Friday, December 13, 2013

More on Nelson Mandela

This is the second of what will be three posts on Nelson Mandela. I know, there has been so much on him, but there is so much good material available, that I hope you are not tired of hearing about him. This time I want to bring to your attention in case you are like me and missed the PBS "Front Line" 2 hour special on the leader "The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela":

It's available in its entirety at: . I don't know how long PBS will make this accessible, so I suggest that you go and watch it soon,

The documentary begins with his youthful rebellion against his tribal chief  and on through his early days as a student and then an activist after meeting and coming under the influence of Walter Sisulu and on through his incarceration, release, sad divorce from Winnie, and his remarriage during his presidency. Along with the video you can also read material below it about aspects of his life. Embedded in these are some short videos. Quite a treasure trove of information!

One glaring omission, however--at least in what I've read thus far--is any discussion of the man in the ANC who opposed Mandela's resorting to violence, Chief Albert Luthuli, then the head of the ANC. Nor have I heard or seen him mentioned in the many other TV/cable tributes to Mandela. This is a glaring omission in that Chief Luthuli received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 for his advocacy of non-violence against the apartheid regime and his persecution and imprisonment by the authorities. He was the first non-Euroean or American to be so honored, quite a precdent for that time. More on him next time.

I also will be bringing to your attention a DVD that I discovered I had bought a long time ago--one of almost 60 that I knew nothing about but which was appealing, either because of subject matter or their actors or director. This one is The Color of Freedom, the story of a racist guard who watched over Mandela for 20 years and moved from racist to admirer. It stars Joseph Fiennes as the guard and Dennis Haysbert  as Mandela. I tried to find out about it at the Imdb, but there was no listing, something very puzzling, that site suposedly having every film ever released in its databank.

Then good old Google came to the rescue by revealing that it was known elsewhere as Goodbye Bafana. I plan on seeing this tonight, so will include it in the next posting, as well as reviewing it for Visual Parables at I don't know whether this is the same person featured in the about to be released Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. We shall see,

Also one of the issues I want to raise in the third installment is Nelson Mandela's giving up on non-violence, as I believe this was a sad mistake that set back the cause of South African freedom rather than advancing it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela

It has been too long since writing on this site, so now, while the last night's news of Nelson Mandela's death is fresh, I am impelled to respond to this world event. Like many of you, I was glued to my TV set last night, soaking in all the well-produced tributes on ABC and MSNBC. Even though I have followed his career for a long time--as one involved in civil rights, how could I not?--I learned a lot of new facts, such as his learning Afrikaans while in prison so that he could speak his enemy's language when the day would come, as he always believed it would, that he was freed. There was a quote from him to the effect that when you speak to a person you connect with his mind, but when you speak in his native language, you speak to his heart.

The timing of his death--am so thankful that he was able to live to a ripe old age, unlike some of his colleagues such as Steve Biko--is interesting. The film I am most anticipating this month is MANDELA: Long Road to Freedom. I heard last night that the film was being premiered in London, with the crown Prince and other dignitaries present. At the end of the film the actor starring as Mandela, Idris Elba, came out from behind the screen and told the audience that Mandela had just died. He and the Prince then paid tribute to the great man.

Click on the images for more info..

I have seen two other films centering on the leader, INVICTUS and MANDELA & DeKlerk. The first starred Morgan Freeman as Mandela. He himself was chosen by Mandela to play the role, and Freeman in turn chose the film director with whom he had enjoyed a close working relationship, Clint Eastwood. It is a marvelous film illustrating all of the comments being made about him concerning his eschewing retaliation and stressing reconciliation. You can see my review of it by going to and clicking onto its title in the Film Index. The title, you may recall, came from Mandela's favorite poem about maintaining control over one's inner self ("I am the captain of my soul") which helped him endure those long tough years as a prisoner at hard labor on Robben Island.


The second was a TV film aired in 1997 starring the great Sidney Poittier as Mandela and Michael Caine as the last apartheid era president. As the title indicates, it dramatizes the story of how the white president decided to contact his most famous prisoner and negotiate his release.

Those involved in civil rights in this country have long felt connected with the South African freedom movement. In my own case as a high school student it was the far away scourge of apartheid that made me more aware of the situation in our own country. Recommended by adults, Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, a novel about a priest searching for his lost son, moved me deeply, as did Zoltan Korda's 1951 film adaptation. There is a later film version, also very good in that it stars James Earl Jones and Richard Harris as the two grief-stricken fathers. Through the years I have referred to the novel and film in my sermons and discussion groups.

I loved the interview last night in which Congressman John Lewis, once one of Dr. King's  brilliant young assistants spoke of his meeting Mandela for the first time and telling him how he and the struggle of fellow South Africans had inspired him during his own struggle for equality in America. Mandela told him that he knew him and his work for freedom. something that surprised and humbled the Congressman.

Back to Alan Paton and his novel--he was exiled and his book banned in his native country--but almost as soon as the novel was published it was adapted for the Broadway musical stage by Maxwell Anderson, with the composer Kurt Weil creating the music. I discovered this during my college years and listened to it often, it becoming one of my favorite record albums thanks to Weil's haunting music and Anderson's retaining so much of the poetic language of Paton's novel.

The album is now available digitally from Amazon, well worth the asking price of $9.99. Go there, and you can listen to a few opening measures of the songs. 

This album figures in my only direct connection with South Africa, an event that took place in the 1980s when I pastored a church in Westfield, New York. Located a mile inland from Lake Erie, you might expect this little upstate New York town, known only as the home of the Welch Grape Juice Company, to be so isolated that nothing so far away as South Africa could touch it. However, this was not the case, because busy I-90 and US Route 20 that connected it with Erie and Buffalo the world was easily brought to the village. A year or two earlier a group of Japanese and American Buddhist nuns and monks walked along that route on their Peace March across America, and our people agreed to house them for the night. (What a dinner and discussion we had that night, but that is another story.) 

Our Presbytery, wishing to keep its member churches informed on world issues, and South Africa in particular, invited a team of South Africans to visit and speak at the churches. The South African who spoke to us and stayed the night was Willy (I am ashamed that I cannot recall his last name!). Director of a social service center for blacks, Willy described the terrible pass system, the brutal arrests, beatings and killings, and expressed the fear that his own teenaged children no longer believed in nonviolence as the means for change. Thus he feared for the future of his country, something stressed in Paton's novel when a black priest observes in words to the effect, "I fear that when they have turned to loving, we will have turned to hating." Willy's report was an interesting contrast to the glowing report of conditions in South Africa that the son of one of our conservative members gave after being a guest of a white organization that sponsored a student tour--never taking them to a township or allowing them to talk with black dissidents.

After the dinner meeting I asked Willy if he knew of LOST IN THE STARS, and he replied that he certainly knew of Alan Paton and his novel, but had not heard of the play. After hearing some of it, he was eager to take back the tape I made for him, planning to smuggle it in with his personal suitcase so he could use it in his work of encouraging his oppressed people. It would have been confiscated and he would be in trouble if the customs agent had been aware of the cassett's contents. Because I never heard again from Willy I have often wondered if it did get through and if he was able to play it.

