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A Presbyterian pastor’s top 10 films for 2020

Despite the pandemic, it was a good year for films, according to one longtime critic

by Dr. Edward McNulty, Visual Parables | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Each year, Dr. Edward McNulty delivers his list of top 10 films for people of faith to see.

LOUISVILLE — Despite the curtailment of theater-going by the pandemic, 2020 was nonetheless a good one for those looking for films that do more than entertain us. I was again hard-pressed to pare down to just 10 my list of 20 or so films dealing seriously with ethics or social justice. Thus, as usual, you will find at the end of the article a list of other worthy films you should also watch before the end of the year.

Many of the films are R rated, which means unfortunately that some churches will refuse to watch and discuss them. Still, I hope those with qualms about such films will watch them in private because of their dealing honestly with important issues. Indeed, in a majority of the films below, racism rears its ugly head, adding to the film’s importance during this time of debate over Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the resurgence of white nationalism.

To read more about a film, click on the title. Embedded in it is a link to the full review on my Visual Parables website. In the issues of Visual Parables in which the review appears there are sets of questions for groups wanting to explore the films in depth.

The Scripture passages connect with the film’s spiritual and/or ethical themes. This is in keeping with the intention of all my Visual Parable reviews to help people connect the concerns of the Scripture writers with those of the filmmakers. The cover of every issue of my journal includes the motto “Film and Faith in Dialogue.” Therefore, we present to you 10 films that will enrich that dialogue. These are movies that do far more than merely entertain you — though they do that too.

  1. Revolution of the Heart

Not Rated. Running Time: 58 minutes. Hebrews 13:2

Martin Doblmeier adds this trenchant survey of the life of American activist Dorothy Day to similar biographies he has made of the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, pastor-theologian of Black resistance Howard Thurman, and soon to come, Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel. We see how through the years Day fought for women’s right to vote and for relief for the poor and protested racism, war and militarism while sheltering the homeless and feeding the poor. Seldom mincing words, this woman who before she birthed her daughter aborted her out-of-wedlock fetus, probably would not approve of the Church preparing to declare her a saint. Her courage, along with her fallibility, inspires us today, and her newspaper and chain of houses of hospitality continue to care for the poor long after her death 40 years ago.

  1. Da 5 Bloods

Rated R. 2 hours 34 min. Psalm 38:17-18

Spike Lee, director of a host of anti-racist films such as “The BlacKkKlansman” and “Do the Right Thing,” continues his exposure of racism in this combination of war story, buddy road trip, father-son, and character development film. Four Black Vietnam War vets and the son of one of them travel to Vietnam to honor their fallen mentor and find his body — and to retrieve a buried treasure the mentor had assured them that they deserved as compensation for the burden of racist oppression they had endured. One of them wrestles with great guilt, and amidst tragedy finds peace of soul. Despite the blood and violence, this is a very spiritual story, the bookend quotes from Muhammed Ali and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. underlining the film’s relevance to today’s events.

  1. Hamilton

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 43 minutes. Proverbs 4:4; 11:2

The crucial leaders and events of the founding of our nation are told in drama and rap music from a Black perspective in this fascinating film with its colorblind cast. The soul-destroying compromises of overly ambitious Aaron Burr and the hypocrisy of slave owners spouting freedom slogans are on display, as are blinding ambition and, after the death of Hamilton in their infamous duel, aching regret. The play is named after Founding Father and our first Secretary of the Treasury, but Aaron Burr is just as much at the heart of the story. The tender anti-racist song from South Pacific is evoked when Burr says, “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” and the tragic but necessary acceptance of slavery written into the Constitution is squarely faced. I should add that women also get a word or two in. This well-filmed stage play is both a celebration and a critique of those who founded our Republic, and also an invitation to reflect on how we can improve upon their work.

  1. News of the World

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes. Psalm 10:14

The very title of Paul Greengrass’s film connects with the present in which those who report and publish the news have been under severe attack here and in autocratic countries around the world. Tom Hanks’ widower Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd may be an ex-Confederate officer traveling from town to town in Texas, but as he reads to his audiences news accounts of the constitutional amendments giving full rights to those formerly enslaved, he does not seem to share in his audiences’ hostility toward them. His compassionate heart leads him to escort a little white girl, orphaned and then raised by a tribe of Kiowa, on the long journey to find her relatives. Along the way he defends her from predators and stands against a local tyrant who insists that he read fake self-glorifying news rather than that from legitimate newspapers. The captain’s final decision in which he chooses to embrace the kinship that had grown between him and the girl cheers the heart of viewers, offering us a small candle of love and compassion amidst a sea of dark racism and hatred that still lingers in “the land of the free.”

