Set in 1950s Martha’s Vineyard, the film The Wedding is a film which explores issues of social segregation, assimilation, and miscegenation as central themes as it portrays the development of a series of interracial relationships. Defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online as “a mixture of races; especially marriage, cohabitation, or sexual intercourse between a white person and a member of another race” (“Miscegenation”), miscegenation can be understood as a central theme in the film as a result of the planned marriage between black protagonist Shelby Cole and white jazz pianist and composer Meade Howell.
Although Shelby’s family, as a result of their wealth, can be understood as a model minority family, they are nevertheless looked down upon by white members of their society merely as a result of their racial colouring. Meade’s parents, who could be considered middleclass middleman minorities because of their lower financial status, are unwilling to attend their son’s wedding despite the high financial status of Cole’s family, showing how traditions and values based in indigenous racism can often result in a cultural pluralism that resists any attempt at racial acceptance. Within the film, therefore, a dichotomy is established between financial status and racial status, showing how the two can never be fully resolved into a homogenous whole. It becomes clear throughout the film that Shelby’s father married her mother only because her lighter skin conferred greater status on the family, showing how a mulatto racial identity aligned with ideas about Anglo conformity might confer social status whilst bolstering the self-segregation of minorities within a community plagued by such cultural pluralism. The film makes clear, therefore, that racism has been appropriated into the cultural traditions of this model minority, leading them to apply racist judgements to each other as well as to outsiders. The film further empahsizes the unhappiness this has led to in the breakdown of Shelby’s parent’s marriage and the unhappiness her father experiences in his affair with the nurse, Rachel.
Significant throughout the film is the idea that racism is not confined to Caucasian cultures, but instead can infect the cultural attributes of any family, who may use racism against themselves as a self-justification of racism in return: in this manner, the racism that Shelby’s family have experienced and overcome have, instead of making them more tolerant, have led to them appropriating the beliefs and strictures of racism as a defence against the continuing discrimination of people such as Meade’s parents. While Meade’s parents apply racist judgements to Shelby and her family because of their colour, Shelby’s parent’s apply racist judgements in their concern for their daughter in entering into a mixed-race relationship. For these two families the disparity in racial colour is not great enough to overcome even the usually sovereign concern of financial status in American society, resulting in pressures on the young couple from within as well as outside of their families. These pressures lead Shelby to doubt her love for Meade on grounds not of his commitment to her, but her own willingness to deal with society’s strictures.
The film ends on a positive note, however, with Shelby and Meade eventually marrying and the audience is left with high hopes that they will eventually achieve the sort of pan-traditional biculture which has been denied to Shelby’s parents. According to one definition, Sojourners are those who follow in the footsteps of former slave, preacher and civil rights activist Sojourner Truth (“Sojourner Truth”). By attempting to tease apart the complex underlying causes of continuing racial tensions, the film The Wedding can be understood as participating in this legacy even where its characters sometimes fail to meet a social justice ideal.
- “Miscegenation.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/miscegenation. Accessed 6 November, 2017.
- “Soujourner Truth.” The Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek, http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Archive/LegacyOfFaith.htm. Accessed 6 November, 2017.
- The Wedding. Directed by Charles Burnett, performances by Halle Berry, Eric Thal, and Lynn Whitfield, Harpo Productions, 1998.