A Eulogy for Tyrell Musgrove: The Disremembered Child in Marc Forster's Monster's Ball
Dreher, Kwakiutl, Film Criticism
I saw Monster's Ball on the advice of a friend who called me late one night and demanded that I drop whatever I was doing and go to see the movie. I had not seen the film because knowing that a poor Black woman (Leticia Musgrove, played by Halle Berry) and a Southern White prison guard (Hank Grotowski, played by Billy Bob Thornton) were "kickin' it" after his character facilitated the execution of her husband offered me no appeal. "Of course," I thought, "execute the Black man and get his girl. What a dream!" She ranted on that it is a beautiful love story ... a story of redemption ... "It is," she emphasized, "a story of hope." Taken in by her enthusiasm, I reluctantly purchased a ticket the very next night and settled into a comfortable seat with every tidbit of prior knowledge about the film nestled in my mind.
Monster's Ball is a Southern drama set in and around New Orleans, and the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. It is the interracial love story that explores the joining of a Black woman with a White male as a result of tragedy. Both have lost their children--one to suicide as is the case of Sonny, Hank's 20-year-old son; and the other to a hit-and-run car accident as happens to eleven-year-old Tyrell Musgrove, son of Leticia and Lawrence Musgrove. Hank's "rescue" of the dying child from the side of the road and the transport of both mother and son to the emergency room catapult her into his arms. Tyrell dies in the sterile emergency room. After Tyrell's death, Hank and Leticia find comfort in each other's arms.
Shortly after the story unfolded, however, I quickly became concerned with the treatment of one of the supporting characters: Tyrell Musgrove, the young Black child. I particularly zoned in on his mother, Leticia's, relationship to him. I murmured to myself in a sad conclusion, "Here is a Black mother who hates her child." Tyrell's death in a sterile hospital emergency room after a car accident brought it home for me; the white sheet that covered his face is the last image we see of him. What is worse, there is no funeral. There is no burial. There is no eulogy. Not one member from any community bearing a gift of consolation over his death is seen. Yet, the film takes care to memorialize Sonny, the White son who dies by his own hands. His services come with the funerary basics: a grave, a casket, and a pastor who performs a eulogy. The cushiness of my seat began to annoy me. As the credits rolled, I walked out of the theater angry. I was angry because a Black child, Tyrell Musgrove, had been disremembered. Tyrell Musgrove and Coronji Calhoun, the actor who was cast in the role, were neglected in the film and all the more grossly in subsequent narratives. From the interviews to the lay conversations about and critiques of the film to Halle Berry's acceptance speech on Oscar night 2002, both character and actor virtually were erased from the narratives about Marc Forster's film. Audiences (including myself) instead were preoccupied with the steamy sex scene between the main characters, Hank and Leticia.
The decisions made for the film rub up against Toni Morrison's theory of American Africanism that "makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless ..." (7). "A Eulogy for Tyrell Musgrove" extends the dialogue that Morrison limns. It specifically forages for the ways the director, Marc Forster, and editor Matt Chesse "inscribe and erase," drop down and drop out one Black child. More alarming, however, are the choices Halle Berry made that insured the dropping out of her character's son that later led to the consummation of the relationship.
To its credit, Monster's Ball is very complex on several levels. On one level, the film no doubt is both sentimental and romantic as it complements the popular romance element of rescuing the damsel in distress. Leticia is a poor Black mother with more on her plate than she can handle. Her husband, Lawrence Musgrove, is on death row in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. During her visits to him with her son, the conversations between husband and wife give us a glimpse into a Black family that once commiserated on household, financial, and child-rearing matters. But her visits show forth the ways in which the penitentiary system causes the inevitable rupture of the Black family unit. After Lawrence's electrocution, she is both fired from her job by an inconsiderate manager and evicted from her home by a contemptible housing authority agent. We see her dismal condition as she sits homeless with all of her belongings on the side of the road. She has reached the very bottom of her life. It is obvious she has no friends, family, or religious community. We undeniably are relieved when the White Knight, Hank, rescues her. This liberation from her trials and is what people like my friend think is beautiful about the film.
On another level, the film illustrates the ways in which American society's installed notions of patriarchy are antagonized by the progeny's attempts to look for alternative ways to express masculinity in an American societal arena that honors "marketplace masculinity" (Kimmel 124). In this marketplace, "aggression, competition, anxiety ... set the standards for other men, against which other men are measured ..." (Kimmel 124-125). Sonny and Tyrell exacerbate the aggressive characteristics of masculinity already in place for them to enact. Sonny is expected to accept and embrace the racist legacies that have been passed down from generation to generation through the Grotowski patriarchal line. But Sonny's expression of sympathy for Lawrence, a Black inmate on death-row, in his capacity as a prison guard and his yearning for love from his father, mark Sonny as "weak" in his grand/fathers' eyes. Apparently, Sonny is emotionally and psychologically unable to receive his inheritance or participate in his right of passage into "real" manhood through aggression.…
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Publication information: Article title: A Eulogy for Tyrell Musgrove: The Disremembered Child in Marc Forster's Monster's Ball. Contributors: Dreher, Kwakiutl - Author. Journal title: Film Criticism. Volume: 29. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2004. Page number: 65+. © 1999 Allegheny College. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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