Well this enough for now. Perhaps more later, especially when MANDELA opens here in Cincinnati. Actually, this might not be enough: for a wealth of material on Mandela go to ReadtheSpirit . Plenty of photos, interviews, and articles there!



Monday, September 23, 2013


Two new guides for the TV series Nothing Sacred have been posted on the Fuller Theological Seminary media blog "Reel Spirituality." Episode 3 "Mixed Blessings" deals with unexpected consequences from the staff's winning lottery ticket, and Episode 4 "Parents and Children" deals with both sides of the abortion controversy when a staff member is impregnated.

Both episodes are taken from You Tube postings, but you do not have to go to another site, just click onto the pictures to sart watching. I started this series of guides because there are so many ethical and theological issues in each episode that could challenge a group of believers to stretch and exercise their thinking faith. Episode 3 includes 12 questions, one of them being a link to the words and a concert performance of the beautiful sacred song that figures so prominently in this story, "Panis Angelica." Episode 4 includes 10 discussion questions.

Next month we will be posting two more episodes. If you use these materials, please let us know, as this would be an encouraging note that someone "out there" is paying heed. To access the blog go to:

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I am happy that ReadtheSpirit has launched the new Visual Parables site. There are lots of features to explore which will add to the fun of viewing movies through the eyes of faith and ethics.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

To the Wonder

 Rated R. Our ratings: V-1; L- 1; S/N -5. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Related Scriptures: Psalm 42:1-2; Song of Solomon 8:6-7; Matthew 5:43-44; Mark 9.24.

 From the very beginning we see that this highly unusual film will be more of a visual meditation than the ordinary story-based film. As it opens we hear a woman’s voice musing, accompanied by a montage of shots,  “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground. What is she dreaming of? How calm she is. In love. Forever at peace.” The shots show a woman and a man playfully teasing one another on a train, walking the streets of Paris while enjoying some of its monuments, lying together in a park, standing on a bridge over the Seine as a boat passes beneath them, and admiring a medieval tapestry, the camera lingering on the Lady in the tapestry as we hear “In love. Forever in peace.”

Director/writer Terence Malick’s film is a meditation on two kinds of love and the yearning or thirst that sensitive humans experience—the first love is that between Neil (Ben Affleck), traveling in France, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a divorced Ukrainian émigré living in Paris with her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana. This Eros love, as the Greeks called it, is juxtaposed with the agape love of Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). The yearning, on the one hand, is Marina’s longing for the love vouchsafed in marriage, and on the other hand the priest’s thirst for the God whose presence he cannot feel. Through much of the film he suffers the dark night of the soul akin to that which afflicted Mother Teresa.

The lovers travel to Mont St. Michel, the island abbey off the coast of Normandy, basking in the wonder of their newfound romance. As they ascend the stairs Marina comments, “We climbed the steps to the Wonder”—this is followed by their walking through a garden and the vaulted nave of the church—which apparently gives the film its title. Most of the reflections and sparse dialogue involve Marina, with Neil scarcely saying more than three lines throughout the entire movie, and the priest’s prayers and sermons. Neil seems withdrawn, unable to express himself and, worst of all, unable to make the commitment that Marina yearned for while she was gazing at a medieval tapestry in which a maiden is flanked by two unicorns.

Neil does invite her and Tatiana to return with him to Oklahoma, where mother and daughter are happy at first, Neil joining in their frolicking in one tender scene. But we see his reticence in the supermarket scene in which Tatiana runs around marveling at the abundance and cleanliness of the place, and then asking if Neil will marry her mother and become her step dad. He makes no reply. In a later brief revealing shot we see him outside their house looking in as mother and daughter dance merrily together.

Neil works as an environmental inspector for an oil company. When a number of people tell him about a pollution problem, he seems very concerned for their welfare. While wading in a stream he speaks on the phone about the lab tests confirming the pollution caused by the oil extraction, but I am not sure what he does about it, because then the scene shifts to Marina reflecting on love. For a while Marina lives off the loving relationship that was so enriched by their experience together in France, but Oklahoma is so bleak by comparison, and Neil is gone so often. Even when he is present, he is so remote.

Tatiana, unable to forge friendships at school due to her poor English, is the first to express dissatisfaction. “Something is missing,” she tells her mother. When her visa is expired, and Neil has made no marriage proposal, Marina returns to Paris where she hopes to reconnect with her former husband for the sake of Tatania. She longingly reflects that had Neil said the word, she would have stayed.

 Neil discovers an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a lonely widow who cannot manage alone the bison ranch she has inherited. But will this relationship hold up, given Neil’s withdrawnness and inability to make a commitment?

Neil’s inability to commit is underlined in a brilliant earlier scene in which he and Marina are attending mass at Father Quintana’s church, and during the homely the priest declares, “ Man is in revolt against God. The prophet Hosea saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his own people. In that broken marriage we see the pattern of our world. We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.” When the camera switches from the priest to Neil he appears uneasy.

The priest himself is wracked with the yearning for God, similar to that of the writer of Psalm 42. Fr. Quintana moves among his people preaching and living a faith that he himself no longer feels. Many of his parishioners are poor, and he faithfully visits them, or tries to, as some will not respond to his knocking at their doors. At a wedding which he presides over he is the unsmiling one amidst the festivities. An elderly woman says that she is praying for him to receive the gift of joy. He replies, “Me?” and she says that it is because he looks so unhappy. This is reinforced when in the nave of the church the bearded church sexton says virtually the same thing to him. As each of them places a hand on a pane of the stain glass window the old man, so filled with God that he speaks in tongues, talks of the warm spiritual light.

Much more occurs in the last half of the film, again Malick giving us just fragments of plot and dialogue, so that I felt like I was working on one of those children’s connect the dots pictures that sometimes surprised me when the full picture emerged. No filmmaker that I know and admire makes me work as much as does this enigmatic film artist. The result, however, is worth all the effort, especially the nearly last scene in which Fr. Quintana recites part of the beautiful hymn known as St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate, set to some moving visuals.

It is sad that the film could find no one willing to distribute it to theaters, but given the poor box office response of his magnificent 2011 film Tree of Life, this is understandable. Again, I thank God for DVD and streaming video for making this masterpiece available to us. The critical response has ranged from calling it “muddled” and “boring” to that of “masterful.” It might not be for you, but I urge you to sum up your patience and give it a try. But do this with several spiritually astute companions who like to discuss films: this is a film that will prove the mantra I teach at my film workshops on the need for group involvement with a film, “All of us see more than one of us.”

The full review with a set of 12 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP's new site is launched..

