the rest of her soon-to-be in-laws comes as she arrives with her best friend Shonda (Tasha Smith), her husband’s brother Willie Earl (Mike Epps), and her nephew Malcolm (DeRay Davis). The Watsons, for their part, are joined by Sabrina’s flighty aunt Geneva (Valarie Pettiford), her maid of honor Blythe (Meagan Good), and her cousin Sebastian (Romeo Miller). And there are also a reverend (T.D. Jakes), a chef (Gary Dourdan), and a token obliviously white wedding planner (Julie Bowen) floating around. The house is full, and it only takes a little shaking to get people rubbing each other the wrong way.

The extremes of the tension are personified in Claudine and Pam. Clearly the Watsons have the home-field advantage, and she feels her traditions and heritage are being trampled underfoot, particularly the tradition of jumping the broom. Claudine, on the other hand, is almost completely tone-deaf to anyone’s concerns but her own. But the actors are arranged along a spectrum between these two ends, with various mixtures of sympathy for each viewpoint and opinions on how best to deal with the differences.

The underlying mismatch of the two leads is accentuated by a series of more obviously mismatched couples along the way. These little side stories help break up the main narrative and maintain our interest at the same time as they explore other variations on the overall theme of class differences. It’s an interesting technique, and very effectively employed by screenwriters Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs. Credit is also due to the solid work of first-time director Salim Akil.

The whole cast is engaging and capable, though they largely play roles that are each pretty standard for the given actors. The only real standout I noticed was Epps, who has a real knack for being a moral center while avoiding becoming a moralist.

Does Jumping the Broom effectively cover the whole dialogue on class within the African-American community? surely not. But what it does cover is balanced and compassionate to both sides, and for an outsider it’s a rare chance to see the variations in and nuances in a culture that is too often presented as monolithic.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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