Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Soldiering in Charles Burnett's My Brother's Wedding

Reading a recent essay by Michael Mosher (a political philosophy professor at the University of Tulsa) on the warrior in Plato and Nietzsche, I was reminded that a central character in Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding is a minor criminal and local celebrity nicknamed Soldier. And names are very important in My Brother’s Wedding. The central brothers Pierce and Wendell Mundy have clearly been named by their parents to signify or predict their sons’ entrance into the professional classes. Pierce and Wendell are not only NOT archetypically black names, they are names given by parents (white or black) making a statement – that this child will be of a certain economic / professional class.

As we have already mentioned, Pierce is caught in a dilemma where many traditional human types have been intentionally removed by modern politics or modern economics – the aristocratic warrior, the landed gentleman, the priest and even the worker have effectively disappeared. Soldier is a man who does not fit into this modern world – which is partially why he exists primarily in prison. And once released from prison, he quickly dies. We are reminded that warrior heroes do not seek long life, but rather glory. But Soldier dies not gloriously or courageously, but prosaically, in an automobile accident. We do not live in a heroic age.

My Brother’s Wedding does give us glimpses of why Soldier (or the warrior) is admirable, and ultimately useful. The prosperous Mundy laundromat is an appealing target for thieves. We see it threatened several times by criminals. Notably, it is never defended by Wendell Mundy, a lawyer and thus theoretically one who should be an aid to the law. Indeed, Wendell is in fact a criminal defense attorney, and boasts of the dangerous criminals he has manipulated courts to release – Pierce accused Wendell of the echoes of the charge against the Sophists – making the weaker argument the stronger and undermining the laws. In essence, Wendell does not know friend from enemy.

Knowing friends from enemies like a good guard-dog is precisely the definition of a warrior in Plato’s description. And Soldier, unlike Wendell, knows friends from enemies and is courageous and active in the defense of his friends. Of all the men in My Brother’s Wedding, only Soldier evidences even any courage (as when he chases violent thieves away from their attempted robbery of the family Laundromat).

Appropriately, women are attracted to Soldier’s courage and warrior bearing. Unlike Wendell, who views his upcoming marriage as another commercial transaction, Soldier, a remnant of a more romantic and non-commercial type of human, more truly engages in amour (again, Soldier is the only actual male lover we see in the movie).

Finally, the warrior is traditionally envisioned as occupying a patriarchal role. Pierce and Wendell’s father is pathetic and infantile, a ludicrous figure. Their father attempts to reassert his lost manliness by childishly wrestling with Pierce. It is not surprising, in a family full of emasculated men, that Pierce turns to the man named Soldier.


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