In the themes it explores and relationality it depends on, the Best Man Holiday is a black movie in the best sense of the term. Full of imagination, not of a future possible life, but a life together that is already present and available now, it highlights the besideness of blackness that I’ve posited as a refusal of the unitive logic of reconciliation. In the past two posts I’ve attempted to sketch some thoughts on why reconciliation is antiblack, antiChrist, and against being together. More than a treatise on how social justice work needs to be done better by churches, these posts have been intended as a critique of the logic by which Christianity reproduces itself as coloniality. As an overcoming of difference through unity, and especially as an overcoming of blackness through the universally reconciling white body of the white Christ.
Here, I simply want to make a few points about why the film stands out to me as an example of some of the ways I’ve been trying to articulate blackness as a being beside each other in a way that doesn’t depend on a reconciliation, and originary or teleological unity, or an overcoming of difference. Some of the points I will touch on are precarity and vulnerability, friendship, and the relationship between belief and disbelief in blackness. In all of this, I’m trying to gesture at the kind of relationality, vulnerability, and care that I think characterizes what I mean by blackness and it’s possibility of being a space in difference rather than the overcoming of difference. I’ll try not to spoil anything too gratuitously, but I also dislike spoiler warnings and won’t be employing them. Read at your own risk.
One of the reasons the Best Man Holiday was such a great film to me is because of the ways it avoided emotionally manipulating its audience. Part of this seems dependent on the actors and directors refusing the kind of easy relationship resolutions that plague holiday films. Instead, this film shows a considerable amount of depth in the themes it explores and the multiple levels of vulnerability and precarity it shows. Moreover, it gestures at the ways various kinds of precarity and vulnerability affect the web of relationality we find ourselves in. While the film isn’t explicitly political or “race-based” as USA Today wanted to claim, there are ways in which the current political, racial, and gendered landscapes are able to read in the background of the film.
Indeed, it is Harper’s economic precarity that is the catalyst for the film staging encounters between this group of old friends and acquaintances. Having been laid off as a professor at NYU, facing refusal from publishers to back his latest novel, and expecting the near arrival of a baby with his wife, Robin’s, Harper feels an intense amount of pressure to find a solution to his families economic instability. So pressed is Harper, that he considers exploiting his relationship with, Lance Sullivan, a record-breaking NFL running back who is in his final season and headed for retirement. While his relationship with Lance has been estranged since Harper’s first novel outed the author and Lance’s now-wife, Mia, as having slept together (which is the subject of the first film), Harper’s agent suggests he convince the football star to let Harper write his biography as a way to make money quickly and stabilize his finances. Since Mia has sent multiple invitations to Harper and Robin, asking them to come to a holiday weekend with their old college friends, Harper decides this might be the chance to get enough information about Lance to make a pitch and convince his former friend to let him write his biography.
It’s not an explicit gesture to a political agenda or racism, but the characterization of Harper’s economic precarity throughout the film is true to the reality of job insecurity in the academy, the marginalization of black authors and the difficulty their work has getting support, and the high costs of medical care. This precarity is also extended to the health issues of various characters that gets at gendered issues as well as the vulnerability of bodies in general. Robin and Harper have experienced miscarriages in the past, and Harper has taken to trying to police Robin’s behavior in order to ensure it doesn’t happen again while Robin, even while scared, is quite firm in her understanding of her body and her ability to take care of herself and the coming baby. Even as the group of friends seems to be predominately well to do, there are ways in which they’re all touched by precarity.
Another important point I think the film raises is the extent to which we have to be friends to care for one another. The emphasis on friendship as the possibility for ending racism and white supremacy is misguided and distracting, and I think this film shows why we don’t need to like each other to want better for each other. In the film, there is conflict between many of the characters. Robin dislikes Jordan. Shelby and Candace go head to head. Lance and Harper’s relationship is tense for most of the film. Indeed, for a holiday film about a group of old friend’s coming together, there are quite a lot of relationships that are not friendly. And yet, this gestures to the ways in which the relationality of the besides is not about friendship, per se (though it can be about that, too). Instead it’s about what I mentioned at the end of my last post. A kind of persistence or faithfulness towards one another–towards consenting to be together. While some might think of queer descriptions of kinship and chosen families, I think the relationality depicted here is different in that many of these relationships are not about choice. This film depicts a relationality, or kinship, borne out of the extension of other relations. So it is Robin’s relationship with Harper that brings her into the space she has to share with Jordan, and Mia’s relationship with Shelby that brings Shelby into a space where she’s not particularly liked by anyone other than Mia, and Harper’s relationships with Robin and their baby that makes him attempt to mend his relationship with Lance. And more extensions like this exist in all the characters relationships. What would it mean to think about doing better by each other because we understand our social relations as extending to touch one another? So that, even if we don’t have the level of intimacy that friendship requires, we have the level of intimacy that sharing space requires.
This understanding of relationships coming into being through extension also refuses teleology. Because these relationships are not borne out of a choice in being together, the film doesn’t see the need to end with all these friendships returning to some originary unity that they have been severed from. And this refusal of return is also the refusal of a teleology that posits the consummation of difference into a final unity. And I think this is particularly clear in the way Harper’s disbelief doesn’t become taken up within Lance’s believing, or vice versa.1 The acknowledgment is that these lives have, since they have known each other, always been entangled in ways that aren’t neat, aren’t always kind or loving towards one another, aren’t always happy and friendly. Instead of friendship as the foundation of these encounters, they are bound together in some kind of way that exceeds their personal desires to be joined as individuals. Shelby’s short apology to Candace at the end of the film, Robin’s offering Jordan tissues and sitting beside her after the group discovers some tragic news, Harper holding Lance near the final scene–these moments get at the ways in which, even when we aren’t the best of friends or friend’s at all, even with the changes and estrangements and new ways of negotiating our relationships that occur throughout our lives, it is possible for us to care for one another without friendship being the driving force. Rather, it is a being together–a recognition that we are together in the wilderness–that gives this kind of understanding of care. This understanding doesn’t require a unity or conversion as the justification for justice, the way that reconciliation does, and so enables us to care about the quality of our social lives, about the violence and vulnerabilities that attend black life, about the increasing precarity we all inhabit in a neoliberal system.
I look forward to reading other folk’s take on the film, if they’ve seen it, or other thoughts around themes I’ve discussed here.
1. This is one my favorite parts of the film. Especially how it’s no big deal in the group of friends that Harper doesn’t have faith in the way Lance does. Also, I appreciated that Harper’s disbelief and Lance and Mia’s belief isn’t pathologized. Harper doesn’t attempt to get beyond religious language or to have his friend’s get beyond their religiosity in order to be together with each other. Indeed, in his eulogy, Harper especially seems to recognize the richness of religious vocabulary for articulating their life together. Similarly, Mia recognizes how Lance is using his faith to avoid dealing with the reality of her deteriorating health. Lance is invoking miracles as a way of getting beyond the precarity of their actual situation. Rather than asking for more faith and belief from Harper, Mia recognizes Harper’s disbelief (or rather, his belief in the reality of suffering Mia is experiencing and sharing with him) as being able necessary to bringing Lance out of his belief which is actually his disbelief in the reality of suffering Mia is experiencing and trying to share with him. Rather than belief and disbelief being oppositional forces that are overcome by some originary unity, they are differences that are able to remain together as much as they enable the friend’s to live in the now with each other. I think Ashon Crawley’s storify on black disbelief is quite useful for thinking with here.