Presbyterian film critic serves up Biblical references for Oscar-nominated films, other favorites
by Ed McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — This year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated eight films in the Best Picture category. Because the Academy could have honored as many as 10 (I wish “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “The Hate U Give” had also been chosen), but maybe they thought that would be too many films dealing with racism.
Despite this omission, the eight films that did make it onto the list offer people of faith much pleasurable entertainment plus the opportunity for reflection and discussion about important spiritual themes or ethical issues.
The following observations are meant to spur you to seek out the films, either in case you missed them during their theatrical runs or to revisit them and discover anew the values and themes that, in addition to their cinematic merits, led to their consideration for Hollywood’s highest honors.
To read more about the films, click the titles embedded with links. You will see that I am interested not just in reviewing a film but in exploring any social justice theme or Scripture relevance the film might contain.
Leviticus 23:22; Matthew 5:14-15; Luke 12:48b.
Honoring director Ryan Coogler’s fantasy film is a shrewd choice. A HUGE success at the box office, beloved by fans of the Marvel universe and many African Americans who hitherto have felt no connection to the Academy, its inclusion should guarantee an extra million or two viewers on Feb. 24. Filled with spectacle and action, the film features a Hamlet-like troubled hero in T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a.k.a. the Black Panther, who must fight his cousin for the throne of the hidden African nation of Wakanda. Through his struggle he emerges as a battered but wise leader, one whom we might wish our real-world leaders might emulate. His speech to the United Nations alone makes this film worth watching; indeed the clip ought to be played over and over on our cable and TV channels. In case you have forgotten, here is the pertinent excerpt — and we ought to remember, given the long time it takes for a film to emerge from a script, that these words were probably written before the 2016 election:
“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
Even more significant than its content, this film is noteworthy because of its impact on the entertainment industry. A black superhero and mostly black cast have been embraced by virtually every segment of society, presumably increasing the opportunities for more black artists to work before and behind the camera.
John 4:9 (Phillips); Acts 17:24-26 (KJV)
Spike Lee’s film, based on a true story of how black cop Ron Stallworth used his telephone to make a fool of KKK leader David Duke, is fun to watch, though I hope viewers will not go away believing that racism, epitomized by the Klan, is less a threat than it is. The story shows the influence of the old Brer Rabbit tales in which the relatively weak bunny outsmarts his bigger enemies, Brer Bear and Brer Fox. The very arrogance of the opponent — in the animals’ case their great strength, and in this film David Duke’s confidence that he can tell over the phone if the caller is white or not — contributes to their defeat. Nonetheless, when it comes time to meet David Duke, Stallworth must enlist his white colleague Flip Zimmerman, for a face-to-face encounter. This is a good symbol of the need for blacks and whites to work together to defeat racism. It also demolishes, as did the Brer Rabbit stories, the hoary racist stereotype of the “dumb n—-r.” Although director Spike Lee’s works have been nominated in the past, this is a banner year for him in that this film has been named in five other categories, including Best Director.
This has been a good year for those who have been hungering for films centering on strong women. (See “On the Basis of Sex,” “RGB,” “The Hate U Give,” “Roma,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” “The Wife” and “Widows.”) In director Yorgos Lanthimos’s film we have two strong women vying for the attention of a third, Queen Anne, who unlike her predecessor Queen Elizabeth I, was not nearly as interested in the politics of ruling as was her lady of the bedchamber (and bedmate) Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who is the power behind the throne. The film deals well with the loneliness of power and the lengths that some will go to obtain it, such as Lady Churchill’s newly arrived cousin Abigail Hill, who will seek to usurp her place, even in the Queen’s bed. Sarah’s pushback against her male-dominated culture is visually demonstrated by her choice of costume when hunting or practicing shooting — if it were not for her lovely face, her garments of long coat, breeches and boots would lead one to assume their wearer were a man. As the two cousins scheme against one another, various men seek to manipulate the often wheelchair-bound monarch, who would rather spend time in her bedroom with her pet rabbits than at court. This tale of sexual politics is not your usual Masterpiece Theater costume drama. If you watch it on video, be sure the kids are in bed, lest you have to answer some embarrassing questions.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10; Ephesians 2:14-15 (The Message)
Like “Driving Miss Daisy,” Peter Farrelly’s film about a racist white nightclub bouncer driving a black musician on his concert tour of the Jim Crow South is mainly for white audiences. As such it provides a good glimpse at a time when the words from our national anthem, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” were blatant hypocrisy to African Americans, and much of the rest of the world. The title refers to a book published for traveling African Americans that informed them what Southern establishments would serve them. The film might also come as a revelation of an unsung black musical genius, Dr. Don Shirley, an incredibly talented jazz and classical pianist — and, as it did me, send them to YouTube to listen to his astounding recordings. However, I suspect James Baldwin would have scathingly criticized the film as one made like “The Defiant Ones” (also praised by liberal whites and scorned by black audiences), to assuage the guilt felt by liberals and assure them that blacks did not hate them. “If Beale Street Could Talk” would have been a far better choice for Best Picture, as well as demonstrating that the whites controlling the movie industry really understood our country’s systemic racism.
Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film has the distinction of being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film as well as Best Picture. Its creator shares the Biblical viewpoint that God favors the poor and downtrodden, in that the main character Cleo is a Mixtec woman serving the household of a well-off doctor in Mexico City. They speak of her as “one of the family,” but she must always be prepared to fulfill whatever it is they require of her. Later, even her mistress Sofia learns what it is to be among the rejected when her husband abandons the family for another woman. Herself rejected by a lover when she becomes pregnant, Cleo proves to be one of life’s givers, her love supporting the children and their mother during their family crisis that ends in divorce. Without such loyal persons as Cleo the world, Sofia’s experience in particular would be even more of a barren and cruel place than it is.
