Reflecting on My Josephine by Barry Jenkins
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
A few things caught my eye about this film. I couldn’t help but analyse each and every moment of it as it unfolded in front of me, each frame held a significance in relation to contemporary culture - particularly the feeling of being considered as different.
My Josephine (2003) is a short film by Barry Jenkins which tactfully critiques the socio-political space of American culture post-911. The protagonist narrates the film sequence in Arabic and subtitled text in English coexists alongside it. There is a slowness created for an English speaking audience through this. We are guided into the eyes and perspective of the Arabic man while he journeys through the mundane activity of washing American flags.
The very act of the leading male and female washing, delicately folding and handling the flags in the laundrette, which specifically catered to cleaning American flags, feels ironic. This represents the tip toes in which one culture embodies when faced with another – the fear of disrupting the balance – thus being extra careful. But arguably some cultures are less delicate with the beliefs and moral systems embodied by another.
In cohesion to this thought the onscreen tungsten lighting, which dilutes green across the characters faces, translates an uncanny feeling subsiding the very act. It is not a joyful activity to wash, to fold and to be physically reminded of ones otherness to the nationalistic imagery informed through the American flag and reiterated through racist practices in modern culture. However, it is the sole purpose of the two character’s existence to endure this within the film.
This led me to thinking about the social signification of the flag:
The flag – the flag.
A symbol to show a culture, yet sometimes the flag is manipulated into a Nazi-like, nationalistic image.
“This is my flag!”…“This is my culture!”… “If your flag is different to mine, then we are different, you are other!”…
But why is difference bad?
And what does it feel like to be another?
Returning back to the film, the relationship between the audio and mise-en-scene is significant: The melancholic colouring and monotone narration of the leading male explaining their duties, offers an interpretation as to why they are cleaning the flags. The process of cleaning the flags is a metaphor for the need for us to socially renew the stains that we have imprinted onto flags as a weapon of difference. The dirt itself transforms the flag into a symbol of fear and separation - (despite the original purpose of a flag existing as a delicate, decorative symbols of different cultural groups, which should never even touch the ground, thus remaining free of dirt.
Through this, the meaning of difference manifests as troublesome. However, difference should be a space of acceptance – not a space of war. But in contemporary society, alongside historical moments – difference has always been the root of all hate and social disharmony - leading to cultural tensions and negations. My Josephine channels us to pause and think about the meaning of a flag, about its symbolism in culture and how it has been manipulated to encourage othering and separation. Within this, the flag becomes a catalyst for decoding the need for societies to cleanse the socio-political landscape of fearing difference.
Fear, fear, can you hear?
Hear the fear?
Fear the here,
The here and now,
Fear is the enemy of bliss.
My Josephine is a reflection of God and lightness.
The meaning of the name Josephine is: God will Increase.
In My Josephine the godly energy which is increasing is: the awareness that we have of difference in our everyday realities and finding a way to cleanse and celebrate it for its pure, authentic essence.
Watch the full film here: https://www.directorslibrary.com/barry-jenkins/my-josephine/
Directed and written by Barry Jenkins
Photography by James Laxton.