Why A Teen Pregnancy Movie Sidesteps Race
A new film looks at pregnancy through two very different women — one a black teenager, one a white schoolteacher — but foregrounds class and economic issues instead of race.
PARK CITY, Utah — The biggest surprise about Unexpected, the new movie from Kris Swanberg (Empire Builder), isn't that a white high school teacher and her black star pupil are pregnant at the same time. It's that the film manages to be a subtly told work about white privilege without resorting to tired tropes about the Mighty White savior who rescues the poor black girl who's lost. Instead, the overarching themes that are played out are those of socioeconomic pitfalls and cultural presumptions.
On the surface, this is a story about the struggle of the teacher, Samantha (Cobie Smulders), to come to terms with her own pregnancy. She and her live-in boyfriend (Anders Holm) haven't quite had the forever-after chat, and she'll have to forgo the pomp and circumstance of a wedding and deal with the judgmental eye of her mother. Instead, she'll rush into matrimony before having the child. She'll also have to debate her own internal issues with maneuvering career versus motherhood.
Jasmine (newcomer Gail Bean) is a senior at an inner-city high school. She had been expected to escape the destiny of her neighborhood — she would go to college, find an equally educated husband, and have a child at an appropriate age, long after she's settled into her career. Her adult life was supposed to be unlike her childhood, with a drug-addicted mother and an older sister with two out-of-wedlock babies. All of them live with Jasmine's grandmother, who works and is also on public assistance.
"I did find that when I was sending the script out to agencies or to mentors of mine, or to other friends in the business for advice, people were wanting it to go the traditional way," Swanberg, a former Chicago schoolteacher herself, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "They wanted Jasmine's neighborhood to be more like bullets flying by, and her life to really be dangerous, because they wanted that promise of college to be even more of a dream."
Instead, while the neighborhood where Jasmine's family lives is in an economically depressed area, it's not the same as the war-torn environment in, for example, Precious. It's an inner-city pocket where residents are working-class, and, in some cases, need public assistance to stay just above the line. In other words, it's reflective of the lived experiences of many working-class people in America.
Swanberg, who still lives in Chicago, said she's not blind to the problems that plague parts of the city. "But that's not the whole story," she said. "There are families and communities that live in these neighborhoods that are loving and happy and kind and good, and you can show the class difference without it being a war zone."
In her first major on-screen role, the 21-year-old Bean plays Jasmine very measured — strong, yet vulnerable. She's the furthest thing from a caricature; instead, she comes across as the voice of reason, and her character forces Samantha to rethink what she places value on in her own life.
Swanberg gave Bean freedom to help create a backstory of who Jasmine was, which she did by drawing on her own personal experiences. Bean grew up in the predominately black Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, and used her high school best friend (who got pregnant as a high school senior, yet is thriving, Bean said) as inspiration.
While race is an important factor here, it's not the focal point — it's never even talked about in the film. But when asked why her main characters had to be black and white, Swanberg said it was because that was her experience: a white teacher working with mostly black students. She wanted this film to reflect that, but she didn't want it to be a statement about race and race relations. Instead, she wanted this to be a story about two women from two different worlds finding common ground.
"It's a truthful story. Sometimes race has a play in truth and sometimes it's just a story," Bean told BuzzFeed News. "It's about two women going through two very different things and comparing their backgrounds."