Friday, November 25, 2016

An American Girl Story - Melody 1963: Love Has to Win

A couple of months ago I saw an article or two about the newest American Girl doll, Melody, and the excitement over a second African American girl in the series. Honestly, I didn't think too much about it other than it seemed like a positive step toward inclusivity, which is always cause to celebrate, and to be happy that her story was set in the 1960s in Detroit -- an era and location I've long been interested in. I only knew about the American Girl phenomenon by hearing people talk about getting things for their kids or grandkids. Part of me was curious to know more about what attracted girls to the dolls and their stories. But I hadn't had an opportunity to really explore it myself.

So when An American Girl Story - Melody 1963: Love Has to Win came up as a recommendation after I finished watching Just Add Magic, I was intrigued. I added it to my queue for some rainy day when watching my usual shows wouldn't quite cut it. I'd never seen or read any of the American Girl stories, but figured if they're geared for the same audience they market their dolls to, it might be a nice change of pace. One day last week, when it was cold and gray and I needed something optimistic, I decided to give it a try. I snuggled up with a comfy blanket, a cup of tea, and some delicious cookies and let this be my introduction to the whole American Girl phenomenon.

And you know what? It was quite enjoyable. And educational. I don't know what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was drawn into Melody's story. She is the heroine of the film, as she begins the exciting and sometimes painful process of growing up in troubled times.

I was concerned it would either gloss over the importance of these struggles or give them a heavy-handed dramatization, leaving me either disappointed with its over simplification or distressed by its too-realness. Instead, this movie does an excellent job of of finding middle ground -- showing the often hurtful and irrational aspects of racism and the challenges of social change, while promoting a sense of optimism through activism -- in a way kids can understand. And all the while engaging the audience emotionally in the struggles and triumphs, personal and political, of this precious, and precocious, little girl.

Family is Key
I loved the portrayal of Melody's non-traditional family -- Melody living with her mother and paternal grandfather, with a nod to her deceased father. This is a a bit of sadness and survival that gives her a unique perspective on the world. Melody is aware of how hard her mother works to provide for her. When Melody gets in trouble at school (for a good cause, imo!) her greatest fear isn't how her mother will react but that her mother will need to take time off from work.

The relationship between mother and daughter is loving and mutually supportive. Melody can't wait to show off her sewing creations to her mom, and her mom is genuinely interested in her daughter's life. They work together to make their home a happy place. Some of the most touching moments in the film are where Melody sits at the piano next to her mother and turns the pages for her as she plays.

Music is Life
In fact, the theme of music runs throughout the film. As her name would suggest, music is important to her family, and is ever present in the film. Her mother's piano is a central element in their home, and the story of her mother's musical history colors Melody's view of the world. Even when Melody's mother isn't playing the piano, there is still music in her life. Someone is singing or humming, a radio playing, or a choir singing.

One of the most important messages in this film is told through music. Her mother, denied a career in music because of her race, continues to use her musical talent to share a message of love and bravery with Melody and with the rest of her community. After they are rocked by the news of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Melody's mother insists on playing at a benefit concert. For her, music is her way to contribute to the world around her, creating beauty as a way to combat the ugliness of others, and she won't shy away from an opportunity of such incredible importance.

Dream Big, Work Hard
Melody is a curious and clever girl, who dreams of a world full of possibilities for herself when she grows up. For each dream she creates an illustration, and then using that as a guide she sews herself an appropriate costume from the scraps of fabric her mother brings home from her job as a factory seamstress. When we are first introduced to Melody, she's busy creating an astronaut's costume, which she proudly wears as she goes to meet her mother at the bus stop after a long day at work. Later we see that she has a closet full of costumes, ranging from opera singer to ballerina, and so many others.

But Melody knows that if she wants to achieve her dreams she's going to have to work very, very hard. She knows that her mother and grandfather expect her to do well in school and she does, even when she'd rather daydream or draw. And even when the act of simply going to school is difficult.

Be Brave
Melody's mother knows that a good education is important, and makes arrangements for her to go to a different school other than the dilapidated and impoverished one in her neighborhood. As you might expect in an educational system where racial inequality was (and still is) allowed to continue practically unchecked, being a "better school" means it's a mostly white school, where she's taunted and bullied. Fortunately for the sake of the intended audience, the film doesn't dwell too long on these painful examples of overt racism. It's presented as part of the complex social setting she lives in -- teased at school, aware her mother's career options were limited by race, and the news from the South about bombings and riots.

Despite her growing awareness of social injustice, the film still allows Melody to be a kid. Her mother and grandfather try to shelter her from the hardships of the world, working to create a safe place for Melody to grow up while hopefully giving her enough self-confidence to face whatever hardships she encounters. And they do a marvelous job of it, as we get to witness over the course of the film.

After hearing the news of the bombing, Melody is justifiably upset, while also scared. This was not the first example of hatred she's encountered, but it is the most heinous. What she had already discovered her ability to stand up to both overt and passive racism directed at her, this is the first time she witnesses an act of violence of this nature, and she's clearly, and justifiably, afraid for her safety and the safety of her family. Afraid that someone might bomb them, she begs her mother not to perform at a benefit being held at their own church in support of the victims' families.

Gently, and without judgment, her mother allows her to stay home, while also carrying on as an example of bravery in the face of fear. It is an important lesson for Melody, and a powerful one for the viewer. And it is handled in a wonderfully delicate manner. There are no rousing speeches, no fiery sermons or boring lessons from history, just the vision of everyday people coming together in a simple act of courageous defiance.

This sense of bravery can be attributed to the makers of this film as well. They've created a film that decidedly centers blackness and the experiences of black girls in particular. Of course there are white characters, but they are secondary to Melody's story, and none of them are let off the hook for their actions. Overt racists aren't portrayed as misunderstood or uneducated, they're shown as what they are -- racists. Even Melody's white teacher, played by one of my favorite actors Frances Fisher, is forced to reckon with her power as a teacher and the privilege of her whiteness in light of Melody's anguish.

I've read some criticism online that this film doesn't do justice to Melody's story as told in the three books, No Ordinary Sound, Never Stop Singing, and Music In My Heart. Having not read them (yet, I've got them queued up to read over the holidays), I can only assume that it's a matter of trying to condense a very complicated story into a movie format -- some favorite scenes from the books likely had to be cut in the interest of brevity and understandability.

Melody is a wonderful example of what I imagine a self-rescuing princess living in 1963 Detroit would be -- she's smart, funny, brave, and kind. An American Girl Story - Melody 1963: Love Has to Win is a charming story with a serious message. It's a honest look at a complicated era through the eyes of a child, showing the impact of history on her life, without being preachy or feeling like sitting through a school lesson. I highly recommend it for folks of all ages!

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