Something that never touches the ground shouldn’t be dirty.
It’s only fitting that Barry Jenkins‘ student film My Josephine would stand as a precursor for the unrequited love bubbling beneath the surface of unspoken hardship he’d later explore in Moonlight. Inspired by a laundromat he passed post-9/11 with a sign reading “American flags clean free” and two people folding clothes behind it, he chose to write the latter pair as subjects of a story hewing inward rather than out. Many would have seen that sign alongside workers of Arab descent and conjured an avenue towards creating a politicized plot about patriotism or racism—survival in a world slowly tightening around them as citizens turned enemies. Jenkins instead saw love. He saw hope beyond tragedy and romance removed from chaos these two innocents had no part in making.
So Aadid (Basel Hamdan) is heard narrating the lyrically poetic imagery as a man enamored by the woman (Saba Shariat‘s Adela) at his side. He speaks about Napoleon Bonaparte’s two wives—one for love before ascending to emperor status and one for an heir afterwards—to explain how his feelings for her are pure rather than opportunistic. Does he tell Adela what he’s thinking? No. He merely stands at a distance, enjoying the beauty around them whether the sun rising or the red, white, and blue tumbling in a dryer before their eyes. There’s this sense that the flag becomes a representation of Aadid’s freedom to love without responsibility or convenience or duty. As a stand-in for America, it becomes a symbol of a future within his control.
But it’s also an intriguing metaphor for our assumptions about the scenario. In today’s America, it’s easy to see those stars and stripes as a symbol Aadid cannot hold. With white nationalism rising and patriotism co-opted as a shield blocking those deserving it most, that flag becomes weaponized. Some see it as a rallying cry against the Middle East (especially with a 9/11 backdrop) while others open their eyes to know it’s actually the opposite. Some marry its symbol to their heart in order to separate themselves from those who are different than them while others embrace the love it represents as a means to come together and fulfill the promise of a nation for all. That sign is either an empty marketing ploy or evidence of pride.
My Josephine exists on two levels: love for a woman and an idea. Its Arabic confirms that being American moves beyond language. Its flags as objects rather than emblems shows they’re merely tools to unite us. We’ve all stayed in this country to create something where nothing had been. Aadid and Adela are in this laundromat at night to clean flags—in America to share a life that’s cleansed of persecution and oppression. But the place doesn’t define them. They and people like them define it. Will they fall in love as a result? Maybe. Having that opportunity is the point, not success. Our flag isn’t therefore a symbol of a place, but the people who’ve come (and are still coming) to freely live and love within.