‘The Member of the Wedding’ is a Black History Month Must-Watch

If you ever felt like a misfit, The Member of the Wedding is a story you can identify with. The Carson McCullers novel was adapted into a successful play and then two films, once in 1952 and another in 1997, with Anna Paquin and Alfre Woodard in the starring roles.

The Southern writer put a little bit of herself into the work, as the story follows 12-year-old tomboy Frankie who wants so badly to fit in somewhere that she wants to leave town on a honeymoon with her older brother who is getting married. The voice of reason, though, is Berenice, the maid and caretaker of Frankie and her younger brother.

The 1997 adaptation stars the bisexual actress Anna Paquin, and considering the novel was published in 1946, the discussions had are boundary-pushing and considerably daring for the time.

Benice: I even knew a boy who changed his nature and his sex and turned into a girl.
Frankie: Honest? Do you really?
Benice: He did, for all intents and purposes.
Frankie: I don’t believe you.
Benice: Well I ain’t arguing with you.

Bernice chides Frankie about her lack of femininity, asking why she’s had her hair “chopped off like a convict,” but ultimately she hopes to educate her on the ways of the world. Frankie’s dream of going to the Alaskan wilderness with her brother and his bride is not going to happen, and Bernice tries to prepare her for that. She simply has to go through adolescence like everyone else, despite her struggles to find a place with anyone in her town. Her attempts at being a nice girl in a dress like everyone wants her to be are all failed. She tries her hand at a date with a military recruit that ends in her smashing a glass pitcher over his head.

Frankie: I don’t want any “beau.” What would I do with one?

Gender and race are at the center of The Member of the Wedding and with the Southern backdrop, they are even more prevalent. As tomboy Frankie is trying to find her way in a world made for boys and girls, husbands and wives, Bernice is trying to be a black woman in a white family, and exist happily where she’s expected to be kept under someone else’s thumb. Bernice has been married four times, and none of them have been what she was looking for. She tries to pass her wisdom to Frankie, but Frankie just can’t understand it yet. She is naive and stubborn, and must learn things for herself. And even after Bernice warns her that Frankie’s brother will not be taking her to Alaska, Frankie is heartbroken when she is left behind with the rest of the guests after the reception.

Being a tortured pre-teen is terrible, but Bernice thinks Frankie, at least, can outgrow her stage of unhappiness. Frankie tries to run away and decides she will go to New York by train and dress as a boy and join the Marines. (future butch lesbian?) She doesn’t get that far, though, as her fear of being alone in the world keeps her close to what she knows.

If you prefer to watch the 1952 version starring Ethel Waters and Julie Harris, it follows the play more closely than the novel it was based on. Julie Harris as Frankie was a tomboy character 10 years before Scout Finch became a household name for To Kill a Mockingbird. The performances in both film versions are astounding, and all four major actresses involved went on to have strong and award-winning careers.