I neither planned nor wanted to see Beatriz at Dinner, but God told me to go so I did. Ordinarily God is pretty indifferent to my viewing habits despite what many other Christians would have you believe. I actually considered whether or not I wanted to see the movie then dismissed it for a variety of reasons.
I don’t really need another movie that rests on the trope that people of color have some innate connection to spirituality and nature and exist to change white wealthier people into better people. I was young, but I saw Driving Miss Daisy and a lot of other Magical Negro films so I feel like I did my time so thanks, but no thanks to the closer to the earth—”earthy” for short—Latina. I think the existence of Congreso’s CEO, Sen. Ted Cruz and US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development gifted hands and descendant of involuntary immigrants proves that being some type of beige adjacent skin color or a woman does not inherently imbue any person with a moral compass.
I’m also currently mad at Salma Hayek. I loved her before January 29, 2017. I usually support her work whether or not I actually like it or whether or not she was in front of or behind the camera: Frida, Timecode, Ugly Betty, From Dusk Till Dawn to name a few. I love and supported her because she is smart, talented and beautiful, and she is a woman of color. Then I read the Los Angeles Times’ article by Amy Kaufman about a group of women filmmakers having lunch during the Sundance Film Festival. Objectively I’ve been a Hayek fan longer than I knew that Jessica Williams even existed, but after reading that article, I realized that Hayek, intentionally or not, was the kind of person that I would avoid in real life. Bubble burst.
If I complain about Woody Allen films, I rarely start with the fact that his films do not contain people of color because I understand that in his world, he is THE person of color, THE oppressed one, and instead of creating empathy with other people’s stories, he thinks his story is emblematic of the struggle and success of all who face any disadvantage-physical, financial, social or otherwise. It is an understandable, albeit overly simplified way of navigating the world, and Hayek took it explicitly one step further. She acted as if one’s inner identity would be hurt by simultaneously recognizing that reality puts up roadblocks for women who are less desired such as black women or trans women apart from one’s self-acknowledged awesomeness. She spoke as if her experience, because it was hard and defied many odds, made her an authority on all experiences. She took anger as a creative source of energy off the table, unconscious of how she was conforming in that moment to what is acceptable to society when women speak and unwittingly reference the stereotype of the angry black woman. I was Team Hayek, but I never considered whether or not she was on my team.
The person with the most power can hold court. You know your place at a business dinner, or you lose your paycheck. Hayek probably thought she was being encouraging, felt like Williams was invalidating her experience as a woman of color (Mexican of Spanish descent and Lebanese Arab) with an accent who faced undeniable hardships. She wanted to erase any difference between them. Hayek does not realize that she is still the kind of minority that is able to graduate to whiteness as described by Andrew Hacker in Two Nations: Black, White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. Her use of “baby” and her effort to physically command and dominate Williams sound entirely too familiar and condescending to be considered affectionate, particularly given the context. Williams wisely stayed silent.
God never dismissed these concerns. God did not audibly tell me to see the film. He did not engrave it on a stone. Ask my editor, but I had plenty of other ideas. I just couldn’t hear my voice for the other reviews that I wanted to write until I returned to the idea of going to see Beatriz at Dinner. So I prayed on it and patiently explained to God how God was clearly wrong and listed my aforementioned reasons, which were not invalidated, but I felt encouraged to see it anyway. My voice became clearer until I could almost see and hear what I wanted to write, but I needed to actually see the film to write it. Pesky detail! Without getting too theological, I know that it is God when it is something that is against what I would normally do, but it feels encouraging and positive. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” God was right. I enjoyed it in spite of my reservations and recognized the humor at the intersection of fiction and reality.
Thankfully Beatriz at Dinner successfully walks a tricky tightrope of not becoming a movie about a treacly, magical ethnic woman and does not become an unrealistic wish fulfillment revenge fantasy, which would detract from the realistic, discomfort of a viewer watching all the characters, including Beatriz. Beatriz at Dinner is about a holistic practitioner who is unable to leave a long-term client’s lavish and beautiful home on the coast due to quotidian circumstances so her client, Kathy, played by Connie Briton, invites her to a business dinner until Beatriz can get her car repaired. Briton’s character is very familiar and seemingly considerate. Because of the intimate nature of their business relationship, Kathy calls Beatriz her friend and characterizes her like family. Her husband, Grant, played by David Warshofsky, the same actor who played Peus on Scandal, entertains no such illusions, but humors his wife. As the guests arrive, Kathy’s invitation seems more like a ticking time bomb.
Beatriz occupies an uncertain space. Hayek is the titular character, and her appearance is uncharacteristically muted compared to her usual characters. The director juxtaposes her against other actors, and ordinarily I don’t think of her as a tiny woman, but the other actors tower over her, and their characters overlook her. She is a guest so she cannot stay in the back with the help, but she is also a servant, albeit a skilled one, so she does not have a pre-designated role like the other guests. The guests, willingly or not, are classified by work, gender and marital relationship. She is invisible to them until she chooses to interact with them, but she disturbs the equilibrium because she initially acts as if she is a real guest and tries to interact with them as she would with any person, but it is a business dinner party, not a purely social occasion. There are unspoken rules, and she knows none of them. She wants to speak about life and death, talks too long, and then reacts with emotional honesty. She is literally the odd (wo)man out.
