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Finding ethical and spiritual values in this year’s Oscar-nominated films

A Presbyterian critic’s take on the nominated films includes those that also deserved consideration

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

Photo by Joyce Busola via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Each year there is spirited discussion in the media about the nominations for the Oscars. This year, though the movie schedule was terribly disrupted by the pandemic, is no different.

Whereas most critics write about the worthy performances of the actors and the skills of the directors and other crew members, in this article you are invited to consider the ethical and, in a few cases, the spiritual values of the honored films. We will assume that all have artistic value on the basis of their nomination, but do they challenge and inform us about the values that shape the kind of human beings we are and the world, a world that too often ignores or even opposes those values?

It has been a lot harder this year to see the films, and thus, because I am still unwilling to enter a theater, you will find some glaring omissions. (I especially regret not getting to see “Minari” and “The United States v. Billie Holiday.”) I am grateful to the various streaming services to have been able to see the 10 discussed below. In these short reviews my goal is to get you to think again about a film in regard to its values and spiritual themes — and, if you missed the film, to seek it out. All are available on the less expensive streaming services, Netflix coming through with the largest offerings — 37 of its films being on the Oscar-nominated list!

Only a few details about the films can be included in this article, so consider this as the beginning of a worthwhile task. See how a good film can do far more than entertain — how it can transport us into new and sometimes dangerous situations where choices must be made; to see the world through the eyes of other persons, or, as in one film, to enter the world of silence where forms of communication considered normal no longer work; and even, as in the first film we will examine, to appreciate amidst personal solitariness  the wonder of the mundane world and to learn the importance of community.

To find more details about a film, click on its title, and the embedded link will connect you to my longer review at visualparables.org. Because I always include one or more relevant Scripture passage when reviewing a film, I have included them here. Some of you might enjoy the challenge of working out the connection between the ancient word and the filmmakers who are dealing with similar issues and values. Consider this as one more enhancement of the enjoyment of a well-crafted film.

We begin with four of the eight films nominated for Best Picture:

Nomadland” (Searchlight Pictures, nominated also for five other Oscars.)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 48 minuntes

Director:  Chloé Zhao

Deuteronomy 24:4-5a; Proverbs 27:8

This film populated with blue collar characters is a tribute to the survival skills of seasonal workers and the subculture of those uprooted, by choice or dire circumstances, from stable homes. Frances McDormand’s Fern is a recently widowed woman who has never ventured far from Empire, Nevada, where everyone has worked for the United States Gypsum Corporation. The closure of the giant plant has killed the town, so Fern outfits an RV and takes to the road, finding seasonal employment or campground service jobs to sustain her — and when suffering a breakdown, securing a loan from her better-off sister. She discovers the power of community, as well as a new love, through the annual meetings of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, some of whose members she encounters later. An older woman in the final stages of cancer opens Fern’s eyes to the beauty encountered no matter where they go, this aspect of the film greatly aided by its wonderful camerawork.

 Mank”  (Netflix, nominated also for nine other Oscars.)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 11 minuntes

Director: David Fincher

Proverbs 20:1; Mark 8:36.

The fascinating story behind the writing of “Citizen Kane,” its David versus Goliath plot stresses the importance of free expression. Authors Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles clearly based their film on the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, a man almost as powerful as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hearst’s huge campaign to destroy “Citizen Kane” was thwarted only by Welles convincing the New York financiers and theater owners not to follow the example of Hitler in Europe, but to allow the film to be shown. Friendship, integrity and the price that great power exacts are explored with dramatic intensity in this fact-based tale.

 The Sound of Metal” (2019) (Amazon Studios, nominated also for five other Oscars)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours

Director: Darius Marder

Psalm 46:10a

When heavy metal drummer Riz Ahmed’s (up for Best Actor) Ruben finds himself going deaf, he desperately hopes to save what remains of his hearing through a cochlear implant. However, it is too expensive, so until he can gather the funds, he reluctantly gives in to the pleas of his girlfriend/bandmate Lou to part from her and settle into a rural deaf community led by the charismatic Joe, whose philosophy is that the deaf are not hapless people needing to be “fixed,” but capable human beings who can find alternative means to communicate. Gradually Ruben, learning American Sign Language, becomes so embedded with his fellow patients that Joe offers him the opportunity to assume leadership when he retires. But what if Ruben goes ahead with the transplant? And what are the consequences should the operation fail? This story of an outsider looking in upon a community of outsiders is a fascinating study of a difficult choice and then wrestling with the consequences. Joe’s equating of silence with “the kingdom of God” also might inspire viewers to see that familiar concept in a new way.

