For a movie titled “Best Man Holiday,” I was immediately struck with a somber mood from watching just the first few minutes of the film. It opened with main character Mia (played by Monica Calhoun) sitting in her bedroom quietly writing at her desk. One of her daughters runs in to turn on the television. Mia looks up to see her football-star husband, Lance (played by Morris Chestnut) give a post-game interview about his prospects at breaking an NFL record as well as his team’s chances in the playoffs. But in Mia’s eyes was a tiredness that alerted me to something more. From her eyes to her physique, it was clear that she was the source of the somber. But why? Why had one of the main characters been introduced in the sequel carrying such a heavy burden? Why had a movie about Christmas – a time of joy and laughter, family and togetherness – been overlaid with a melancholy tone?
“It’s not life or death” Lance says when asked by ESPN sports analyst Pam Oliver if he feels any pressure to perform at an even higher level in order to make the playoffs. The camera immediately cuts to Mia who has now moved to the bed to watch her husband. As he says the words, she smiles a bit. At first, I thought nothing of this very common display of affection. She was simply admiring the humility of her husband’s words which clearly stated that football was his job and did not rank higher on the rung than his wife and children. But as I watched on, I soon found out that it was foreshadowing and football, in fact, would become symbolic of life and death. Even though she was admiring Lance, her small smile was more a quiet laugh at Lance’s words because by the end of the movie Lance would play in a football game where he was supposed to break the record, signifying a simultaneous fight for Mia’s life while ultimately accepting the passing of it – her death.
Toward the end of the movie, Lance and his team had advanced to the Division Finals but were losing miserably in the first half of the game. By the third quarter they were nearly three touchdowns behind and Lance’s window for breaking the record was closing fast. Watching the game from home, it was at that moment that Mia asked her best friend Jordan (played by Nia Long) to phone Lance. Unbeknownst to Jordan or anyone else in the room (not even us viewers), Mia said something to Lance that completely turned his performance around. He began breaking tackles, catching passes, running faster, and playing harder. He won the game and broke the NFL all-time rushing record. While Jordan and everyone in the room were cheering, Mia sank back into her pillow, eyes closed and was at peace.
Shortly thereafter, Mia died. This led me to believe that she phoned Lance with her dying wishes, which, bottom line, I believe were for him to win the game and break the record because when he heard his wife’s voice and she started to speak, the look on his face that was filled with anger and frustration at his poor performance immediately turned to focus and seriousness. He threw the phone back to his estranged friend Harper (played by Taye Diggs) who was standing on the sidelines and demanded that his coach put him back in the game. Lance was determined to fulfill his wife’s dying wishes. With seconds left on the clock and only four yards to go for a touchdown and the win, Lance was handed the ball. He ran into three defenders. The normal player would have been defeated, unable to cross the goal line for the touchdown. But he was not just struggling to fulfill Mia’s dying wishes, he was playing for his wife. He was symbolically fighting for her life! His struggle with the three defenders represented the fight he was having with himself about accepting his wife’s death. The defenders pushing him back was symbolic of him holding himself back in denial of Mia’s inevitable passing. He had to struggle and force himself to accept that his wife was dying. He would not be able to get pass those defenders until he accepted that nor would she be able to die in peace and be set free until he accepted this fact. And Lance knew this. Therefore, with his strength and hers, he pushed past all three defenders and miraculously scored the most important touchdown of his life. Kneeling down on one knee and looking toward the heaven, he was free and so was Mia. With a police escort, he sped home to embrace Mia once more. She held on just long enough to see that her husband had accepted the inevitable. Just then, the camera showed a framed picture of Lance and Mia in a happier time which faded to a religious sculpture that signified not just her passing and eternal rest but her eternal peace and happiness within a heavenly life thereafter.
