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Friends: A Love Story [Book Review]

Summary

Friends: A Love Story, tells the story of Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance. The book is a combination of sorts that tells the stories of their individual personal and professional lives followed by how they came together and the resulting marriage. Before the two become a couple, the chapters switch back and forth with the subjects discussing a particular period in their lives. Friends: A Love Story follows a format of Bassett’s childhood, Vance’s childhood, Bassett’s undergrad years, Vance’s undergrad years, etc. Once they become a couple, both perspectives around an event are discussed within the same chapter.

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Show Notes

Angela Bassett was born in Harlem, New York but spent most of her childhood in St. Petersburg, Florida. While still in Harlem, her father did odd jobs around the neighborhood while her mom had a stable job as a nurse’s aide. Bassett expressed that her parents had her and her sister relatively close together without any real plan for how they would support and raise them. I’m not one for telling people what to do with their lives. But I do think family planning and the associated conversations are important before having kids. Actually before even getting married.

Bassett’s parents sent her to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to live with an aunt and uncle when she was a toddler. Her parents were facing the difficulty of trying to raise two very small children while they both had to work. Sadly, Bassett wouldn’t see her father again for several years and he didn’t seem to even call to speak with her on the phone. Fortunately, Bassett’s aunt and uncle were good people. It’s important to note that this couple seemed to be doing relatively well despite the hardships that Black people faced at the time. The husband was a self-employed entrepreneur and the wife had a stable skilled job as a teacher.

I think it’s incredibly generous and the right thing to do to help family members who are in need. But I’ve read multiple instances of people having kids they can’t afford or other things are going on in their lives so family members have to step in to take care of the kids. And then when the kids settle into stability the parents come back suddenly to get them. A gradual transition might be a better idea. Especially if the kids don’t remember or didn’t maintain a close relationship with their parents.

I’m not particularly into kids but I do find their adventures and escapades to be amusing. I enjoyed hearing stories from Bassett’s childhood. They were entertaining but usually sweet and innocent. When Angela went back to her mom, they moved with her younger sister to St. Petersburg, Florida where either her mom was originally from or had quite a bit of family. At this point, her mom was working a series of low paying jobs trying to move up in salary to be able to better provide for the family. I think Angela’s mother’s desire that her children have a different and better life than her own played a crucial role in Angela’s development. She also raised her daughters to take pride in themselves and their appearance regardless of how little they might have had.

Unfortunately, during her tween years, Angela was molested by two of her mother’s boyfriends. Her mother did the right thing which was believing Bassett and unless she had prior knowledge of their habits it certainly wasn’t her fault. But I can’t help but wonder how was she meeting these men? Were they targeting her because she had two young daughters at home, was struggling financially, and their father wasn’t around?

I took issue with how Bassett’s mom resolved these situations. I didn’t see the point of arranging a confrontation with the first boyfriend. It might have been a way of giving Angela voice in the situation but doesn’t seem to be something she was interested in. It seemed to be unnecessarily dramatic and likely uncomfortable for Angela. And with the second boyfriend, she did the right thing by ending the relationship but I don’t understand remaining friends with this man. By remaining friends with this person, your daughter has to continue having contact with someone who took advantage of her. Or even if you don’t bring them around, she has to know that you’re maintaining contact with the man who violated her.

While discussing her childhood Angela Bassett mentions not being scarred by her childhood molestation. But then later in Friends: A Love Story, she discusses her problems with men and her discomfort with her sexuality. It’s not my place to speak on her behalf or to say how someone should feel in such a situation. But I believe the two are connected. She glosses over or at least downplays this aspect of her childhood and the impact it had on her development. People deal with things their way but she doesn’t hold the men accountable for being inappropriate. Instead, she provides possible explanations (which are excuses) for what they did.

Angela’s mom isn’t perfect and she certainly makes mistakes along the way in Friends: A Love Story. But she’s pretty modern or at least logical for her time. She seems like an interesting lady who would be a fun older woman to be around. The idea of not being average or not settling for being average that she instilled in her kids was important. She might not have delivered the message in the most dignified manner but it was nonetheless poignant and life-changing. It was key to Bassett’s development and later success that her mom had high expectations for her.

Too often being Black and from certain neighborhoods results in people, parents included, having low expectations for kids and not pushing or encouraging them to strive for more. Exposing kids especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, to different experiences can be life-changing. One such experience exposed Bassett to the theater and that one event changed the direction of her life.