Friday, September 6, 2013

Closed Circuit

                       Rated R. Our ratings: V -4; L -2; S/N-3. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Claudia and Martin appear before the special judge, but most
of the drama takes place outside the courtroom.
(c) 2013 Focus Featues

                                           The eyes of the LORD are in every place,
                                           keeping watch on the evil and the good.
                                                             Proverbs 15:3

                                           They sit in ambush in the villages;
                                              in hiding-places they murder the innocent.
                                          Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless
                                                               Psalm 10:8

Director John Crowley and screenwriter Steven Knight demonstrate that a thriller does not have to include blazing guns, falls from great heights that do not injure, or cars making impossible maneuvers through heavy traffic and crowded sidewalk to hold the interest of the audience. (Though there are a couple of foot chases we must admit, but these do not require stunt drivers or CGI effects.) Just give us a story that is relevant and characters that are more normal than the impossible to stop heroes of the CGI-enhanced blockbusters. With all the debate over the US government’s intelligence gathering, no film is more relevant than this one, even though it is set in London and not in Washington, D.C.

The film opens with a split screen showing images from a dozen or more security cameras. We see shoppers and vendors in a large London market. We can hear snatches of the subjects’ conversations as they pass close to a camera. A white truck pulls up, and vendors call out that it cannot park there. Suddenly an explosion demolishes the place. Over a hundred bodies are found amidst the rubble. The police quickly track down the alleged perpetrator, an Arab immigrant Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) entering the country from Germany.

Barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) is assigned to defend the man because the original lawyer had died. Because the Crown wants to protect the secret intelligence the prosecution will submit as evidence, a vetted defense lawyer, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), also has been appointed as a Special Advocate to review the classified evidence in the government's case. The two are ordered to have no communication between them that would taint the evidence. The problem is that Claudia had once been Martin’s lover, which had led to the breakup of his marriage. How will they relate in their common cause to defend their client?

Two other important figures are the Crown’s Attorney General (Jim Broadbent), who often approaches Martin with warnings about his going too far in his investigation. New York Times reporter Joanna Reece (Julia Stiles), successfully maneuvering to meet Martin at a dinner party, really sets the intrigue into motion by suggesting that the original defense lawyer did not just die, but was murdered because he learned too much about M15 and its operations.

Though this seems far-fetched at first, upon further investigation Martin learns that his client had been arrested in Germany on a drug charge. Despite this he was able to come to London with no problems. How could this happen? Also, Martin is worried because the same taxi keeps showing up when he needs a ride. Hmmmm. The intrigue becomes more complex as the trial at Old Bailey proceeds and a special M15 and Farroukh’s teenaged son Emir are brought into the case.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of clusters of surveillance cameras and then a screen full of multiple images of people going about their business. Often we see Martin and Claudia in them, so we, and they, know that they are under constant surveillance. With M15 brought under suspicion, the film reminded me of Three Days of the Condor, the 1975 film which was one of the first to portray the CIA as a dark force that could be as evil as the Soviet menace from which it was supposed to be protecting us. That film’s conclusion pinned the hero’s hope for justice on the New York Times’ using the documentation he is shown delivering to it in the last shot. But what if M15 can stop such a transaction “by any means necessary”?

Throughout the film I felt a chill or sense of creepiness each time the cameras and their images were displayed on the screen. The nagging question kept arising, in this world so dangerous that we need to have someone constantly watching for possible terrorists, “Who is watching the watchers?” For the author of Proverbs it was a comfort to believe that “the eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” The Lord can be trusted to look out for our good, but how much trust can we place in those humans watching over us? What if the words from the 10th Psalm apply to them?

For Reflection/Discussion
There are several spoilers later on in these questions!
1. How does this thriller compare to the normal summer blockbuster thriller? Why is this one far more believable?
2. How did you feel during the many shots of security cameras and their images? Where do you see them during your normal day? In stores; government buildings; at traffic intersections; in your own home?
3. In a dangerous world, in order to protect democracy, which do you think most people will choose—security or freedom and privacy? What are the arguments for each side? What do you know of the “Red scare” after WW 1; the “witch hunts” of the McCarthy era; the mood of the country right after the US invasion of Iraq when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the war? (For more on the Dixie Chicks see
4. Though set in London what relevance do you see the film has for the US?
5. What do you think has caused novelists and filmmakers to change, beginning in the 60s, from depicting the CIA and similar foreign intelligence agencies as good and heroic to an agency capable of evil doing? (Another current example is 2 Guns, a thriller in which Naval Intelligence and the CIA are both depicted as unsavory.) What danger in a democracy do you see in entrusting secrecy and great power (and funding) to a government agency with almost no accountability?
6. Three Days of the Condor, especially at its conclusion, saw hope in the battle against government secrecy and corruption in the power of a free press to get the word out to the public. How is this hope quashed in this new film? Were you surprised by the fate of the NYT reporter?
7. How do Martin and Claudia depart from the usual path of the screen hero up against an opponent of immense power? How is their admission of defeat more realistic? And yet how is their resolve to protect the life of young Emir evidence that they have not totally given in?
8. What do you think of the newscast you hear at the end of the film? How is this necessary for this film to avoid being nihilistic or cynical about the issue of great misuse of power? Do you share the filmmaker’s apparent belief that the truth will finally emerge in a democracy, despite attempts to cover up such a major mistake as was made by M15? Note how the psalmist shares the belief that right will win out eventually, especially in Psalms 37 and 73.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S/N-5 . Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Jasmine with husband and son (far left) lived a lavish life
style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.
 (c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics
 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
   for you have received your consolation. 
 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.
            Luke 6:24-25

We hear much in op eds and political debates about America’s class warfare, about how the 1% of Americans who allegedly control as much wealth as the bottom 90% are imbued with a sense of entitlement and superiority. I can think of no better illustration of this than Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, in which Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a once wealthy wife is bound to earn her a Best Actress nomination.

Flower lovers will know that the title does not refer to the plant, the flower of which is usually white or blue, but to the mood of the character named after it. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) were raised together as adopted children from different sets of biological parents. Their parents showered more attention on beautiful Jasmine over the plain Ginger, so the latter left home as soon as she could to make her own way. She married working class Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the two of them producing two boys, both of whom are destined to have weight problems. Then comes the day that they hit the California Lottery big time, winning $200,000. Intending to start his own business, Augie sees this as their way out of their life of living from paycheck to paycheck.

Meanwhile Jasmine has dropped out of college to marry the handsome and wealthy Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich Wall Street schemer who is always using other people’s money to fund dubious new ventures. As evidence of her upward mobility drive she has changed her name from Janette to the more upscale name of the flower. They have one grown son Danny. Jasmine’s life of conspicuous consumption in the Hamptons is filled with Manhattan shopping sprees, lunches at elegant restaurants, and hosting parties and lavish charity events. They feel put upon when Ginger and Augie pay them a visit during their trip to New York City, but when they learn that the pair have just won a big sum of money, smooth-talking Hal seduces Augie into investing it in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme. Ginger, who was not enthusiastic about this, becomes even more worried when she spies Hal lunching with and kissing a woman who is not her sister.

