The Psalm of Self

Joylanda Jamison

If gaining acceptance from those around us felt like the only option to survive, what would we do? To what extent would we be willing to lose parts of ourselves in order to feel seen by those who previously never gave us a second glance? The short film Self, available on Disney Plus, journeys alongside a Black wooden puppet as she struggles to find self-acceptance.

The film opens with soft, instrumental music as the camera pans upward along an escalator that opens to a cityscape. The upward direction of the camera and the soft orange glow of the rising sun suggests hope and a new beginning. But the main character, Self, is visibly nervous as she fidgets with her hands. As she steps into the open city square, however, she is in awe of the bustling city around her. The inhabitants of the city all seem to be porcelain dolls; their “skin” is a smooth, golden hue, which shines alongside their glistening purple attire. Writer-director Searit Huluf blends stop-motion animation and computer-generated imagery to further accentuate the differences between Self and the other figures. In a making-of promotional video, producer Eric Rosales notes that “CG characters move differently” and that throughout the film we see Self “…yearning to become this smoother character.”

Self (voiced by Huluf) initially seems undaunted by her apparent physical difference as she approaches a group and sticks out her hand in a welcoming gesture, but she is completely ignored. The porcelain dolls communicate by tapping their chests and hands, which produce melodic chimes and dings. When Self taps her own chest and all that is produced is an empty, hollow sound, she becomes forlorn.

In Psalms 139:14, David proclaims that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” God created each and every person with intrinsic value. This idea of “know(ing) that full well” is what Self longs for in Huluf’s short film. After waving at another porcelain doll who walks directly by her without so much as a glance, Self grows visibly anxious. She simultaneously feels self-conscious about her ethnic differences, but also completely invisible as everyone around her seems oblivious to her existence. The porcelain dolls only stop to take notice of Self when she falls to the pavement, damaging her wrist. One must wonder why no one tries to offer help, but instead just observes her pain from a distance?

In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul addresses the church at Corinth concerning spiritual giftings and how every member of the body of Christ is valuable and needed. He notes that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” Paul instructs us not to esteem one spiritual gift to be better than another; his exhortation of every member’s importance can be applied to ethnic and cultural differences as well. The uniqueness of each ethnic group is what makes our cohesive functioning as a body beautiful. We should not look at one culture with envy because we regard them as being superior. Nor should we look down on other cultures because they don’t mirror our own.

The uniqueness of each ethnic group makes our functioning as a body beautiful.

The same cityscape that held so much promise for Self now seems to be bleak. Her only hope is to make a wish on a shooting star. Shortly after, a gold object falls from the sky; she goes to investigate and observes with awe a golden, porcelain hand. She hesitates only momentarily before ripping off her own hand and forcibly shoving the porcelain hand into place. Thus, the next few scenes show more body parts falling from the sky—a leg, two arms, another leg. With each new porcelain piece, Self grows even happier. That is, until she notices a body part that has yet to be replaced. Her need to remove every part of her original self seems to grow into an obsession until she literally jumps off a building to catch the last porcelain piece she desires—a new face.

In continuing to address the church at Corinth, Paul says that if every part of the body functioned as an ear, the body would miss out on the sense of smell. Likewise, if every part of the church body held the same thought patterns, we would become lackluster because we would never be challenged to grow in our faith. Paul writes, “but in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” God intentionally crafted our skin complexions and placed us within our specific ethnic groups for a reason. We are all meant to serve one another with unconditional love because we know that the faces we peer into all bear the image of our creator. Unfortunately for Self, she succumbed to nonverbal pressure to code-switch in order to gain acceptance.

With her newly acquired face, the porcelain dolls initiate a conversation—beckoning her to come join their group with opened arms. In excitement, she races towards them, but then stops as an audible cracking sound is heard. She looks down in horror to see that she’s stepped on her original wooden face, which is now splintered and cracked. If our goal is to love the body of Christ unconditionally as God loves us, that means recognizing the value that is inherent in every human (including ourselves). Towards the end of his exhortation, Paul says that “if one part (of the body) suffers, every part suffers with it…

While we don’t see their initial reaction, the porcelain dolls once again seem more intrigued than concerned with Self’s pain. What would Self’s journey of self-acceptance have looked like if she had the support of an empathetic community? Even though the porcelain dolls didn’t offer this, being able to bear another person’s burden from a different cultural background requires humility, intentionality, and empathy. Humility to admit that how one person experiences the inner workings of society may differ from our own experiences. Intentionality to seek clarity and better understand their point of view. And empathy that moves us to hurt in close proximity with others, instead of observing their pain from a distance.

Topics: Movies