Teri Orr: And … scene!
January 18, 2019
I can't pretend to be black. Or to fully understand the black experience.
I grew up a white girl in a white town. When integration started in the late 60s in my rural town outside San Francisco, I was chosen to be a student "hostess" to a student who would now be attending our school from a rival school. I was assigned a tall black football player. I was 5-foot-2 and about 98 pounds. We ended up on the front page our hometown weekly paper — much to the immense shame of my mother — who spit out a mouthful of hateful expressions about how very much I had embarrassed her by agreeing to be a host.
It was my senior year and I was already very ready to leave home. Going off to college in Colorado was perfect. And that first semester I marched against Vietnam and for black rights. I was heady with the freedom of my own decision making and new friends of different backgrounds. In some class that fall I was introduced to Langston Hughes and his poem "Harlem."
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore — And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
A lifetime of misinformation I had been fed slowly dissolved
— as I made more friends and had more real-life experiences.”
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I wrote a term paper on it. It was all very heavy stuff for that 18-year-old, me.
Those few months in a new state with so many freedoms was too much freedom probably for a life that had been so narrow. I came home at Thanksgiving — became engaged to my high school sweetheart and was married that June. I ended up in Reno, Nevada, for a little bit more college before I dropped out to major in motherhood. I had a few black friends — because Reno was more diverse than the Bay Area tiny town where I lived. And a lifetime of misinformation I had been fed slowly dissolved — as I made more friends and had more real-life experiences. When I was divorced — six years later — my world grew larger and so did my circle of friends. When I moved to Park City at age 29 with two small children as a single parent, I continued my education and grew even more liberal wings. My day-to-day world was a funky ski town in a very white state but once a year I took my children to San Francisco and immersed them in cultures not their own — in neighborhoods very different from ours in Utah. It wasn't much but it was something.
This is all a really long way to explain how I snuck into a movie theater in Salt Lake City this week and had another shift of perception and understanding — thanks to brilliant storytelling. I took my car in for service on Monday morning. They said they would need my car most of the day and gave me a loaner. I started to go to my default time-sucking place — close to the dealership — Fashion Place mall and wander around. But then I remembered there had been a gang-related shooting there the day before. I grabbed a slice at The Pie — a family favorite and looked at the movie theater across the street. I decided to see a film I had heard some buzz about — "If Beale Street Could Talk." It is based on a novel by James Baldwin and it is — on the surface — a love story that takes place in Harlem in the '70s.
When Baldwin spoke to Hugh Hebert of The Guardian upon the release of "Beale Street" in 1974, he said about his work: "'Every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism 'you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.'"
Regina King has now received both the Golden Globe and Critic's Choice awards for her work as best supporting actress in this film. She plays the role of the mother of the young woman who falls in love with a young man in Harlem in the '70s. It was an era I lived in but not at all in the same way. Not at all. I wasn't raised in an inner city and I am not part of any minority — unless you consider being Irish still a subset. So while the music and the clothes were familiar from that era — the location and situations were not.
I was utterly transported and immersed and completely engaged in the storytelling. The slow sensual rhythm of much of the film … shot with rich deep tones and tender long kisses. The gritty neighborhood — the easy talk between long lost friends.
You could say too, the film is about social justice at its core. How the law applies and is applied to different socioeconomic groups. How justice really should be (color) blind. What it means to love fiercely and believe without a shadow of a doubt in a person. How families can love just as fiercely — each other.
What matters this week, is that movies — and their makers — will be in every public and many private spaces in Park City for 10 full days. And for the price of a ticket ($25) you too can time travel and learn about people and places and causes you never understood. Sundance is the ridiculous star-studded vacation you can take in your own hometown. So as they say in the storytelling world of the popular NPR radio show — "The Moth" — you either have a good time or you have a good story … let's share ours when the technicolor storytelling circus ends in February … on a Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.