The other guests are husbands and wives. Chloe Sevigny, a queen of independent films, plays Shannon, and Jay Duplass plays Alex. They are a pair and are coming up in the world. They arrive first. Shannon currently makes more money than him and dreads spending time with the wives who don’t work, but they fall into line and gender norms when the power couple arrives: Amy Landecker, the third wife, and John Lithgow, who plays Doug Strutt, the man who is the real boss with the most money and fame. (Side note: Duplass and Landecker play siblings in the hit Amazon series Transparent.) There is one excruciating scene after Strutt mistakes Beatriz for a server, Grant offers to get drinks for Strutt and Alex so Beatriz asks for a refill. It is a social faux pas because it breaks the illusion that Beatriz is one of the family by Strutt treating her like a (lower skilled) servant, but by asking her employer for a drink, she is uncomfortably making him her servant by accepting his hospitality on its face instead of seeing it for what it is: forced, gritted teeth politeness.
Beatriz and Strutt share an uncomfortable and unpredictable Venn diagram of characteristics. They both believe in fate, and that they have a reason to exist. They believe in tangible work and visible results. They ask intrusive questions about each other. They notice others. They disobey invisible rules of politeness and social pleasantries by going on too long about what they value and reductively classify the other in frank terms that shock and create discomfort among others. They both see death. He enjoys himself because of or in spite of it (carpe diem), and she feels the weight of it. The others humor and praise him, but they grimly tolerate her and seek to silence her. The main difference between the two of them is his money and power. Who knew that Hayek had more in common with Strutt than she did with Beatriz! Strutt and Hayek both call others by overly familiar pet names that could hide a derogatory meaning depending on the context. Guess what film Hayek was promoting at the festival? You cannot make this stuff up. God knew that the irony would tickle me.
Beatriz at Dinner ultimately condemns etiquette as a superficial social weapon for advancement rather than a virtue that comforts others. The film reveals that manners always favor and reinforce the status quo rather than those who speak out against it. The other guests privilege money and comfort over their life and values. They are more comfortable talking about Beatriz than interacting with her. They want to take her stories without listening to her. They want her to be their earthy Latina, but they are unprepared for the consequences of her practices and her beliefs. Strutt may be a careless person in the vein of The Great Gatsby, but the film really condemns Kathy for being materialistic, superficially caring, but substantially empty who only pretends to be a human being. If she really believes that Beatriz healed her only child, she would accept Beatriz’s moral condemnation and outrage at Strutt’s self-professed crimes against nature, but instead she defends him and exiles Beatriz because money matters, and Beatriz did break the rules. She likes her life more than she cares about anyone else. She knows the language of inclusion and acceptance, but reveals her casual cruelty by looking at leaked photos. She pretends to be better than others because she cares about Beatriz, but she only cares about what directly affects her. She also mirrors Hayek at that unfortunate lunch. A woman who touts a liberal agenda, but is rhetorically progressive.
Strutt, for all his faults, notices Beatriz watching him before any of the attendees, including those who invited her. He may be a self-centered, self-congratulatory Philistine bordering on the criminal, but he knows when he is being noticed whereas the others are oblivious to her scrutiny until she chooses to interact with them. Beatriz is a little Unitarian Jihad for my tastes, but she is sincere and going mad after a lifetime of grief in her personal and professional life. She has a syncretistic approach to Catholicism and Buddhism, which could be called spirituality, but she should not be derided as a fraud or dilettante. She feels too deeply and sees the wounds in others and in the world until it hits too close to home. The film predominantly identifies with her point of view by focusing on how she views the world. When she meets Strutt and realizes who he is, Strutt symbolizes everything that is wrong with the world. There are no dinner rules on how to act if you meet someone that you consider a war criminal. There is no universal Emily Post because manners vary based on region, religion class and gender. Beatriz can’t win because she will lose regardless of the context.
Beatriz is like an Old Testament prophet capable of miracles, a performance artist who sees more than they do, but when she tries to communicate it, becomes exiled and unmoored from any hopes of returning to ordinary life. She is no Esther, another uncomfortable dinner attendee who successfully fought for survival when admonished in Esther 4:14, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Beatriz calls out the king and fails. The Bible tells stories like this, but they are not as well known as the prosperity gospel touted by those who call themselves Protestants and Evangelicals.
Strutt is no Hitler, but Beatriz sees him as one of the horsemen of the environmental apocalypse, which she takes very personally and is implicitly the cause of the cancer in her client’s life and the emotional and historical cancer in her own. Is Beatriz crazy for acting as she does or are the others crazy to ignore the enormous consequences of their actions and wealth? The others characterize Strutt’s action in positive and glowing terms, but she is disgusted by what she discovers. What would you do if you encountered someone that you thought would cause the apocalypse and you could stop this person from destroying the world? It is easy to talk big online or with your friends, but in the real world, you would probably make that person feel comfortable in order to keep that paycheck. It is all fun and games until you get an invite for a photo op at the tower. How can you turn down such an opportunity? The worst thing that you can do is make someone uncomfortable as they destroy everything you love. Don’t be angry. Don’t hurt their feelings. It isn’t polite. It isn’t nice. Smile while we kill the ones that you love.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.