Angela’s family seems to be a bunch of characters. Reading her account of conversations with her mom about the birds and the bees was hilarious. The whole scenario of her mother taking her to a drugstore and talking to her about condoms was pure comedy. I was lectured as a child but I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone for eight hours about anything. Even as an adult. I could just imagine what it might have been like to sit in a car and get lectured for a whole work shift. Likewise, the story of her grandmother becoming a Jehovah’s Witness and telling her about the world coming to an end in a few years was funny.

Courtney B. Vance, on the other hand, had roots in Chicago but grew up in Detroit. The city’s dramatic change occurred during his childhood and motivated his parents to initially move to a different neighborhood and to then put Vance and his older sister in private predominately White schools. His parents wanted the Vance kids to live in an integrated community to learn how to be comfortable with navigating a White world.

Someone who looms large in Courtney’s life is his father, Conroy Vance. Courtney’s father was originally from Chicago and had been raised in a foster home. People have a hard enough time being adopted as babies before they can remember. I can only imagine the trauma of your parents giving you away as a preschooler where you can remember them and are aware that for whatever reason they chose to give you up.

Vance grew up with his father in the house but they lacked the deep connection that he saw between his mother and older sister. His father would joke around and make fun of him but was unable to have important or deep conversations. Vance as a result never spoke with his father (or his mother for that matter) about sex, while his sister did with their mom. His early contact with his dad’s pornography magazines shaped his ideas of sex and sexuality. There’s a lot of examples of toxic masculinity within his father’s life and also within Vance’s relationship with his father. He also internalized a lot of what he saw in his parent’s relationship where they argued, his mom let his dad have his way, and his dad, in turn, kept a lot of secrets.

Courtney would go on to attend predominantly White schools from high school through grad school. Adapting to these new environments was difficult and he wanted help from his father with figuring out his identity as a Black male in predominantly White environments. But he didn’t feel like he could have these kinds of conversations with his father. As he got older he eventually began to sense that the schools he attended weren’t interested in him as a person but rather for his performance as an athlete. He felt if not unwelcome, then unwanted.

Vance’s experiences attending predominantly White schools but feeling as though he didn’t belong reminded me of the main character in A Particular Kind of Black Man. Where both feel obligated to portray this image to the world that leaves them feeling empty and lost.

Ironically, despite growing up in a two-parent household with his biological dad trying to give him a better life he still shared the experience with his father of feeling unwanted. It’s worth noting that Vance grew up in a stable two-parent home but it seemed to lack the intimacy of a family. Meanwhile, Bassett grew up in a poor one-parent home and experienced a lot of instability as a child. But she had a mom who relished in having difficult conversations that she detested. Their respective families had things the other seemed to lack growing up.

I had no real prior knowledge of Angela Bassett as a person outside of the roles she played. But I would never have imagined dating being hard for her. It’s pretty humanizing to learn that she had similar dating experiences to most other young women. Angela is intelligent but I also admire her principles along with her interests and pride in Black culture and history. It often seems that when Black people achieve success or to achieve success they feel compelled to distance themselves from or downplay their Blackness.

College can be a period of great adjustment and stress on its own much less while also navigating the awkwardness of trying to establish a relationship with an absentee father. It was quite disappointing that Bassett’s father turned out to be just as problematic when present as he was when absent. Angela explains her father’s behavior as some men not knowing how to be fathers. Which is true. But in the case of her father and other men like him, some men just aren’t decent people. It’s not even a matter of being a father and not knowing how to raise children. But just not knowing or caring to know how to conduct yourself or treat other people as human beings.

I truly enjoyed reading about Bassett’s experiences and growth as a woman. I haven’t shared all of her experiences but still appreciate her journey. I didn’t know that Angela and Charles S. Dutton were in a relationship way back when. Their relationship was a hot mess. Entertaining to read from the outside but nerve-wracking to experience. I appreciate Bassett’s honesty and insight into women staying in dysfunctional relationships that they don’t find fulfilling. Her relationship with Dutton and a night at the Tony Awards gave me second-hand embarrassment. The real-life drama of two actors dating seems fitting but also incredibly draining.

