In Jeremy Hersh’s film, The Surrogate, Jasmine Batchelor portrays Sarah, a black, accomplished, young and beautiful New Yorker who agrees to bear her best friend’s child. Said best friend, Josh, a moderately successful musician, is the white half of a gay, black/white professional couple. His partner, Aaron, is an up-and-coming corporate lawyer.
The action begins with Sarah telling the couple about her positive pregnancy test. This brief celebratory scene is followed by sharing the news with her sceptical mother and low key supportive big sister. But, of course, there’s a marked difference between the two conversations. Writer-director Hersh reflects this change in tone very well — dinner with the fathers-to-be is set against a darkly lit, warm and cosy background. By contrast, the awkward conversation with mama and big sis is a brightly lit lunch with Sarah alone on one side of their table and mama directly opposite. Why mama, what stern looks you have. All the better to skewer you with, my daughter.
The Surrogate explores an interesting range of subjects and themes, including women’s bodily autonomy; the tensions between maternal rights and social expectations; disability; the interplay between gender roles and parenting; USA health economics; inheritance; and parenting adult children. Phew! This might seem overcomplicated, but it isn’t, mainly because the narrative keeps moving and weaves these various strands coherently. It might also seem, well, more than a little worthy and self-righteous — guilty as charged, your honour.
As a contemporary drama, The Surrogate works better conceptually than it does creatively. This is in part because initially, it overdoes keeping it moving. The opening twenty or twenty-five minutes feels a little like an extended jump-cut video from the early days of MTV, as the scenes are staccato in their brevity, speed, and change of pace and tone. That it works at all is largely due to the interesting nature of the story and the care with which it’s told.
However, what is arguably the film’s greatest strength is also undoubtedly its greatest weakness. Hersh is white and male, and his protagonist is a black woman. Ain’t nothing wrong with that — if white men avoid or minimise racist and/or sexist stereotyping, they can and should write stories centring black women (and everyone else who doesn’t share their privilege). The trouble here is that Sarah is less than credible because Hersh has created a paragon rather than a person.
It brought to mind the 1967 rom-com drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Sidney Poitier plays a highly accomplished doctor brought to meet his pretty white fiancée’s liberal parents, whose values are tested by their daughter’s choice of partner. Despite earning the studio’s biggest profit of the year and winning two Oscars, Poitier’s character is widely regarded as absurdly virtuous, giving Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy nothing to grapple with other than Poitier’s race. The latter was ‘post racial’ long before the term gained currency.
Similar criticisms can be levelled at The Surrogate. Sarah works for a painfully worthy nonprofit. Her mama is a senior figure at Harvard. Her father’s role isn’t specified, but whatever he does, he’s certainly very ‘respectable.’ Big sis lives in a quiet Connecticut suburb in a cosy interracial marriage. Viewers are told in no uncertain terms this family are “Decent People”.
Given that Jasmine Batchelor is in every scene, The Surrogate’s creative success hinges on her performance, coupled with the interesting interweaving themes mentioned above. Happily, Ms Batchelor has the acting chops to carry it off. She even contrives to make some of Sarah’s communication and mannerisms less than appealing, which is some feat, given the politically correct constraints she’s working within.
The drama has some redundancies, too — Sarah’s worthy but charmless boyfriend is straight out of the ‘what on earth does she see in him?’ box. Then there’s an excruciatingly contrived scene in which Sarah confronts a restaurateur about wheelchair access. Brotha lawyer Aaron is almost a cardboard cut-out, highlighted in a scene where Sarah seeks his support while arguing a point with Josh about race. Aaron ducks the issue — which is unintentionally symbolic of the narrative itself. Stories this ambitious and unusual should always be the former and not the latter.
The Surrogate is a moderately important movie because of what it seems to be trying to do. Regrettably, it doesn’t quite succeed — but it’s necessary and reassuring that people are trying.