All the above is told in a series in intermittent flashbacks as Jasmine, now popping pills and taking frequent sips of vodka from her flask or glass, tries to cope with her new distasteful circumstances. Not only has she finally caught her philandering husband in one of his numerous affairs, but also she precipitates the series of events that leads to Hal’s arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. Unable to cope he has committed suicide. Jasmine’s survival plan involves her flying cross country and moving in with her sister, whose marriage had ended with divorce after they had lost their money. None of this may seem funny, but Allen’s wit is scattered throughout the film.

As has been pointed out by several reviewers, the plot is very much like that of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Ginger’s fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a lowly (to Jasmine) garage mechanic, quickly developing a passionate hatred for the one he calls “A phony!” Chili is upset that his plans to move in with Ginger have to be put on hold now that Jasmine is there. Ginger feels caught in the middle, her sister loyalty strong despite the way Jasmine has always looked down upon her. 

Jasmine wants to start life anew by finishing college and taking a computer course so she can obtain an interior decorator’s license, but has to find work to fund this, reluctantly following Chili’s tip to obtain a receptionist’s job at a dental office. However, this soon ends when Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to follow through on his lust for her. Then she meets the man who could restore her to the status she feels she deserves, the well-heeled wealthy diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). He has long range plans to enter politics and needs a trophy wife like Jasmine. But will her less than wholesome past marriage and tendency to dodge reality and deceive herself and others get in the way?

Every member of the ensemble cast performs well, but Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the once wealthy Jasmine is unforgettable, perhaps the only other portrayal of a Narcissistic neurotic     woman that compares being that of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (she also played Blanche!). Her character is so fully defined—nervous tics, almost incessant drinking, tendency to talk out loud inappropriately in public places, disdainful expressions, and elegant dress—that she emerges as a real person. And even though we see what a despicable person she is, we are still drawn to her and, if not root for her, wish that she might achieve a measure of self-understanding. This is a fascinating, detailed study of a woman whose worst enemy is herself. Her fate seems to bear out what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a far different situation, but which applies to Jasmine’s fate, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice” Although not intended as a social justice film, Mr. Allen’s revelation of the hollow lifestyle of “the rich and famous” as seen in Jasmine could be a midrash of Jesus’ denunciation of the uncaring rich, or of the equally harsh denunciation of the wealthy by the prophet Amos. One of Mr. Allen’s best films in years, this must not to be missed!

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers near the end.

1. Compare Jasmine to Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Or to Scarlett O’Hara. What does the opening sequence of Jasmine talking to a fellow plane passenger reveal about her?
2. How is Chili a good stand in for Stanley Kowalski? What insight does he have into Jasmine that her sister lacks?
3. Despite her many flaws, what did you find attractive about Jasmine? Was this mainly physical characteristics? From what you see of her relationship to her husband and to Dr. Flicker, how do you think that she is a victim of life’s circumstances?
4. What do you think of her efforts to develop the one skill she seems to possess—her sense of style and décor? Do you think that she could become successful as an interior decorator? What might get in the way of such success?
5. What fatal error does she make when she meets Dwight? Which of her many flaws do you think lead her to commit this mistake?
6, Although their story is secondary, how does Ginger and Chili’s story compare to that of their sister-in-law’s? How is his love close to agape love?
7. Why does her son Danny act toward her the way he does when Jasmine hunts him down? Do you think that the ending bears out the insight of Dr. King’s quotation?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Rated R. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S -5/N-1 . Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

Sutter and Aimee are from two different
worlds at their high school.
(c) 2013 A24

But when he came to himself 
Luke 15:17

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Phillipians 2:4

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, director James Ponsoldt’s delightful coming of age film has been compared to those in which John Hughe’s so skillfully explored teenage angst for an earlier generation. The major difference is that most teenagers won’t be admitted to this film because of the film’s R-rating. The two love scenes depicted definitely earn this rating, but they are not milked for eroticism, there being little actual nudity involved. The title is interesting, at first sight perhaps suggesting teacher John Keating’s “Carpe diem” in Dead Poet’s Society, but as we listen to this film’s high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) talk about his wanting to stay in the now where he is enjoying himself so immensely, we perceive quite a touch of irony in it.

The film begins with Sutter at his computer desk trying to answer on a college entrance exam what hardship he has faced and overcome. This sets off a series of flashbacks in which we see that he is an under achiever who has always been the life of the party. Popular with his fellow students, he is not a jock, nor much of anything else—just a guy who can make friends laugh and enjoy themselves. He does hold down a part-time job at a clothing store, where he has a winning way with customers—though we worry over his frequent sips from the whiskey flask he always carries with him. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) is also popular, though we soon see, a lot more committed than he—I doubt very much that he has thought about their getting married. And he likes to spike his soft drinks with liquor that he finds easy to obtain through charm and guile.  Sutter’s best quality, one that makes us root for him, is that he likes to help people.

It is while helping his overly shy friend hook up with a girl that results in Cassidy dumping him. Sutter is so upset that he drinks himself to oblivion, waking up the early the next morning on a front lawn to find a worried Aimee (Shailene Woodley) standing over him. She is relieved that he is alive, but has no idea as to where his car is. She needs to move on to finish delivering newspapers for her irresponsible mother, who actually is in charge of the route. Sutter talks her into taking him along to help toss out the rolled up papers and to try to find where he left his car.

Aimee attends the same school, but Sutter cannot recall her name because they did not move in the same circles. He is drawn to the shy and thus a bit withdrawn girl not for romantic reasons—he still hopes to patch things up with Cassidy—but in order to help her come out of her shell. As they get to know each other, he admires her choice of science/fantasy literature. Learning of her dream of going to a Philadelphia college, a plan her mother’s opposes, he urges her to stand up to her. We learn that she, as well as Sutter, has grown up without the presence of a father.

Getting Cassidy back proves more than problematic. At the party to which he takes Aimee he discovers that his former girlfriend has moved on, dating now a student who is a football star and a serious student. (I liked the fact that though this student is black, no one indicated that this was unusual or notable. Maybe we, or at least Hollywood, really are making some racial progress.) Sutter becomes more involved with Aimee, inviting her now to the prom, but it is obvious that she takes their relationship more seriously than he does. Again we worry about his drinking when the prom gift he gives her is a small silver flask.

Aimee, encouraged by Sutter stands up to her mom concerning going away to college. She returns the favor by helping Sutter with his concern to contact his absent father (Kyle Chandler). His mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nurse, has always refused to tell him anything about the man, and his married sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has gone along with their mother’s refusal. He finally persuades Holly to give him the information, and Aimee agrees to accompany him on the three-hour drive. There follows the most poignant scene in the film, one which almost ends in disaster—and which leads at last to Sutter’s coming to himself.

