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Mister & Pete's Shared Shame

I have always enjoyed watching movies portraying life in African American ghettos. This is despite the fact that though the movies are always engaging (and often humorous) they tend to be poorly directed. George Tillman’s Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is an excellent break with the mold. It tells the story of 13 year old Mister (Skylan Brooks) raised by a single mom Gloria (Jennifer Hudson) who is struggling to keep her family together as she battles prostitution and drugs.

The tough home environment has left Mister struggling in school with his hope now firmly anchored on becoming an actor, thanks to the heavy dose of DVDs and video games that have become a form of escape from the horrors of real life. The situation is acerbated when Gloria is apprehended by the police, leaving Mister and 9 year old Pete (Ethan Dizon), the son of Gloria’s friend,  fighting for survival as they forage for food while dodging child protective services and ghetto bullies.

The movie is well crafted emotional rollercoaster that intelligently subverts the genre by giving a more favorable view of authorities and depicting wider racial diversity in the “ghetto”. The acting by Mister and Pete is exceptional. One scene particularly took my breath away. Mister and Pete are sitting in the apartment after their attempt to steal food from the next door neighbour leaves Pete very shaken. As they sit on the sofa, Mister decides to cheer Pete up by doing impersonations.

After a monologue from Fargo, Mister unexpectedly moves to impersonate his mom Gloria with the body language of a drug addict: "I am gonna get us a real house Mister, I am gonna get a job, I am gonna stop doing drugs. And I'm gonna stop selling myself for money. I am just trying to get things in order. You won't have to be ashamed of being my son, no more. Now run. Run, Mister. I need time alone".

Mister doing the pseudo impersonation of his mom Gloria
When Mister finishes speaking he immediately moves to break the tension by smiling and asking Pete, "that's tight, right?" Pete responds by standing up. He carefully turns round his back to Mister. He then lifts his t-shirt revealing a massive imprint of a hot iron on his back. His only words to Mister are, "See?". Mister is momentarily speechless, responding weakly, "Yeah". As the camera focuses on Mister's reaction, we see expressions of shock, anger and compassion rolled in one.

At this crucial moment various pieces now fall in place. Earlier in the story Mister discovered that Pete had been sexually assaulted by a middle aged white lady who looked after him. Now we find that he has suffered physical abuse all his life perpetrated by his drug addicted mother. We now know why in an earlier scene when Pete and Mister are in the Alice's (Jordin Sparks) car he breaks in tears and hides when his mom is sighted on the streets looking for drugs. We also now know why Pete constantly asks for “privacy” and does not take his shirt off.

Mister's anger at Pete's terrible predicament is mixed with a new understanding. As he looks at the scarred innocence of Pete he realises that here is someone who has actually suffered more than him. Someone who wears the scars of the evil in this world. Someone who actually understands what he is also going through. This new understanding now forms the basis of a fellowship of shared shame between Mister and Pete that reaches across the racial divide.

As the movie unfolds we see Mister take Pete as a brother, and Pete in turn reciprocates. When Pete falls ill, Misrer frantically searches for solutions to help Pete recover. As the day of Mister's acting audition draws near Pete, though he is unwell, summons every ounce of energy to support Mister. When Pete is finally taken away by the authorities we find Mister pleading with the local drug dealer Curtis, "I am willing to do anything, please! Just, help me to get my friend out of Riverview". 

This crucial moment of shared shame between Mister and Pete holds important truths about how we cope with pain and suffering in our lives. It teaches us that vulnerability is the basis of true friendship. It is only when Mister opens up about his feeling of shame that Pete gets the courage to lift the cloth over his pain. Often we think we are alone in our shame and suffering, until we speak. Then you start hearing, "I am also struggling". It seems all of us are just waiting to hear someone confess in order for us to do the same. We know we are wounded, but we are longing for a fellow sufferer, a high priest who shares our shame and knows our pain. Someone who is willing to confess his weaknesses in order to share ours.

The scene also reminds us that pain is a universal language that breaks down bridges and forges new friendships. In pain we recognise that when we look past the colour of our skin or background, all of us are struggling with the same challenges. Suffering afflicts the Korean and African American alike. It is no respecter of persons. In some ways there is a remarkable positive side to suffering. Though pain can isolate us from others, shared suffering brings us together because ultimately we need community to overcome our personal struggles.

