By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
Eddie Murphy, who reportedly hasn’t been in movies lately because he hadn’t been offered any roles, is great in “Mr. Church.” Murphy plays a cook for a woman named Marie, played by Natascha McElhone, who has been told she has six months to live but survives her cancer for about six years after her prognosis. When Mr. Church comes into the household, the lady’s young daughter, Charlie, played in her early years by Natalie Coughlin and then later by Britt Robertson, is upset, probably because she doesn’t know that her mother has cancer and because Mr. Church is Black and is infringing on their family unit. But before it’s all said and done, Mr. Church becomes a part of the family—and unfortunately, again toward the end, he turns out to be the only family that Charlie has.
It’s slow moving at first, but Mr. Church does just what he is supposed to do—cook meals for the mother and daughter. At night he leaves and returns in the morning to prepare breakfast. The mother is bedridden, and her late boyfriend, to whom she played his mistress, paid for Mr. Church to take care of her for only the six months. But the six months rolls on and on, and Charlie learns to accept Mr. Church—even bragging about him to her classmates. Charlie and her best friend Poppy attend an elite school, at the behest of school administrators who awarded them both scholarships.
Time goes on, and the mother eventually passes away, but throughout their relationship, she calls Murphy Mr. Church and he refers to her as ma’am. Charlie eventually goes away to college, but still doesn’t know much about Mr. Church’s private life. The two of them have a brief “heart-to-heart one night when she pries, with Mr. Church adamantly telling her that this is the only thing that he has private—and what he does when he leaves her house is none of her business. This mystery about Mr. Church makes this role for Murphy even more appealing. He is fantastic as the sophisticated, dignified man who enjoys cooking and brings life into the home, even as he thoroughly enjoys his friends and life after hours. I find it interesting that Charlie just couldn’t be content NOT knowing what Mr. Church did after he left her home. It’s like an old saying to which I can’t accurately attribute the author—“You want my dreams, too?” (I think it’s the late Richard Pryor).
The film begins in the early 70s and spans about 15 years, until Charlie has to return back to Los Angeles, with only Mr. Church as a friend. She unexpectedly arrives at his door one day, pregnant and not finished with school. But, in the same vein that Mr. Church kept his privacy, at first he doesn’t ask her a word about the father or the circumstances that have led Charlie to end up not as the writer that she set out to be. He lets her stay with him, with the promise that she won’t pry and that this is his home and his private life.
“Mr. Church” is a good movie, filled with food, jazz music, art and such good acting, even when Murphy isn’t saying anything at all. It is not all “kumbaya,” but it shows love all the way around for everyone in the household, even more so than Charlie could have imagined when she was young and so outspoken against Mr. Church being in the home.
“Mr. Church” was first screened at the recent Tribeca Film Festival and is based on a real friendship that the screenwriter Susan McMartin enjoyed with her family cook who became her best friend and father figure.
At first I didn’t think I would like it, as I imagined “The Help” and “Driving Miss Daisy” (which has the same director Bruce Beresford, with the Black person taking care of the white family. He does take care of the family, and some critics have panned it because of this relationship. However, I enjoyed seeing Murphy in a non-comedic role, and it would be nice if he only returns to his music career and his backyard for a little bit and is offered more dramatic roles. “Mr. Church” is playing at theaters everywhere in the Chicago area.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood —South Side of Chicago.” For information about her book, visit http://tinyurl.com/om4hvgo or email [email protected].