The privilege of your company l Chuck's World


Last updated 1/31/2018 at Noon

I’m as aware as anyone else, I guess, of the cultural diffusion in 21st-century America. There’s too much stuff to see or hear, too little time, and no cohesion among groups. It’s not like everyone on my block is watching “Stranger Things” and I don’t know what you guys are watching in your neighborhood. We all have our stuff.

But I was still a little surprised the other day when I asked about “The Big Sick.” I was speaking to a small group, 25 or so people who were familiar to me and shared some of my interests. I mentioned the title and asked for hands, getting only blank looks and shaking skulls.

Again, I probably shouldn’t be surprised.

Some of these people, though, I know to be avid moviegoers, and “The Big Sick” was one of the most popular films of 2017. I thought the odds were in my favor here.

So, I’ll explain a little. “The Big Sick” (which is currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime, which is not actually free) is a romantic comedy, written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon. The story is their story, based on the early days of their relationship and a sudden medical crisis that complicates everything.

Nanjiani plays a version of himself, a budding Chicago comic who drives an Uber when he’s not writing jokes or dealing with his family, Pakistani immigrants who seem quite American but still very traditional (and very funny). Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, is a graduate student who heckles Nanjiani in a comedy club, and romance blossoms.

It’s a modern love story, which is to say it’s also pretty traditional.

There are bumps in the road, and after a painful breakup Nanjiani finds himself somehow in charge of Emily’s health when she develops an infection and is hospitalized. When she’s placed into a medically induced coma, he has to contact her parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, two very good reasons to see this movie).

They quickly dismiss him as irrelevant, a bystander in this drama, but he sticks around, feeling responsible and still, obviously, in love.

This all works out. We know that going in. The two of them got married and wrote a movie about it. This is not the surprise.

I saw “The Big Sick” last summer with my wife, having been a fan of Kumail Nanjiani from the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley,” and thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did when I watched it a second time a few weeks ago. I knew the plot, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a nuanced portrayal of modern cultural conflict slipped into the love story.

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The family clashes are mostly for comic relief. His parents are fairly observant Muslims, including insisting on the mother’s responsibility to pick a wife for her son (a Muslim, Pakistani wife, of course), although I saw nothing in this story that couldn’t easily be transferred to another setting.

Nanjiani’s decision to pursue stand-up comedy as opposed to law school is viewed by his parents much the same way I imagine an Iowa farm boy’s parents might resist his dream of starring in a Broadway musical.

As far as mothers messing around in the love lives of their children? I do believe we can relate.

It was our glimpse into the life of a young, polite, talented dark-skinned man in 2018 in the United States of America.

It was the subtle display of the daily indignities of having strangers scream “Go back to ISIS!” at him from the cheap seats, gently acknowledged and deflected, and ultimately endured. This was what surprised me, not the facts but the way this movie portrayed privilege.

“Privilege” is a buzzword these days, although the concept is sound, and as old as mothers telling us about kids starving in some far-off country. Just eat your cereal and consider how fortunate you are.

I was once a young man in love. I even played around the margins of professional comedy for a while. No one ever thought to casually suggest that I was in favor of the mass murder of my fellow Americans. I don’t look like a terrorist.

Actually, I look very much like Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 and injured nearly 600 last October in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in American history. You make the call. I’m going with privilege.

This is why I brought up “The Big Sick” the other day, at any rate. We were having a discussion about cultures, about confusion and distrust, about ignorance and fear. We were a collection of the dominant culture in this country: Reasonably well educated, economically middle-class, generally suburban, mostly middle-aged or older, mainstream Christians, and white.

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We were a Norman Rockwell painting.

And we were trying to imagine what it must be like to be only slightly different. What it must be like to check off all the boxes of good citizenry, to go to college, to have good jobs, to live and work and serve in the same community, and to cover your head with a scarf to do some grocery shopping and get spat on.

We were preparing, in fact, for a little cultural exchange, which has just happened. I’ll tell you about it next week, about what I saw and heard and learned. It was fascinating.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a movie, I’ve got a recommendation.


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