 The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix, also nominated for five other Oscars.)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Deuteronomy 1:16; Psalm 94:15

This, my favorite for Best Picture, is an intriguing take on the Nixon Administration’s attempt to send to prison a group of troublesome activists and hippies on the basis of their inciting a riot. The seven defendants had come to Chicago in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War during the Democratic National Convention. Thanks largely to the brutal tactics of the Chicago Police Department, riots had broken out in the streets and parks of the city. Henry David Thoreau would have admired the group’s creativity and courage in resisting the government, though maybe not their often crude language. At a time when the biased judge seemed as unfair as the government, this story commemorating the power of unarmed citizens saying “No!” to their government and its courts is an inspiring example for us to follow. Let us hope that there will always be citizens willing to risk their freedom to stop an unjust war — or, as we see today, advocating justice for people of color.

 Four films I wish were Best Picture contenders

Da 5 Bloods” (Netflix, one nomination.)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours, 34 minutes

Director: Spike Lee

Ecclesiastes  5:10Psalm 38:17-18; I John 4:8

Like so many I was shocked by the Academy’s snub of Spike Lee’s great film, which forces us to look at the connection between the Vietnam War and racism of America. That such a powerful performance as Delroy Lindo’s portrayal of the guilt-ridden G.I. seeking God’s grace and peace of mind would be passed over is almost unforgivable! If Terence Blanchard wins the Best Original Score, the Academy’s only nod to this film, it will be small consolation. The ensemble cast, which also includes the late Chadwick Boseman, superbly takes us back from the present to that dark era, enabling us to make a fresh assessment of the war and how we still feel its impact. The story of lost buried treasure in a far-off land is as exciting (and violent) as any heist film or the two films which Lee references, “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now,” but the internal struggles of the four “Bloods” and the bookending of the film by the speeches of Muhammad Ali and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stir us to think about what we have seen long after the screen fades to black.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix, five nominations, including Best Actress and Best Actor)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Director: George C. Wolfe

Psalm 10:7; Psalm 22:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:8-9.

When blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) arrives at the Chicago recording studio in the early 1920s and throws a fit because there are no Cokes to slake her thirst on that hot day, we see immediately that this is a film about power. Whites have it everywhere in society, as we see by the studio managers’ relegating the Black band to the dingy basement for their practice rather than an upstairs room. This slight is emphasized by the stories the members tell each other, and by the curiosity aroused by one jammed door that eventually proves to exit to a dead-end airshaft. There is an intra-Black struggle for power when Chadwick Boseman’s trumpet player Levee pushes for his song arrangement to be recorded rather than Ma’s. In both struggles, Ma triumphs because she possesses the voice that will enrich the whites — without her there will be no profitable recording —and of course heads the band. The recording begins only when Ma has her bottles of Coca Cola on hand. However, as playwright August Wilson shows by his ironic ending, hers is a very small victory. The conclusion of the film when a song written by Levee is recorded reminds us that it is still systemic racism that is supreme in America! The deceptive exploitation of the unfortunate trumpeter/song writer by the white agent is but one of the thousands of examples that could be charged against the white-owned recording industry!

 One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime, three nominations, including Best Supporting Actor)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Director: Regina King

Proverbs 31:8-9; Matthew 5:15-16

Actress Regina King’s first feature film, based on scriptwriter Kemp Powers’ 2013 play about the night when then-Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight boxing title over Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, speculates about what passed among the Champ and the three other men at the now famous victory party. They were singer/songwriter Sam Cooke; football player-about-to-become-actor Jim Brown, and party host Malcolm X, possibly the most feared Black man in the nation. In Powers’ version of the conversations, the men argue and explore such subjects as Black empowerment, selling out to whites, and white encroachment. In four vignettes we see how pervasive systemic racism is: no matter how great a Black man’s achievements and how famous he might become, he is always reminded by someone that he is “just an n-word.” The film offers white viewers a window into the Black world, reminding them why so many “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” signs are in people’s front lawns.