Back to the title again: Sutter seems like a modern day Peter Pan in his clutching at “the spectacular now.” His initial total disregard for the future is appropriate for a hedonist, perhaps someone whose motto is “Eat, drink, and be merry”—and note the rest of that famous dictum is left off because his immersion in the Now blinds him to his mortality. On the other hand, Sutter’s Now is anything but spectacular. He is failing geometry, which threatens his graduation; girlfriend Cassidy has broken with him; his longing to connect with his absent father has been thwarted by his mother, whom he does not appreciate; and he is gradually sinking into the downward spiral of alcohol dependency, which in turn has led to his losing the job he enjoys. The film does a spectacular job of bringing us into the life of a teenager whose great potential might be destroyed, with the boy following in the hollow footsteps of a father whose knowledge of his failure is so painful that he must drown it in alcohol. To his credit, Sutter tries to break with Aimee, believing that he can only bring her down into his world. (Maybe he remembers the gift of the flask, something that Aimee also is now using too much.)

The writing (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Brown) and acting are so good that this would have been an excellent film for church youth leaders to use, but there are those two sex scenes, this film like most Hollywood productions assuming “everybody’s doing it.” (At least we see Aimee supplying Sutter with a condom.) Thus, this is a dubious choice to show at the church when the film becomes available on DVD. Should you believe, as I do, that it is one of the best films to explore the teen experience since John Hughes was at work, be sure to bring in the parents and explain why you want to use it. In the meantime, simply enjoy it—or maybe, after careful explanation, even work up a theater party of parents and teens.

Note: the full version of this review with 8 discussion questions will appear in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables. Also, I just realized that I have not explained on this blog VP's rating system, based on a scale of 0 (none) to 10 (highest--V = Violence; L = Language; and S/N = Sex/Nudity. This is more impressionist than scientific--I do not sit in the dar counting naugthy words or measure the amount of skin exposed.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lee Daniels The Butler

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5; L-5 ; S/N-2 . Running time: 2 hours  12 min.

The Kennedys meet the black staff for the first time.
(c) 2013 Weinstein Pictures

I say to God, my rock,
   ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
   because the enemy oppresses me?’
Psalm 42.9

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son and son against father…
Luke 12:49-53

But when he came to himself…
Luke 15:17a 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

How propitious that this powerful drama, based on an article in the Washington Post was released during the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech! The film’s butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) may be a fictionalized version of the real Eugene Allen, but the events he witnessed, inside and outside the White House, are true, indeed historic, including Pres. Eisenhower’s sending in troops to protect the students integrating the Little Rock Central High School; the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders; the Selma March and Pres. John’s “We Shall Overcome” speech; the Mississippi Summer Feedom Project; the urban riots following the murder of Dr. King; the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and much, much more. Some critics have mentioned Forest Gump in their reviews, but by means of juxtapositioning of scenes in the White House with those occuring outside its orderly interior, as well as by some telling conversations among black characters, Lee Daniels and scriptwriter  Danny Strong have created much more of a social justice film by comparison.

Cecil’s story begins in 1926 in a Georgia cotton field (not the Virginia of real-life Eugene Allen) where 8 year-old Cecil (Michael Rainey, Jr.) is upset to see Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) force his mother Hattie Pearl (Moriah Carey) into a barn. Knowing what has transpired there, the boy incites his father Earl (David Banner) to make a mild protest, whereupon the white overseer draws his pistol and shoots his field hand. This brutal scene, considered by some reviewers as injected for shock value, actually serves both not only to show how dangerous it was for a black to show even the slightest sign of resistance to white domination, but also to explain why, as years later the now elderly son says that he has always worn two faces, the outward, subservient one, and the private one. Had Cecil had any schooling, he might have used Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem with its opening lines, “We wear the mask that grins and lies,/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” This powerful poem, addressed to blacks, describes what virtually every African American was forced to do during the Jim Crow era in order to survive in a racist society in which a white could kill a black with impunity. In its third stanza the poem reveals the pain of having to wear the mask, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/To thee from tortured souls arise.”

Ironically, it is his father’s murder that improves the boy’s work situation. The white matriarch Anabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on the father-deprived boy and takes him out of the sweltering cotton field to make him a “house Negro,” which means he is taught good manners and dress and how to set a table and serve the dishes. Above all, she gives him the order that will shape his life ever after, “A room should feel empty when you’re in it.” She means to be kind, and so is completely unaware of how dehumaizing is this custom of regarding servants as pieces of furniture. Later on Cecil will see that the attitude at the White House is little different. No wonder that African Americans read far more into the “White” of the Exceutive Mansion than whtes do.

When he is a teenager Cecil realizes that he cannot stay any longer on the plantation where his father’s killer is one of the heirs. His mother, suffering mentally ever since the murder of her husband, barely is aware of his leaving. Mrs. Westfall, obviously supportive of the lad’s decsision slips a book into his bosom as he bids her farewell. I wish more had been made of this—had she been like the white woman in the 1995 film Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored wherein an aristocratic white woman had encouraged a black boy to read her books? Anyway, away from the plantation young Cecil falls onto hard times, unable to find work, and thus reduced to trying to steal a cake to feed his starving body. The kindly black assistant at the shop helps get him hired on, and teaches the boy even more than about serving—at one point he orders the boy not to say “house nigger.” “It’s a white man’s word,” he says. From there Cecil goes to Washington to work at a posh hotel where the demands for decorum are even higher, and then when a White House staffer is impressed by him, he is taken on at the White House.

Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is the first of the Presidents that Cecil serves, and the episode depicts the days when Ike is agonizing about sending troops in to protect the black students integrating the Little Rock Central High School. He is extremely reluctant to do so, realizing how explosive the racial situation is, and how politically costly siding with the “Negores” would be. An almost spooky scene during his term is the visit to the kitchen by Vice President Nixon (a strangely cast John Cusack) in search of votes in the upcoming election. The discomfort is apparent on both sides, with the blacks reluctantly accepting (but not putting on) the “Elect Nixon” badges he passes out to them. Nixon asks what the men would like. When one of them says that pay equal to that of the white staff, Nixon promises that he will change that, but when he does move into the White House, rebuffs the request—of course, this is 8 years later after the promise, so we can assume that he did not remember the promise.

Of all the presidentail terms depicted, I was most impressed by the incidents unfolding during the all too brief Kennedy admininistration, and not just because of the sorrowful events of the assassination. In this sequence juxtaposition of scenes was used so powerfully, the camera shifting back and forth between guests being served at a White House dinner and scenes of Cecil’s son taking part in the civil rights movement despite his father’s orders. Other than in the TV film about the coming of the civil rights movement to a small Mississippi town, Daniels’ film does the best job of showing the training in discipline and courage of the college students—black and white—who intended to integrate a whites only lunch counter at a Nashville Woolworths dime store.