Having grown up seeing Black people on television and in movies it’s easy to take for granted that this was always the case. And having admired Bassett as an actress since childhood it’s amusing to read about her gushing over the actors and actresses that she’s admired since childhood. Some of my favorite parts of Friends: A Love Story were getting behind the scenes info about what went into securing and portraying some of her most famous roles. It’s inspiring to learn about the mental and physical discipline that went into preparing for these parts.

It’s interesting that Vance initially got into acting because he wanted to meet new people outside of athletics. I respect his grind of working incredibly hard around the clock in pursuit of his goals. Yet while his professional development is admirable, Vance doesn’t sound like such a great person during his young adult years. It’s refreshing to hear him look back on his life through the eyes of a well-adjusted older man. Cutting through the bravado and ego of youth to explain the insecurity and discomfort with emotions that guided his actions. As an adult, Vance is probably a pretty decent guy but I still found him insufferable at some points in Friends: A Love Story. I especially don’t like it when professionals speak down on or criticize the performance of others in their industry.

One of the byproducts of toxic masculinity is men feeling like they have to hide or aren’t allowed to have feelings. It was incredibly sad to read about Vance’s father’s secret battle with depression. His father had an emotionally rough life but felt obligated to put on a happy face and keep his feelings to himself. He had a tough exterior and made fun of his son’s sensitivity while keeping his feelings bottled up inside. It’s poignant that his father’s inability to accept help pushed Vance to finally seek the therapy that he needed.

His perspective on therapy is refreshing. There’s great stigma around mental health and therapy in society in general but especially so within the Black community. Some people are encouraged to just endure while others are simply told to pray which is not enough for everyone. I think that the story of feeling overwhelmed by life and grief and seeking therapy can be helpful to many people. Especially the message of the importance of doing the work to improve and accept yourself so you can better communicate and interact with others.

It says a lot that Courtney was involved in a serious long-term live-in relationship with a woman that he wouldn’t share his real feelings with. Yet, when he was lonely and wanted someone to talk to he would call sex chat lines to speak with women who were strangers. The early influence of porn on his inability to communicate with women is interesting. It’s like you get so used to having these one-sided fantasies that are all about you and your needs that you then find it difficult to communicate with and consider someone else’s needs in an intimate relationship. It’s overindulgence in a fantasy world that creates a mental block that prevents some men from developing truly intimate relationships with women in the real world.

Angela to some degree experiences this as well where she has these fantasies in her youth about the type of man she wants to be with. But there’s no real thought behind what kind of person he needs to be or his values. Instead, there’s a greater focus on superficial features that result in her starting relationships with men that she has no business dating. It seems to be a way of keeping yourself closed off and maintaining distance in relationships.

Courtney’s relationship also shows the male perspective of holding onto a relationship because it feels comfortable rather than it is where you want to be. I think it’s like sunk costs where you’ve experienced so much with this person and invested heavily in the relationship that you’re afraid to let go.

I love books like this that give you an in-depth look at how successful projects or businesses came together. I enjoy watching videos and movies that show training regimens. I just admire the discipline and seeing it all come together so reading about her preparation for roles was enthralling to me. To get a detailed breakdown of how an actress embodies a character and decides where to add inflections or tone things down was interesting. Friends: A Love Story me an even deeper appreciation for not only Bassett’s talent but also her work ethic. You can go back and watch her movies through new eyes.

Media can give people a skewed view of celebrities that makes them feel as though they know these people personally. But it’s a one-sided relationship where the celebrity likely has no idea that they exist. Thus some people feel comfortable walking up to celebrities and randomly touching them. Not just a tap on the shoulder but people grabbing and squeezing your arms or body. It says a lot that someone can be violating your personal space and being inappropriate but feeling uncomfortable telling them to stop because you don’t want to seem rude or ungracious.

I never considered that people would feel that way when dating celebrities as well. For example, expecting an actress to portray a character within a relationship. I would expect adults to be able to differentiate between the two. If that’s what she does for a living who would want to be stuck in character off the clock?

I like that Angela and Courtney both realized that they wanted to improve as people and took time to explain their process. Not to say theirs is the one true way but rather that this was what worked for them. It’s interesting that they were both looking for validation and a sense of identity or completion in partners but realized they had to find it within themselves.

Now, I was mostly agreeing with Bassett up to the point where she started discussing relationships, sex, and religion. When she ventured into soul ties and bleeding virgins the thrill was gone.

