The Australian new wave cinema of the 1970s was, interestingly, triggered off with the help of state support when the Australian Film Development Corporation was formed. It was similar to the way our own Film Finance Corporation (FFC), later National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) helped create an Indian New Wave cinema in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Australian movement threw up very interesting directors like Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir. But given the language and cultural similarities with the U.S., including a background of racial subjugation of non White people, directors like Beresford drifted off to America to make movies. From his path breaking Australian film ‘Breaker Morant’ (1980), he went on to make Hollywood films like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and ’Tender Mercies’.
‘Mr. Church’ seems to be a very late continuation of Beresford’s curious engagement with the relationship between White and African American people. This film is set in the 1970s in Los Angeles and, in an aspect that seems strikingly similar to the story in ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, is about a black man, a cook called Mr. Church (Eddie Murphy), who turns up at the residence of a single white mother called Marie Brooks (Natascha McElhone) with instructions, from a benevolent benefactor, to work for the lady until she dies of the cancer she is suffering from.
Unlike the Morgan Freeman character in the earlier film, Mr. Church, who is rarely called by his first name, Henry, cannot drive a car. But he is a gourmet cook, excellent nurse to the frail Ms. Brooks, and is very well read. He turns into a father figure and protector to her daughter, ‘Charlie’ (Britt Robertson), getting her to read novels and encouraging and guiding her academic life in school and college, well into her adult life.
What the director works on is the idea that to the suburban world of Los Angeles, Mr Church is the cook to a relatively poor White family, when the truth is that far from being in a master/servant relationship, it is Mr. Church who, in fact, financially supports the mother and daughter. Racial stereotypes are so entrenched that it doesn’t seem to strike anyone that it is a laughable idea that the duo could afford to hire a cook. And why does Mr. Church do this? Because, over the years, the Brooks have become the only family he has.
If the film is watchable, it is because when comedy is subtracted from the acting persona of Eddie Murphy, it comes as a surprise, though it shouldn’t, that he is such a convincing actor. Friendly and formal though the entire movie, his performance is excellent. That, and the odd way that Bruce Beresford has of always turning the ambience of an American suburb into something out of the disconnected and colour conscious Australian urban expanses, makes this a pleasant watch.