 Louis, the oldest son of Cecil and Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is one of many Fisk University students attracted to James Lawson (Jesse Williams), the young minister colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the workshop on nonviolence. After lecturing on Gandhi, each student in a role play is subjected to a harsh round of taunts and racial slurs from other students. A white lad tells Lawson that he cannot call the person he’s supposed to attack a “nigger,” that just isn’t something he can do. Lawson insists, pointing out that the role playing must be realistic. The student, tears rising in his eyes, complies. Adding to the realism are the mustard and catsup poured onto the heads of the trainees. The camera cuts away to Cecil and his colleagues, immaculately dressed in tuxedos preparing for a state dinner. The student action moves on to Woolworths where the white help and patrons are shocked that the mixed race group of students are transgressing the time honored system of Jim Crow seating. They are refused service, insulted, and soon, as toughs arrive, hateful words transpose into spiteful deeds. “Stand up!” the sit-in students are ordered. “Stand up,” the guests seated at the White House are told as the President and First Lady enter the room. The guests are served courteously by the black staff, whereas at Woolworths those aspiring to eat at the lunchcounter are not only refused service by the waitress, but are covered with condiments, knocked off their stools, and some of them beaten, and then hauled off to jail.

There is much more to tell of this excellent film, that strangely on the Imdb site has been accused by some viewers as boring and too one-sided. Cecil is castigated because he is so subservient, taking little part in the events around him. These posters forget that virtually all his mentors, from Anabeth at the plantation on have trained him to be what novelist Ralph Ellison called “the invisible man,” training that was reinforced by his superiors at the White House—there he was to hear nothing and say nothing—to “wear the mask,” as Dunbar wrote. Indeed, at that time the whole culture—literature, movies, radio, and degrading images of “Negroes” in advertising proclaimed that the Negro was an inferior who must be kept in his place!

Louis is important in the story because he represents the younger generation of blacks who refuse to accept their parents’ obsequious relationship to whites. We watch Louis himself develop from a believer in nonviolence to a period when, disillusioned by the perception of the  failure of nonviolence following the murder of Dr. King, he and his girlfriend  join the Black Pamther Party, leading to Cecil ordering them from the house during a dinner table quarrel. But when told that they must be ready to kill white men, Louis leaves, eventually finishing college and becoming a candidate for office in Tennessee. For many years he remains estranged from his father until…

Both Gloria and Cecil move away from their opposition to the civil rights movent. Gloria herself has  drawn back from an affair she had fallen into because Cecil’s long hours at the White House had left her alone most of the time. The change in Cecil must have begun when Pres. Kennedy asked him about Louis, showing that he already knew about the young man’s arrest record—16 times. Commenting on the Freedom Rides and sit-ins, the President says, “You know my brother says these kids changed his heart. They’ve changed mine too.” It will take a long time for Cecil’s heart to change, but by the time he quietly brings up to Pres. Reagon the matter (the second Presidnet he has approached) of the black staff’s unfair pay, he has come far enough to open up his heart again to Louis. It is a tender and moving scene. The film then returns to the scene which began the film, the retired Cecil sitting on a bench in the White House waiting to be ushered into the presence of the black President he never thought possible. When a black aide comes, expressing his admiration for him and saying that he will show him the way, the old man responds, “I know the way.”

Every person of faith should see this film and discuss it with others. White and African American pastors should seek each other out and see if their congregations are willing to meet together and talk about the issues raised. Some of the conversations the black characters have among themselves will surprise many whites about their assumptions and views, one example being how acclaimed actor Sidney Poittier is perceived by militant blacks. It is so good to see a film in which the story of blacks is told without bringing in on an equal basis a white character to share the star credits. Oh yes, the constellation of famous whites playing the supporting roles has garnered lots of attention, but essentially this is an African American story told by African Americans. It may be open to the charge of over simplifying a complex period in our nation’s history, but my response is, “This is a movie, not a history lecture. Lectures are good and necessary to cover the facts, but as a movie it does much more than a factual lecture can—by identifying with the characters we come to feel what they did and see the world through new eyes, their eyes that had welled up with tears so many times by the injustices committed against them.” Few films manage to accomplish so much in the minds and hearts of its audience. No wonder that the audience applauded at the matinee showing I attended.

For Reflection/Discission

1. What did you think of Anabeth Westfall’s  counsel to young Cecil, “A room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Compare this to the way some of the white women regarded their cooks and maids in The Help. How is this advice just the opposite of what motivational speakers say to their audiences?
2. Cecil speaks of wearing two faces? How was this necessary for survival? What price did Cecil’s father pay for forgetting this? To see and discuss Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” go to:
3. What does the teenaged Cecil’s mentor mean when he stops the boy from saying “house nigger” and declares that the last word is a white man’s word? How is this right, that is, how has it become a weapon when used by whites? Note that black comedian and social activist Dick Gregory daringly named his 1964 autobiography Nigger, turning the word around so that a black man could say the word without feeling shamed. In typical Gregory style, he writes in his introduction, “Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.
4. How do we see at the White House that “white” has more than one meaning? Did you wonder why even the liberal presidents did not address the issue of unequal pay between white and black employees?
5. Which of the administrations were you most interested in?  Due to necessary time limitations each presidential sequence was brief, so were you satisfied with the few details that were covered? Were you surprised at Pres. Eisenhower’s hesitancy to send troops to control the angry mobs threatening the black students newly enrolled at the high school? What were his reasons?
6. Much had to be left out, but what was the glaring omission from the Kennedy era? Why do you think the “I Have a Dream Speech” was not covered?
7. What did you think of the nonviolent training session led by James Lawson? How were the teachings of Gandhi employed in the civil rights movement? What do you think of the discipline and courage required to be an activist? (As mentioned in the review, another good film showing this kind of training is the cable TV film Freedom Song ( )
For more on Lawson, who is still living, see the Wikipedia article on him at:
7. Did the Freedom Rider bus incident seem too dramatic or “Hollywood”? This was a tiny part of a long story that is wonderfully told in the PBS documentary Freedom Riders, a film as exciting as any Hollywood thriller. The entire almost two-hour film can be viewed at:
8. What did you think of Pres. Kennedy’s observation that the youth participating in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides changed their hearts? How is this a testimony to the power of nonviolence?
Here are two Gandhi quotes on the subject:
"Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man."
"Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love."
These, along with many others, can be found at:
Dr. King also spoke much about nonviolence and love:
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
And the quote which begins the movie:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
What do you think he means by “darkness” and “light”?
9. How does Cecil react to his son’s arrest? How was this typical of the black (and white, for that matter) community then? What changed this attitude for the younger generation so that arrest and jail time became a badge of honor? For discussion below are three quotes that helped shape this new attitude toward law and order:
“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law”
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
“An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.”
― Mahatma Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War 1942-49
“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
These and many others can be found on:
10. How does Louis’s view of movie star Sidney Poitier differ from his parents’? For an example of this, think back to what kind of a character he played in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? How was the concept of “the Noble Negro” (Louis would say “White Man’s Negro”) important in order to get whites to go see the film? Note that author James Baldwin reported that in the Poitier-Tony Curtiss prison escape film The Fugitive that there were two different audience reactions to the scene in which Poitier reaches out to lift Curtis into the back of the truck as it speeds away from their pursuers. Whites expressed approval that Poitier would help the prejudiced man who had once scorned him, whereas black audiences hooted and yelled such things as, “Fool!”
11. In response to the jury’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin case Pres. Obama said, “I think it is important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t g away.” How does this relate to the above?
12. What do you think of the film’s Forest Gump-like scene in which Louis is present with Dr. King in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis? When pressed about his father, Louis reluctantly says that he is a butler. What does Dr. King say that seeks to raise the son’s opinion of his father?
13. What do you think of the film’s depiction of the Black Panthers? What influenced Louis and so many other blacks (Stokely Carmichael being the most famous) to give up on nonviolence and embrace a more militant approach that could include violence? What was written on the blackboard in the scene of the Black Panther meeting? How did it suggest a different view of the Panthers from that promulgated by the media and the FBI (a vicious gang of killers)? And yet Black Panther ideology did embrace violence: what does Louis reveal about his values when he tells his girlfriend that he is leaving the group?
14. What do you think of the spiritual journey of Cecil? What influences him to move from his go-along-to-get-along viewpoint? How did you feel after the reconciliation scene? How has Louis grown as well as his father?
15. During the over 50-year period covered by the film how has the country grown? What has it cost for a black man to be able to become President of the USA? A good way to review this cost is to read, or if a group, to sing, what has been called “The Negro National Anthem,” James Weldon John’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It is included in many modern church hymnals, and its history, along with the words, can be accessed at:
Pay attention especially to the middle verse that begins with “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,/Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”  How do you see God in all of this history? What societal/personal changes do you think we still have to make before the last lines of that stanza are met—“Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last/Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast”?
16. The Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” c an be accessed at