Mia dies! I honestly could not believe that writer and director, Malcolm Lee, would steer his sequel in this direction. Throughout the first half of the movie Mia’s somber tone seemed to serve as a point of contention with the holiday mood. In some sense, it seemed that Mia’s sadness was in a tug-o-war match with the ever-present holiday cheer. It was Christmas and she and Lance had invited their family and friends to stay at their home for the holiday. Yet, with every scene she was struggling to mask a sadness, a burden displayed within moments of her first screen appearance. This burden was the fact that she had been diagnosed with cancer and her and Lance decided to tell no one but their parents. This secret was weighing her down but once she gathered all close family and friends, she would be unburdened. Not in the way she might have planned, but eventually all her friends learned of her terminal illness. In the middle of the night Harper saw her coughing up blood. During the middle of the day, with all her children around, she fainted while trying to put an ornament on the Christmas tree. Jordan and her friend Shelby (played by Melissa De Sousa) were there to lift her to her feet. In each moment of weakness brought on by the illness, she was forced to tell her friend she had cancer until everyone knew.
However, within the context of death ideology, Mia’s somber tone symbolically pointed to so much more. For starters, with the secret out and her inevitable death hanging on every scene, something incredible happened – life found itself present. Joining in to sing “O Holy Night” with her and Shelby’s daughter, on the surface was the culmination of Mia hearing angels calling her home. In African American culture, death is a home going. No matter how tragic, one was still headed home to continue life. But this scene was juxtaposed with Harper cradling his pregnant wife’s stomach. And right at the moment the lyrics “do you hear the angel’s voices” does Harper put his ear to Robyn’s stomach. This was representative of him hearing the angel that is coming. And at the same time, Mia reaches her hands upward. She hears the call as well. Her call is to go home and on to the next journey of her life. Mia was preparing to pass into her afterlife; she is preparing for death. Whereas Harper hears the voice of his unborn child; he is preparing for birth.
Death springing from life was even more present at the very end of the movie. At the moment that Mia was finally laid to rest, Robyn went into labor. In this way, life was literally springing from death. The idea that a child was born when a relative died was a deeply rooted cultural belief in the African American community. Stemming from ideas of honoring one’s ancestors, children born within a relatively short time frame of relatives dying were said to embody the spirit and physical characteristics of the deceased relatives. Many times children are named for these ancestors as was Harper and Robyn’s child.
Life springing forth from death is about memory and memory-making resulting in the funeral and cemetery seen as an important part of this process. Death is an abrupt separation from life and the funeral, as well as the cemetery, becomes a salient place to deal with the death of the loved one. From the eulogy to a poster-sized picture of the deceased kin present at the funeral, the event is about eventually accepting the recent death by remembering the life. The life is what is important and the funeral is an acknowledgement of this passing on to another life that we as the friends and family here on Earth, unfortunately, will not get to witness.
But at the funeral in “Best Man Holiday” a peculiar yet wonderful remembrance was occurring – Jordan was wearing white. In Western cultures, Black is the symbol of death and therefore traditionally worn during mourning rituals, i.e. funerals. However, Jordan was wearing white and sitting on the same row with Lance and Lance and Mia’s children. The imagery was powerful! She represented Mia and symbolically represented the life that was flowing from the death. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, she wrote of the African ethnic group called the Olinka and how the women would paint their faces white and wear white garments to signal the passing of a relative. Walker referenced the important role African women have historically had in funerals. In this context, Jordan is carrying on this African cultural tradition. Standing alone in her white, she is leading the mourning period by simultaneously signaling Mia’s death while serving as a pervasive reminder of her life.
Enslavement meant that death took on a more powerful meaning for African Americans. It was about freedom and in my research I argue instances of autonomy, citizenship, and wealth-building. Therefore, African Americans did not fear death and conceive death with negative ideas as other cultures. The cemetery then was a place to remember ones loved ones. African Americans would gather (and many still do) around the burial plot with food ready for good conversation. Recalling stories and accounts of the deceased kin keeps them alive and in this way life flows from the cemetery. In this way, death is life eternal.