Two recent films have caused me much reflection. The first was the very popular Waiting to Exhale, featuring an all-star cast that included Whitney Houston, with a top-of-the-charts song and soundtrack. I won't attempt a review here, but it is the story of one failed personal relation-
ship after another in the lives of a close-knit circle of black professional women. In the end, all they have are each other. It attempts to be funny, moving, and quite profitably entertaining; the box office sales suggest that it succeeded.
I watched the movie with a professional woman, and we both left feeling quite distressed. The values portrayed in Waiting to Exhale are at the center of what is wrong with society today. The film is an endless procession of sexual promiscuity, personal irresponsibility, broken promises, and shattered dreams. The women involved are far from innocent victims-everybody is implicated in this painful and tragic picture of human relationships and families coming unraveled.
The first problem in the picture is what happens to the people themselves. Life is just a succession of changing bed partners with no enduring relationships. Trust, commitment, fidelity, stability, security, and real intimacy are all lost in the process. Empty lives result, which don't look very pretty even with the beautiful and scenic backdrop of affluent New Mexico "yuppydom." In a neighborhood like mine, in the inner city of Washington, D.C., the playing out of those values amid the stark realities of poverty is brutish and ugly.
The second problem is that there is absolutely no room or safe place for children in the midst of these values. Without home environments that are stable and secure; without an example of positive male and female role models; without parents to teach, by their example, what character, commitment, loyalty, and love really mean, many children will simply fall through the cracks of life. The evidence to support that conclusion is now overwhelming.
The second film I saw is an answer to the first. Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored is an absolute delight. This movie, starring Al Freeman Jr. and Phylicia Rashad, hasn't gotten nearly the same publicity and exposure as Exhale, which, perhaps, is part of the problem. Adapted from the book with the same title, the film depicts a black community in the South leading up to the civil rights movement. The picture is of a strong and intact community, whose web of life is woven with strong bonds and extended family structures that nurture and care for everyone-especially the children.
While the external threat of white racism is ever-present, the internal life of the black community is vibrant and healthy. The community may be poor, but the quality of life is very rich-far beyond anything known by the hapless and lost souls of Waiting to Exhale.
The narrator of the story and the author of the book was born to a teen-age girl who wasn't married. His compelling testimony is to being raised, and raised well, by a powerful great-grandfather and grandmother, by a loving aunt, by older boys and girls, and by a whole community who regarded him as one of their own. It was a community with "family values."
Perhaps the heart of those values was expressed by the boy's great-grandfather, played by Freeman, when he confronted the father of the boy who fathered his granddaughter's child. The boy wanted to take responsibility, but his father bitterly complained that they didn't need another mouth to feed. With searing eyes, Freeman stared the man in the face and said, "Having nothing is no excuse for not doing right!" The film is a story of people using whatever they had to do right, by each other, by God, and, especially, by the children.
THESE TWO FILMS epitomize the choices we have today. One is a continued momentum toward disintegration and chaos in our personal and family relationships. The other is a renewed commitment to re-weave the web of family and community that has become so painfully unraveled. But this "family values" question has become very difficult and polarized, by both the Religious Right and the cultural Left. To move forward, we must simply refuse the false choices being offered by both sides.
The Left has misdiagnosed the roots of our present social crisis, mostly leaving out the critical dimension of family breakdown as a fundamental component of problems like poverty and violence. For too many leftists, family issues are just the issues of the Religious Right, or simply bourgeois concerns. But the Right has seized upon the family agenda and too often turned it into a mean-spirited crusade against women's rights and homosexuals. Their definitions exclude too many people.
I believe we must rebuild strong and healthy two-parent family systems. We desperately need more families with moms and dads and kids, strong male and female role models in both "nuclear" and extended family systems. It's not a matter of whether that should be "the norm"; it simply is the norm in this society and every other one. Even with the honest differences between Christians on what the Bible says about homosexuality, there are not many who question that the biblical norm is heterosexual marriage and family. The question, rather, is how that family norm can be a healthy one.
Right now family break-ups, broken promises, marital infidelity, bad parenting, child abuse, male domination, violence against women, and the choosing of material over family values are all combining to make the family norm in America more and more unhealthy. A critical mass of healthy traditional families is absolutely essential to the well-being of any society. That should be clear to us by now, especially in neighborhoods where intact families have all but disappeared.
The second important goal must be the protection and support of those who are not a part of that traditional family pattern. It is simply wrong and stupid to blame gay and lesbian people for the breakdown of the heterosexual family. That breakdown is causing a great social crisis which impacts us all, but it is not the fault of homosexuals. It has very little to do with them. Their civil and human rights must also be honored, respected, and defended for a society to be good and healthy. It is a question of both justice and compassion. To be both pro-family and pro gay civil rights could open up some common ground that might take us forward.
I JUST RETURNED from Denver, where the issue of the legal status of same-sex unions is causing much controversy. But there are voices calling for a middle way. We don't have to change our long-standing and deeply rooted concept of marriage as being between a man and a women to, at the same time, make sure that long-term gay partnerships are afforded legitimate legal protections in a pluralistic society.
Do we really want to deny a gay person's right to be at their loved one's death bed in a hospital with "family restrictions"? Do we also want to deny that person a voice in the medical treatment of his or her partner? And do we really want all the worldly possessions of a deceased gay person to revert to the family who rejected them 30 years ago, instead of going to their partner of the last 20 years? There are fundamental issues of justice and fairness here that can be resolved without a paradigm shift in our basic definition of marriage.
Similarly, there is no reason to demonize single parents, many of whom have been trying to do the best they can, and some of whom are doing a very good job of raising their kids (admittedly better than some two-parent families). We shouldn't tell single moms (or dads) and their kids that they are not "real families," when their families are as real to them as anyone else's.
At the same time, the overwhelming social evidence now proves that children from single-parent families are doing much worse, in almost every area, than children from two-parent families. And too many are just being devastated. Single parents should not be attacked; they should be supported. And we can do that without suggesting that single-parent families are as equally desirable a goal as two-parent families.
The controversial and difficult issues of family life are too important to be left alone. There are no alternatives to good family life; indeed, the alternative is chaos and social breakdown.
There is no need to "redefine" family; our need is to renew family life-where husbands and wives are mutual decision makers, where moms and dads are both responsible for parenting, where family time is as important as vocational calling and more important than material success, where children are the priority, where everyone can grow and be nurtured, and where no one falls through the cracks. A good and healthy society will also protect the rights of its gay and lesbian citizens. Likewise, most single parents would prefer to have partners, but those who don't must be included in the web of family and community relationships that should protect us all.
After seeing Waiting to Exhale, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Is this our future, I wondered? But after I saw Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored, I felt some hope again. This past could be the kind of future where everyone would have a place, and nobody would be left behind.