Monday, August 19, 2013

How Dr. King Almost Got Me Fired

This week’s observance of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s great speech climaxing the March on Washington brought back many memories. 1963 was the year I graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary and accepted my first call to serve a three-church parish in North Dakota. When I heard that summer of the plans for the great civil rights gathering in the nation’s capital, I wanted badly to join the throng. I had long admired Dr. King and had heard him speak in person (more on that in a moment). I was certain that his speech would be the highlight of the event. But Washington was a long way off, My wife and I had little spare money, and, most important, I was just beginning my pastorate and had no time off coming. So, like many other Americans, I listened and watched as much of the proceedings as possible on TV.

A little over four years earlier it was Dr. King who in a way almost got me fired from my first church job. While a college student at Butler University I was hired by an inner city Presbyterian church to help start and lead an after school program for children and youth, even though I was a Methodist. The church’s pastor and the church session (governing board for you non-Presbyterians) had a vision for using their building as a means of serving young people who had no place to go except the unsupervised streets for recreation after school. I was a serious reader since my childhood, in high school having been introduced to Gandhi and his writings, so when the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful, leading to the publication of Dr. King’s book Stride Toward Freedom, I eagerly bought and read it.

 Thrilled by the book, I longed to be engaged in some meaningful resistance to racial segregation. That opportunity came sooner than expected when a call was sent out (I think by the N.A.A.C.P.) for “people of good will” to walk a picket line at the Galyans Supermarket on the west side of Indianapolis. Galyans was a local chain with grocery stores in all sections of Indianapolis. This particular Galyans was located in an “all-Negro” area, but its management had refused to hire any blacks as cashiers or clerks, other than for menial jobs of sweeping and carrying out the garbage. The picket line was part of a boycott—the message being, if you won’t hire blacks, then we will not buy your groceries. So, filled with a romantic view of fighting for the right, I drove over to the store on the day of the event.

Walking that line with a sign demanding equal employment in my hands was perhaps the scariest thing I had done up till then, my romantic feelings quickly giving way to fear. None of my friends went. I had not told my mother and step dad, with whom I was still living while going to college.  So, walking back and forth with mostly black strangers, I felt alone and vulnerable. People, most of them also black, came and went. The press took pictures. And then I heard a loud thumping on the store window. It took me a moment to realize that the person doing the thumping was trying to get my attention. His face, contorted by anger, looked familiar. Suddenly I realized it was D. J. He belonged to the church where I worked as youth director. His pleasant tenor voice was an important part of the choir, to which I also belonged. We had exchanged pleasantries many times at choir practice and on Sunday mornings. He gestured toward the door, so I walked over to it where he met me. How dare I do such a thing as picket his store, he declared, among many other things. Turns out he was the assistant manager of the store. He promised to call the minister and the members of session. Either he or I would soon be leaving the church!

D.J. kept his promise, and the pastor called the session to meet with me—and also representatives from the Presbytery, the governing body for all Presbyterian churches in Indianapolis. This was the late Fifties, a couple of years before the national leaders of the Presbyterian church (led by Eugene Carson Blake) began to take part in demonstrations demanding the integration of facilities, so none of my interrogators had any precedent for dealing with my participation in the protest at Galyans. I had been very close to the minister—indeed, he had convinced me to leave the Methodist Church and become a Presbyterian—but he was largely silent during the meeting, though it did become obvious that he did not accept D. J.’s demand that I be fired.

The head of the Presbytery assumed leadership of the meeting, asking why I would do such a thing? His tone implied that walking a picket line with a protest sign in the “Negro side of town” was not the sort of thing a good Presbyterian should do. I replied that I was an admirer of Dr. King and the freedom movement he was leading, that it was wrong for a store to sell to blacks but refuse to hire them, and that I could not in good conscience teach and lead the youth of the church if I had refused the invitation to picket. I would have felt like a hypocrite.

There was more said, but I recall little of it, something like a haze descending on me as I sat in the hot seat, and never a word of encouragement issuing from these local leaders of my denomination whom I considered my mentors. I wish I could say now that challenging, prophetic words shot forth from my mouth—later I thought that I should have said, “Why weren’t you there if you really believe in equality and justice?”--or that I turned down their offer that if I would not go back the next day to the demonstration, there would be no further repercussions—but I didn’t. I stayed, and D.J. left the church. I had gone through a mild form of what the New Testament calls a baptism or trial by fire but had not been very heroic.

Just a few months later Dr. King came to Indianapolis and spoke to a large crowd at the old Cadle Tabernacle where for several generations preachers had proclaimed a very different message than the black leader’s social justice brand of the gospel. My then fiancé Sandra was with me, both of us inspired by his message, and privileged to go up and meet him at the end of the event. I have wondered if I had heard him in person first before my meager attempt to follow his teachings of resistance to injustice, I might have felt and acted more bravely. A few years after this, in August of 1964, I had an opportunity to find out, answering, with my wife’s agreement and support, the call to travel south with a colleague to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Project, an ambitious attack on Jim Crow in the nation’s “most segregated state.” But that, as they say, is another story.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Way Way Back

Rated PG-13.  Our ratings: V -1; L-3; S/N -3. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; 
you are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10:30-31

Duncan meets the man who will change his outlook on life.
(c) 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

One of the best comedy-dramas of the year involves poor 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his newly divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) invited to spend the summer at the seaside cottage of her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). It is very symbolic that in Trent’s station wagon the shy Duncan sits in the very back seat that faces backward. Trent is one of those cocksure guys who’s convinced he’s a blessing to everyone else, so he asks Trent how he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Flustered, the boy answers, “6.” Trent yells back, “3,” leaving he boy humiliated and enraged.