Bassett mentions having feelings of guilt around sex outside of marriage because of her religious upbringing. And I agree that some of those feelings probably came from having frivolous sex with men with whom she didn’t feel a connection. I don’t want to come across as dismissive of her beliefs. But, I also believe that it’s probably more accurate that the issues that she and other people feel with regards to sex are a result of religion and society teaching people that it’s shameful.

I don’t take any issue with religion guiding your approach to sex and sexuality or deciding to save yourself for marriage or just because you don’t want to have sex. What I do take issue with is presenting ideas that are not fact-based as explanations for real-life matters. The last thing we need is more false information floating around about sex and other biological matters. Virgins do not always bleed during intercourse and soul ties are not a real thing. They shouldn’t be presented as facts and have no place in a logical discussion about sexuality.

I did appreciate the message of not being complacent or settling in life but rather striving to reach a place of being content with yourself, your achievements, and your life overall. Being grateful for what you have rather than lamenting what you don’t have and allowing it to consume you. I think this is an incredibly important shift in perspective that could make a lot of people feel less stressed in life.

Also, I respect that Bassett cares about how Black people are portrayed in movies and takes that into account when considering roles. But, I also think it’s limiting and unrealistic to only want to play good or wholesome characters or that all of your characters have to demonstrate their love of Black men.

To be clear, I don’t think we need more films focused on Black men and women dogging each other. But, life and people are complex and some people aren’t so great. It’s fine to have all of that and more in movies and characters. What we need is more diversity, balance, and complexity in the way Black men AND women are portrayed. Not for the characters to only be soft and gentle with each other.

As a side note, I find this compulsion that some Black women feel to coddle and protect men, even those who are undeserving of it, to be emasculating. It’s like saying that Black men can’t differentiate between good and bad characters. And their egos are so fragile that they need to be handled delicately in a way that other men and Black women don’t need.

Likewise, acting is acting. It’s an adult version of make-believe. I don’t agree with the idea that the characters you play on film have to be a reflection of your real-life or personal views. I’m not saying play roles that go against what you believe or that make you uncomfortable. But it’s ridiculous to think that for Courtney to play a preacher and stand in a pulpit he felt he had to be baptized. Go ahead and get baptized if you want and if you’re at a place in life where it’s something you’re called to do. But, I don’t think anyone would be paying attention or would care that you’re playing a preacher without being baptized. Certainly, no one expects you to go out and murder people to play a villain in the movie.

I don’t want to give away the story of how the two end up together but let me just say that it’s very sweet. The back and forth between chapters ends and instead, they share their perspectives on an event from within the same chapter. By this point in Friends: A Love Story, they’re both older and eventually get more into the church, this is especially true for Vance. I think inspiration and insight can come from different perspectives. So while I’m not religious, I don’t mind hearing from people who are. But after a while, it began to feel a bit heavy-handed, especially Vance’s perspective. He struck me as being a bit judgmental and self-righteous throughout Friends: A Love Story but it became even more apparent and a bit off-putting.

I also side-eyed the constant message of aspiring to a traditional Christian marriage but picking and choosing what that means. A big deal is made about the husband, in this case, Vance, being the head of the household but there’s more flexibility about him not being the primary breadwinner. It comes across to a degree as wanting to call the shots and be in control without having to carry all of the burdens. Now, to be clear he doesn’t sound like a dictator in the relationship as he’s refreshingly supportive. But I just felt the constant rehashing of this head of household business was tiresome.

Ultimately everyone is free to make their own decisions and to decide for their relationship how they want things to go rather than following these generic rules and ideals. That’s why I always find it funny that people say these are THE rules to follow and the way to do it but then break from tradition or pick and choose what rules to follow based on what works for them.

I thought Friends: A Love Story was a great book and enjoyed the behind the scenes look into the craft of acting and the business of theater, film, and television. As a long-time fan of Angela Bassett, I was a bit more biased towards learning about her career journey but also enjoyed Courtney B. Vance’s as well. Friends: A Love Story was solid for me up to the point where they started discussing their wedding as I hate the idea of wedding planning. But it picked back up for me when they discussed their journey to becoming parents.

Given that Friends: A Love Story has a male and female perspective I think it could appeal to both genders. Young adults and older adults might see bits and pieces of themselves or someone they know in the life stories shared here. I think it’s an incredible book about figuring out how to better define what you want in a partner and more importantly what you want within yourself.

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