With Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Idris Elba in Mandela:
Long Walk to Freedom, Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station and Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler starring in predominantly “black” films,
one has to wonder where all the black woman are at. While the likes of Octavia
Spencer (Fruitvale Station) and Naomie
Harris (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
populate their respective pictures, they simply do just that: populate. Lacking
a narrative conceit to maintain an audiences’ focus, writing is often left up
to the men, black or white, to provoke feeling and propel story. This makes Baggage Claim unique, a black
female-centric romantic comedy without the Tyler Perry brand name attached. It
features an established black actress (Paula Patton) and posits images of black
culture that are often unseen (the film is highlighted by images of successful
black males in a multitude of industries, not simply the ghettoized black image
that was a sore point in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale
Station). But Baggage Claim’s
transgressive qualities are stunted by its acceptance of regressive ideals:
matrimonial necessity, feminine subversion, and an uncompromising dependence on
The schmaltzy opening to Baggage Claim is filled with the sort of dunderheaded plotting and character developments that left this audience member questioning what else I could be seeing in this 90-minute window. Whether I came to it or it came to me remains a mystery, but the picture eventually finds its pleasant groove of amusement. Perhaps it’s the various characters becoming self-aware of the stereotypes they’re accepting (the trio involves the lovelorn Patton, her gay white friend, and a buxom and oversexed bachelorette), but Baggage Claim became one of those pictures that, while impossible to embrace fully, sets up its narrative rhythm and character quirks and goes from there.
As amusing as Baggage Claim turns out to be, there’s a constant reminder that the film’s narrative concept of a woman looking to find a suitor that feels especially archaic. While I could perhaps argue that this is an effort meant as a throwback to the screwball romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s, that’s simply not the case. It’s particularly clear in the sharp divide between performer and material. Patton, an actress of considerable skill and presence, with a raspy voice that would make most men quiver, is wasted as a delusional and ditzy heroine. No amount of skill can make her lines concerning the anxieties of marriage seem convincing. The film is an exercise in a feminine subversion and masculine domination. Involving sequences, particularly when Djimon Hounsou is introduced as a suave hotel operator, gives Baggage Claim a surprising layer of social and racial significance - particularly when looking at the perceived blackness of both Hounsou and Patton as actors. But these observations and highlights are few and far between, making Baggage Claim yet another film that proposes its fair share of unique ideas but never fully explores their implication.
Black cinema is in the midst of a renaissance and as the Oscar season soon approaches, more and more publications will highlight films like 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels ’ The Butler as examples of the heady territory in which black cinema is exploring. Baggage Claim will be omitted from the conversation, though there’s a bit more to the picture than it lets on. As severely flawed as it may be, there’s something much more prominent and significant about its tropes than say 2011’s Jumping the Broom. Call it a step up.