The shared shame moment between Mister and Pete also serves as a great example of how culture can helpfully function as a confessional booth. It is noteworthy that Mister does not stand up and say to Pete, "I am suffering, please help me". He crafts a pseudo impersonation of Gloria as a cultural vehicle to reveal how he understands what is taking place in his life and how he really feels about it. It is through his monologue we learn of Mister’s shame that that Gloria is "selling [herself] for money".

Like all human encounters, the exchange crucially reveals the challenge facing all human beings. After the mutual sharing of shame, Pete asks Mister a challenging question :
Pete : Mister? Is it okay not to love your mom?
Mister:  [after a pause] I mean, you can't help but love her Pete. But you don't have to like her [Pete nods approvingly]
What Pete is asking is a larger question. How do I respond to the evil and pain inflicted on me by my mom? Most importantly, is it morally permissible and proper to hate those that have caused me pain in order to cope with my pain? These are questions all of us ask!

Sadly, the director misses the opportunity with Mister's cryptic response. It is not clear what Mister actually means by, "you can't help but love her Pete". At the surface he seems to be almost saying that Pete is drawn to Gloria as a form of unmerited favour. Children love their parents, it's just the way it is. But then he says you don't have to like her - is he saying we can love without liking? Or is he saying that you can love without approving of her actions?

We cannot be sure where Mister is coming from. What is clear is that Mister’s response is self reflective. He has made a decision to “love” his mom, but also distaste her somehow. Indeed, somewhere before this encounter he tells her he wishes she would just die so that the pain would somehow die with her! But that only makes the answer more cryptic because Mister appears to reject the possibility of hate towards his mom. Mister seems to be saying that there is something in all of us that does not die with the pain inflicted on us. We are born to love or extend grace. In the end that is the ultimate answer to cope with pain and suffering.

It is a very hopeful view of human nature. The statement seems to be that no matter what people have done to you at the end there is a residue of love that is shared, and this love impulse will always draw you to extend grace to them and somehow manage the painful relationship. In some ways this truth has some biblical echo. The human being may be depraved, but the image of God in him is not totally erased. There is still something of God's image in him that is manifest in how people from all walks of life who don't know God are able to some degree able to forgive those who hate them.

At a deeper level Mister's statement is a denial of hate that does not seem to accord with reality. There is nothing inevitable about love because the truth is that the world is full of hate. At one level the disposition of love is an active step. One must choose to love who have caused us pain. I say at one level, because in fact there is an element to love that just happens. True love contrary to what Mister says includes liking or endearment of those who do us harm. It is not merely accepting them in our lives, it is doing and feeling right towards them, without approving their actions. The truth is that we can't force ourselves to have good feelings towards those who have hurt us, it just happens. It is an helpless drift.

Herein lies the problem. How can Pete ever truly love his mother? Mister says it is inevitable because that's just the way life is. And since love, in Mister's world has no feeling component, then children will always love their parents because it is the nature of the child to look after the parent. But if we accept that love has a component of feelings then it is not something we can do on our own. We in our natural selves cannot truly love those who hate us. 

So at one one level, the answer to the moral question that Pete raises (is it okay not to love your mom who has brought pain in your life?) is exactly the opposite of Mister's response : you can't help but hate because love comes with liking and it is difficult to like someone who has imprinted an iron on your skin.  So we see that whilst the movie rightly draws us to important elements of suffering, and how we cope with it, it is awfully inadequate on how emotional and relational healing actually takes place. 

In the end healing must come from outside of ourselves, something the movie's man centred worldview misses completely. Something dramatic has to happen in our hearts. We need a character that is usually present in black themed movies, but deliberately absent in this one. We need God. There is a key refrain that rings loud amidst the poverty, abuse, prostitution, drugs, betrayal, broken government, racism, swearing, theft, inequality, broken homes and loneliness depicted in the film. The leading actors (e.g. Gloria, Pete) keep saying “I have no one”. This idea of being alone and no one to help shows that there is a gap there that other people ultimately cannot fill.

The reason is that these problems they and all of us face are related to the fact that the world is not as it should. God created a perfect world which has been marred by human sin. The physical abuse and broken home is as a result of the fallen condition of their mothers and the world in general. Mister and Pete, like all of us are powerless as human beings in a world where people look after number one. We need a Saviour who truly understand our suffering and shame. Someone who has walked in our shoes. And of course that Saviour is ultimately Jesus Christ. 

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2016

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