Is it the theme of generosity of spirit that keeps film makers coming back to this story? Or the dream fulfillment of a talented young ingenue? Whatever it is, ours is the fifth generation to embrace the story of a falling star to give a rising one her big chance. This time it is Bradley Cooper’s rock star Jackson Maine discovering and promoting Lady Gaga’s Ally after hearing her sing in a bar he had stopped in to satisfy his need for a drink. In his decline we see that even great talent can be destroyed by addiction. His story reflects that of countless musical greats whose careers — and too often their lives — are cut short by alcohol and drugs. The redeeming part of his suicide is that he saw it as the only way to prevent his dragging down the woman he loved. His love for a moment was greater than his addiction.
Psalm 34:18; Romans 12:21.
Writer/director Paul Schrader, whose film has also been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, told IMDB, “Everything inside cinema rebels against spirituality. Cinema is based on action and based on empathy. These are not elements in the transcendental toolkit. In many ways, people who try to do spiritual or contemplative films are working against the grain of the medium itself.” And yet through the years this film artist, raised by strict Calvinists who refused to allow him to go to the movies, has written such spiritual films as “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Bringing Out the Dead,” as well as universally praised ones such as “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” His new film, dealing with the burnt-out minister of a tiny dying congregation, suggests that faith by itself is barren, requiring love and a worthy cause. In this case it is the suicide of an environmentalist, the love of his widow, and concern that a local industrialist is polluting the area that brings resurrection to a clergyman more acquainted with Good Friday than with Easter. Though similar in many ways to Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman’s somber “Winter Light,” there is more redemption and hope in the American film.
Isaiah 5:20 (KJV); Ecclesiastes 5:5-7 (The Message).
Although the thousands of casualties caused by the invasion of Iraq, for which Vice President Dick Cheney is largely to blame, would seem to be no joking matter, writer/director Adam McKay has given us a droll comedy that traces his rise from drunk headed toward failure to businessman and then politician rising to the pinnacle of power. However, Cheney’s is more of a Faustian story than a Horatio Alger story. That a man who defends torture and claims that waterboarding is not can rise to such heights and remain popular with a segment of the American public reveals a dark side of our nation. However, McKay does not preach or make his subject a totally corrupt villain. He shows the human side of the politician for whom “family values” proved to be more than just a campaign slogan. When his daughter Mary reveals that she is gay, he drops out of the race for President rather than subject her to the merciless gaze of the media and his opponents. No matter what we think of his later career in business and Washington, that was an admirable act.
These next three films are not among Oscar’s top eight, but because of their quality and garnering of a lesser spot on the overall Oscar list, I want to bring them to your attention.
The Wife (Lead Actress)
Seven-time Oscar-nominated Glenn Close’s Joan Castleman at first seems to be the epitome of the Book of Proverbs’ description of the perfect wife. Accompanying her husband Joe to Stockholm where he is to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, she seems to fulfill the stereotype of the woman behind the great man, tending to his little needs and whims — and they are many. However, his arrogance and his flirtation with a lovely younger woman bring out her long-smoldering resentment, and through flashbacks we learn how she had deliberately laid aside her own ambitions as a talented writer to contribute as a ghost writer to his success. A tale of a woman subjected to male dominance breaking away to freedom, this can serve as a parable of warning for our daughters — and to all who have been forced to live in the shadow of male.
First Man (Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design and Visual Effects)
Ecclesiastes 10:9 (The Message).
Although they are not headline nominations, I am glad Damien Chazelle’s film about the first man to step onto the Moon has garnered some nominations. We see the humans behind the huge NASA program and the intense pressure they were under, especially after the disastrous fire that killed an entire crew, as well as several test pilots. Neil Armstrong, prodded by his wife, Janet, had to learn to share with his family his feelings and the danger he faced. She is revealed as a strong woman concerned for both her husband and her children. The film also reminds us that the benefits of the NASA programs are beyond the tangible. Armstrong said, “I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen a long time ago, but just haven’t been able to until now.” At a time when many put short-term profit over the welfare of our planet, we need to hear again and again those words about regaining our national vision.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Best Adapted Screenplay)
Song of Solomon 1:15; Ecclesiastes 5:8a; Ephesians 6:12.
I have saved what I consider the best for last. Barry Jenkins’ largely overlooked film truly deserves to be listed with the Best Pictures. Author James Baldwin could have made his novel of the miscarriage of justice a bitter diatribe against what we call institutional racism, the modern version of what the apostle Paul called wrestling “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.” Baldwin was good at diatribes, as anyone who has read such works as “The Fire Next Time” can testify. Instead, he gifted us with a love story about two young people, Tish and Fonny, who struggle against despair and hatred, represented by the racist cop Officer Bell with a grudge against Fonny. Bell falsely accuses him of a terrible crime by manipulating the victim and the evidence. There is also the collusion by the white prosecutor that we never see, who is uninterested in the facts that show that Fonny could not have been able to commit the crime. Yes, if the Beale Streets of America could talk, what other tales of love, prejudice, and hatred they could tell! The film ought to be regarded as a gift to America to help us understand the anger and frustration of our black citizens. Tish and Fonny’s love story becomes all the more beautiful when contrasted with the ugly racism of Officer Bell, which more than 40 years later we still see enacted in places high and low.
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