Mr. Church: Just Another Film About a Black Man Being a White Woman’s Servant

Eddie Murphy (Mr. Church) and Britt Robertson (Charlotte) in the film Mr. Church
Mr. Church via YouTube screenshot

White Hollywood is nothing if not a microcosm of white America, a place where shucking and jiving, bucking and jumping, "Yes, suh; no, ma'am" Negroes are more readily accepted than their revolutionary counterparts. This country has a fetish with subservient black men that translates into adoration on-screen.

It makes perfect sense to me, then, that Bruce Beresford, the director responsible for the racist fantasy buddy flick Driving Miss Daisy—starring Morgan Freeman as the sassy black man used as a device to remind his white employer that “she is kind, she is smart, she is important”—was also at the helm of Mr. Church, a film based on the life of author Susan McMartin.


Eddie Murphy stars as Henry Joseph Church, a no-nonsense cook who moves into the home of a single white mother dying of breast cancer. His role is to take care of Charlotte, played by Britt Robertson, because her mother is on her deathbed. The trailer shows the typical tropes: gruff black guy with a soft interior matched against a precocious white child we're clearly supposed to find adorable in her condescension and passive racism. There is probably some emotional story about why he's alone, stumbling through life without a family, packed in for good measure.

And just like The Help—in which the white woman, who is firmly centered even as the black person drives the story, ends up writing a book and profiting from the labor of black people—in Mr. Church, the white woman is dependent, emotionally and financially, upon that black labor for her survival.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with black people being cooks, chauffeurs, doormen and maids. Black people are experts at finding a way or making one. And this is not about respectability politics and needing to see ourselves fully assimilated into a white supremacist capitalist power structure that forces people to value themselves by how many zeros are on their paychecks.


This is about liberal white fantasies of saving black people from themselves even as white people are served and saved by those very same black people. It is also in keeping with the constant barrage of imagery that reinforces the power dynamic that black people are a perpetual servant class with conditional access to society. Rule No. 1: Appear as nonthreatening as possible. This is what springs from the minds of white creatives far too often—the idea of black men as invisible men used for protection, under no assumptions or expectations of equity.

Yes, the tables turn eventually, and Charlotte ends up caring for Mr. Church in his elder years, but this is not necessarily a heartwarming story arc. Responsible owners are typically the ones who neuter their beloved pets and put them to sleep. And despite popularized opinion, the complexity and nuance and beauty of black people is still present in the absence of servitude. At its most base, what we are seeing play out, again, is the tethering of the concept of masculinity to virility and power and control, and the reminder that black men are rewarded with their lives in this country only if they opt out of taking ownership of all three.


Of course, there are black filmmakers creating powerful art that disrupts that narrative, creates new ones and amplifies ones that have always been there. But overwhelmingly, Hollywood remains invested in white female fragility; white male dominance; black female hypersexualization or asexualization; and black male subservience or violence.

Black people should not have to be in the intimate employ of white people for our humanity to be recognized. We are not here for their "colorblind" comfort. We are not here to assuage their guilt. And we are not here to protect their families while this country rips black families apart by means of mass incarceration, inadequate health care and extrajudicial, state-sanctioned killings. We are not a halfway house for white pathology.


We are not entertained.

Despite the titular nod to religion, humanity, sin, song and redemption, what I see is the other side of the sanctuary. The side that crushes our ancestral stories beneath Bibles authorized by a white, English monarch; the side that shames our sexuality, perpetuates bigotry and muzzles our rebellions. The side full of lies, collection plates and confession booths that eerily resemble box offices.


The side that frames racism as religious experience.

Perhaps white America will find pleasure in seeing Eddie Murphy—one of black America's most brilliant comedians and sharp social commentators—play a cliché nurtured, if not created, by the white male imagination, but this is one more Church service I'll just have to pass on.

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