GIRLS TRIP & SAWUBONA - Micky ScottBey Jones
The scene: Early in Girls Trip, four pajama clad Black women—close friends since college—are kneeling down around a bed, heads bowed, hands clasped, praying. Dina, played by the comedian Tiffany Haddish, leads her friends in a prayer over the long awaited girls’ trip that is just beginning...
“Heavenly Father, I want to thank you for this day of life...my heart is so full of joy for these women right here...Lord, please make sure that Lisa don’t get an STD...and that nobody has kidney failure, cause we fiddin’ to get messed up...and let me get pregnant by somebody rich...that’s all I ask...Amen.”
Maybe not your most traditional prayer, but this isn’t your most traditional movie. Girls Trip is funny, not at the expense of the Black women portrayed by Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Regina Hall, and Tiffany Haddish, but in a way that displays humanity in these fictional characters’ lives. Like our lives, the comic relief is embedded in the relationships and realities we navigate.
Depending on your demographic profile, Girls Trip may or may not be on your radar, even though at the time of its release, it was the current title-holder for largest opening of a live-action comedy in 2017. (It's available to watch at home this week and beyond.) You may not have noticed it because like much of US culture, films are still largely segregated, from casting to marketing. A comedy with four Black female leads is easily dismissed as a “Black film” that would only be of interest to a subgroup of moviegoers. I am a Black woman, so it was no surprise I joined another Black girlfriend of mine for opening weekend. She was actually my companion on my #FabFlirtyFantastic40 Birthday Trip this year, so a funny movie that might at least slightly resemble the beach adventure we just enjoyed sounded like the perfect night out. I expected to laugh-scream (I do that) and exchange knowing looks and arm slaps throughout the movie, but I didn’t expect to do a deeper dive into my deepest longings for belonging, community, and self-love.
There I sat, watching this comedy about college friends reuniting for a weekend of raunchy fun, nearly in tears from a prayer that is largely a comedic element. In Dina’s prayer, I heard something I am longing for and am still trying to cultivate—real relationship, both divine and human. I don’t want to pray with “thee” and “thou” anymore. Like Anne Lamott, I want to pray with “thanks” and “wow.” I don’t want to just encourage my friends in some sort of generic way to have enough strength to get through the day. I want to encourage Monica not to cuss out the wrong person when she gets angry. My prayers reveal a lot about how I’m relating to the divine and others. I can tell when I’m just running down a prayer list, spitting out flowery words to impress the Spirit (as if that’s a thing) or when I’m actually thinking about an actual person, flaws and all, when holding them in my mind.
This movie is genuinely funny. It’s not in the same genre as some “Black films” that are in the morality-play-dressed-as-comedy predictably safe category. From the first scene to the last, the theater was loud with the laughter of people laughing at well-delivered lines. I mean, the premise alone is ripe for a good time. The “Flossy Posse” was a college crew of four women who have all grown up and been too busy to connect for years. Ryan, the successful relationship writer and motivational speaker of the bunch gets an invitation to take the mainstage at the Essence Festival in New Orleans and calls the rest of the posse to join her, making the trip into a much needed reunion. What unfolds is that each woman brings not only cute dresses and heels on the trip, but her real life struggles and challenges.
That sounds potentially formulaic, possibly cheesy, and very...laugh-it-up and then roll out the morality lesson at the end. And while the arc of the story did offer a little of that, what carried the story was the fullness of the characters. They were not just shell characters delivering one-liners, they were women who I could relate to.
Lisa is the mom with an intense career who has long ago left behind a social life to manage every aspect of her children’s lives. Then there’s Sasha who is a driven entrepreneur trying to make things work, even though the finances are not working. Dina is working that cubicle life— navigating corporate America while trying to keep sanity and self-respect. And then there’s Ryan, the relationship expert, an author and speaker who seems to have it all, at least on the pages of her books, but not in a way of substance since her husband has a habit of infidelity.
With so much pressure on Black women to fit the Strong Black Woman stereotype (see Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength by Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes), it was nice to see a portrayal of Black women that wasn’t just the backbone-of-the-family praying grandma or sexy cutthroat professional in 10 inch designer shoes. Every one of them is beautiful and full of Black Girl Magic, and yet, each one is also navigating heartbreaking and complex challenges. In the midst of these challenges, they gather for fun and connection. They do not wait until all the stars have aligned to answer the call of the Flossy Posse—they come when their friend calls, bringing the challenges of their lives with them.
As someone who struggles with the demon of perfection, who has nearly worn the Strong Black Woman stereotype as my epithet and epitaph, I saw the narrative beneath the jokes. This desire for community that accepts me in my vulnerability is not an indulgent wish. My need to be seen and loved is not because I am needy and flawed— it is because I don’t exist without a “flossy posse,” without others who can see me, reflect me, and help me be me.
In South Africa I learned the Zulu greeting Sawubona. When I asked my friends what the word meant, it felt like an unfolding, a slow reveal of the real meaning. At first they explained that it means hello or good day. It’s a general pleasantry but as with many words of the African diaspora, it carries more that is essentially untranslatable. Sawubona means I see you. I see not just your physical appearance, your face, your hand waving in greeting, or that you are standing there. I see you—a human being with value, dignity, worth, and potential. I see you in your vulnerability and strength. I bring all of me, my history, experience, and understandings to how I see you. I see you and I am responsible to you for what I see. I cannot greet someone with sawubona and put my headphones back in; sawubona is an acknowledgement of the life and identity of the other person. A pause. It is an opportunity to see and be seen.
Girls Trip reminded me that I would rather be seen than be seen as perfect. I am accomplished. I am highly educated. I do good work in the world. I look good in a little black dress. I also have a therapy appointment for 1pm today because I do not have it all together. I want, no, I need people in my life who will look at me and see all of that and respond with love and connection. I am still figuring out how that actually works out in practice, but I will keep greeting in the spirit of sawubona—of seeing and being seen as a way of practicing connection in relationship. I will keep sharing my cute dresses and real life challenges with my friends. It can be scary being seen, but it’s better than being a one-dimensional character. I lived that story for too long, and I’m no longer interested in that narrative.
And, you know, an actual girls’ trip to New Orleans is also an appropriate response to this movie. I just might have to make that happen… and pray no one gets kidney failure.