  1. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes. 2 Cor. 4:8-9

What a combination of the pervasiveness of racism and Black pushback the late playwright August Wilson has bequeathed us! In a white-dominated music industry, the famous blues singer makes her demands, winning small victories when the recording studio manager gives in. She knows that he needs her if he is to make any money from her talent, which is in much demand by the public. The terrible effect of racism on its victims is well demonstrated in the tragic story of Ma Rainey’s horn player. And the ending in which the Black music is taken over by white musicians is a powerful indictment of a society that has accepted for far too long white privilege based on the belief in white superiority. The fact that this film was made mostly by Black filmmakers is itself a sign of hope.

  1. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Rated R. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes. Psalm 94:15

The country during the Vietnam War era was almost as deeply divided as now, with truth and justice often thrust aside. The film makes clear that the trial of the activists in Chicago began in a Washington office wherein the U.S. Attorney General instructed his prosecutor to seek the conviction of the prominent activists who had come to Chicago to protest the 1964 Democratic Convention. A Black Panther leader was thrown in with them as part of the government’s murderous war on a party deemed dangerous to the white power establishment. The absurdity of the presiding judge stands in contrast to the dignity of the defendants and their lawyer. Well, some, as the leader of the Yippie activists adds quite a lot of humor to the proceedings. That justice at last emerged from the protracted trial gives hope that it still will prevail over the moral morass of the recent past. 

  1. One Night in Miami

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hours 54 minutes. Matthew 5:15-16

This fascinating speculation of what might have transpired during the real night when four powerful Black friends gathered to celebrate boxer Muhammad Ali’s unexpected (by whites) title victory over Sonny Liston offers us all an opportunity to listen to the icons discussing personal and racial matters. Malcolm X, filled with foreboding about his break with the vengeful leader of the Nation of Islam, acts as friend and prosecutor of his three companions as he seeks to get them to become more active in the struggle against white racism. Humanized by the scenes in which he interacts with his wife and his daughter, he seems to want two of the others (Jim Brown and Sam Cooke) to step up more because he realizes his time is limited. (I write “two” because he has already convinced Cassius Clay to join the Nation of Islam.) No matter what actually transpired on that February night in 1964, Regina King’s film helps us understand the thinking and values of four Black icons. 

  1. Mank

Rated R. Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes. Mark 8:36

The making of a film usually is of interest to film fans, but when that film has been ranked by many critics as the greatest film ever made, it takes on a far more universal appeal. Especially when it includes themes of friendship, the struggle for power and its misuse, and the threat to the freedom of expression in a land that too often has curtailed that right. The film is “Citizen Kane,” the friendship is that between the alcoholic screenwriter Herman  J. Mankiewicz and director Orson Welles. The threat to freedom is newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, whose long career as power broker is the inspiration of the script Mank is working on. The contentious relationship between Mank and Welles and the ways in which the two stand up to Hearst and the studio bosses forced to do the latter’s bidding make for exciting viewing. This is a David vs. Goliath story, and though the victory of the former is only partial, Goliath is wounded but still strong enough to prevent David’s stand-in from ever working again in the Hollywood studio system.

  1. A Thousand Cuts

Not Rated. Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes. Isaiah 59:14-15

This was a good year for documentaries, so from a large group of excellent ones I chose one that deals with crucial issues — namely, the concentrated attack on the press and truth and the use of social media to spread lies, big and small. Through interviews and archival footage we follow the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte as he attacks reporters who dare to reveal the murderous ways he is fighting his so-called drug war and the way in which his sycophants use social media to smear reporters such as Maria Ressa and her staff of the news outlet she has founded, Rappler. Facing arrest and assassination, she carries on her fight for truth and freedom, commenting to her New York sister about the rulers of their two nations, “They both use anger and fear to divide and conquer. They’ve created a politics of hate. We need to put hope and love, but I’m going to sound schmaltzy. It’s not with hate but with hope and love, we hold the line.” 

  1. Soul

Rated PG. Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Acts 20:35

Although the metaphysics of this film about purpose and death are derived from dualistic Neoplatonism and Hinduism, Christians young and old can enjoy and benefit from this story of two souls dealing with death and birth. One has lived and does not want to stop, and the other resists entering into life because nothing in the world seems good or worthwhile. How each changes for the better makes for an amusing and exciting road trip-like film. This is the first Pixar film to feature an African American protagonist, but racism is not the subject. It is their discovery that the meaning or purpose of life is to live with and for others and not for oneself. something that people of all faiths can agree upon.

 These too are films that you will find challenging and memorable:

The Banker,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “Beyond the Wall,” “Clemency,” “Dads,” “Nomadland,” “Reel Redemption,” “The Life Ahead,” “What the Constitution Means to Me,” and “Atlantics.”

Dr. Edward McNulty

Dr. Edward McNulty is a Presbyterian film-loving minister who has been connecting film and faith for over 40 years. Three of his 14 books have been published by Westminster John Knox Press — “Praying the Movies,” “Praying the Movies 2,” and “Faith and Film: A Guidebook for Leaders.” More than 2,200 of his reviews are available free here, where he posts 2-4 reviews each week.

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