News of the World” (Netflix, nominated for four Oscars)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Director: Paul Greengrass

Psalm 10:14

Although set in Texas a few years after the Civil War, racism is an important part of this film as well. Tom Hanks’ Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an ex-Confederate officer whose travels reading newspapers to eager audiences in the Lone Star State has broadened his perspective. News of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution are met with hoots and other expressions of disapproval, but he does not join in. Instead of ignoring the young orphaned girl left on the trail by those who had killed her Black escort, Kidd agrees to transport the child back to her relatives. Even the issue of fake news is dealt with when a local bully in control of a town demands that Kidd read his version of the news rather than the national newspapers Kidd normally uses. Although bowing to the Western’s tradition of violent action, this genre-stretching film will stretch your mind as well.

Best Animated Feature Film 

Soul” (Disney/Pixar, Best Animated Feature)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers

Genesis 1:31a; Matthew 5:13; Acts 20:35

Although racism is not a theme in this animated film, Jamie Foxx’s Joe Gardner is the first Black protagonist of a Pixar feature. As its title suggests, it is concerned more with the inner life than society, with its metaphysical blend of Asian religions and Christian beliefs. Gardner’s ambition to become a New York jazz pianist is interrupted when he falls into an open manhole and is killed. In “The Great Beyond” the subsequent plot places him alongside an unborn cynical soul known only as 22 (Tina Fey) who does not want to be born as he attempts somehow to regain his life. Along the way each of them learns how beautiful such ordinary things as eating a pizza or getting a haircut can be, and Gardner comes to the realization that life is more than fulfilling one’s ambition ­— even how he had failed to be sensitive to those around him. See if you don’t pay more attention to the little matters of life and listen to your companions a little more closely after watching this delightful family film.

 Best Documentary Feature  

Crip Camp(Netflix, 2021)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Directors:  Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht

Psalm 82:3 (The Message)

“Cripples,” a term not shunned in this film, can in many ways also be outsiders, as we see in this film. The camp of the title served its young disabled campers for a couple of decades in upstate New York. The staff ignored the “dis” in the label, allowing the campers great freedom to run their own lives during the summer. Years later many of the camp’s graduates, especially co-director James LeBrecht and a staffer named Judy Heumann, became leaders in California of a series of demonstrations that forced the federal government to change its policies and grant access to public facilities. Because of their treatment at “Crip Camp,” they had gained a sense of dignity and empowerment that would not accept the Federal government’s “No” to their demands for accessibility. The eventual result is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which has changed the lives of millions of Americans for the better. Courage, the determination to make one’s own decisions and not to be ignored — these and more contributed to what was essentially a civil rights movement for Americans with disabilities.

As I look over the titles again, I realize that all of the films center on society’s outsiders or the powerless. Like the Hebrew slaves in Exodus, all yearn for freedom and find themselves championed by a God who takes the side of the oppressed against the powerful. For this reason alone, I commend to you these fine films. Some words from this year’s Oscar nominated song “Hear My Voice” (from “The Trial of The Chicago 7” soundtrack as sung by Celeste) sum up well the message of virtually all of the above films:

“Hear my voice
Hear my dreams
Let us make a world
In which we believe
In which we believe.”

Dr. Edward McNulty

The Oscars will be broadcast live on ABC from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood and Los Angeles’ Union Station on Sunday, April 25, with red-carpet arrivals beginning at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and the hostless ceremony slated for 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

 Dr. Edward McNulty, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister, is the author of three film books published by Westminster John Knox and more than 2,200 film reviews available free at visualparables.org. For many years he was the film critic for Presbyterians Today and led film seminars at Presbyterian Peacemaking conferences. The latest of his 14 books is “Jesus Christ: Movie Star.” For a free copy of the recently released 27-page booklet he wrote, “Engaging Matthew 25 Through Film: Dismantling Structural Racism,” click here.


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