What a way for a potential step dad to start off with his lover’s son! Trent’s disdainful daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is just as difficult, snubbing the slightly younger boy. And Pam, asleep up front misses this putdown, but later when she hears others, keeps silent, obviously not wanting to spoil her first serious relationship since her divorce. Several times she realizes that a caustic remark by Trent her son has hurt her son, but she seems powerless to come to his aid, other than by a wistful glance in his direction.

When they arrive at the cabin their neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) almost overwhelms them with her gushy welcome and gossip about the other summer residents. Her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), about a year older than Duncan, tries to strike up a conversation with Duncan, but the withdrawn boy barely responds. He would much rather be with his dad, but the latter claims his circumstances do not allow this.

Duncan soon finds escape from the cabin via a bicycle (a girl’s bike, a pink one at that!) that he discovers in the cluttered garage. During his rides around the town and its environs he comes upon the Water Wizz Park where the crazy-talking Owen (Sam Rockwell) works as a jack of all trades. His humor at first falls flat on Duncan and at times almost gets him fired by his long-suffering boss. However, as Duncan returns day after day, the boy finds he has a father figure, an adult who actually listens to him because he cares about him. The sober boy even begins to get Owen’s humor as his mood lightens up. Duncan hires on, finding a supportive group of fellow employees that are in stark contrast to Trent and the others back at the cabin—with Susanna, to whom Duncan slowly opens up, being the exception. He even gains the nickname "Pop 'n' Lock” when he awkwardly attempts to break dance.
None of Duncan’s exploits are known to Pam or Trent, this to me being the weak point in the plot—how could a boy stay out all night or get a job without his mother’s knowledge and consent? Pam does ask him where he’s been or what he’s been doing when he returns at the end of the day, but his generalized answers would never satisfy a real mother: all the ones I know would have been all over him or gone out during the day to find him. Despite this, director Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have given us a good coming-of-age film. The campfire scene in which the transformed Duncan blurts out to his mother the truth about Trent’s philandering, is powerful drama, especially when Trent lashes back with the truth about Duncan’s father, that the man is too busy with his new family for Duncan to come and spend time with him.
This is one of those films that stand out when compared to the usual inane summer comedy. It is mostly devoid of the juvenile anal humor of so many Holly wood films about teens. There are adults who are jerks, but also some who have the wisdom of experience to impart, and the compassion to pass it on. The ending also resists our desire that Pam dump Trent and link up to Owen so that they can “live happily ever after,” the ending being somewhat ambiguous. Even Trent (and I think Steve Carell deserves great credit for playing this less than likable guy) might have learned something from this vacation, cut short by events of the night on the beach.

Note:The complete review with a set of discussion questions is included in the Sep/Oct. issue of Visual Parables.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Rated PG. Our ratings: V-4; L -0; S/N -1. Running time: 1 hour 46 Min.

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’ 
Joshua 1.9

Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.
1 Corinthians 10.24

(c) 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

This film version of Rick Riordan’s book, second in the Percy Jackson series, is much better than the critics would have us believe. True, the series is far beneath the quality of the revered Harry Potter, but there are plenty of neat touches that, as I walked out of the theater, made me feel good. There is plenty of action for children (mid school age I would recommend because some knowledge of Greek mythology is a must to understand the story and characters) and a lot of wit in the dialogue for adults. A good example of the latter is what the camp manager Mr. D. (Stanley Tucci) says. The D stands for Dionysus, Greek god of wine, who in a twist of irony was put under a curse by Zeus, king of gods, so that D’s wine turns into water when he drinks it. He says to a centaur, "You know the Christians have a guy who can do this in reverse.” You gotta like a film that includes such comments!

To go back to the beginning of the story, Percy and three other half bloods (as the children of a god and a mortal are called) were being chased through the forest as they attempted to make their way to the safety of Camp Half Blood. As their pursuers gain on them, Thalia stops, telling the others that she will hold off their enemies while they get away. Percy (Leven Rambin), son of the sea god Poseidon, and his two friends, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, and Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), a satyr, reluctantly press on to the camp. Thalia is killed, but even in death she serves her friends by turning into a mighty tree that sheds a barrier around the camp, protecting it from intruders.

Seven years go by, and the self appointed leader among the young demigods is Clarisse La Rue (Leven Rambin) who enjoys taunting Percy, especially when unexpectedly his previously unknown half brother Tyson (Douglas Smith) shows up. It’s hard to tell whether Percy is more shocked by discovering he has a sibling or that Tyson is a Cyclops. In the outer world these one-eyed creatures are regarded as vicious monsters, so Clarisse and her friends ostracize and taunt Tyson whenever they can.

There are lots of adventures ahead for them all, including a quest for the famous Golden Fleece, to be found somewhere in the Sea of Monsters, a.k.a The Bermuda Triangle. This is reached by a long taxi ride with a stop over in Washington D.C. where the UPS store is really the Olympus Parcel Service run by the messenger god Hermes. He asks them to speak with his estranged son Luke who is on the opposing side of the Quest. It seems that with the Fleece Luke, angry that his father had always neglected him, can awaken from his tomb the Father of the Gods Kronos, and…well, it all gets complicated, but lots of excitement.
Going into the film I was not too keen on the idea of glorifying old pagan gods and their offspring, but when it became obvious early on that these demigods had values—beginning with Thalia’s sacrificing her life, and then Percy during a training game making a smaller but similar sacrifice for the sake of another--I was won over. The characters might be pagans, but their values and deeds are very much like those taught by Christ. With its emphasis upon teamwork and friendship, as well as toleration of those who are different, this is a good film for young and old.

For Reflection/Discussion
These questions are to help caregivers discuss the film with young viewers. They should not be all used at once, but worked into a discussion that might begin with, “Tell me what you think of this movie…” Note that question 5 contains spoilers.

1. Which of the ancient Greek demigods does Percy represent? What did he do in the first film that Perseus did in the myth? (Yes, kill Medusa whose stare could turn a person into stone.)
2. This is a film that takes old gods and goddesses and makes them heroes today. How were the old gods very different from the God whom Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) worship? How are the old stories—myths we call them—more like fairy tales?
3. Who in the film thinks of others and makes a sacrifice for them?
Thalia—how does she give everything for her three friends?
Percy—On the tower in the race to the top what does he do when a camper is in
Tyson—When a villain shoots at Percy, what does Tyson do?
4. Why do you think Clarissa and her followers are so mean to Tyson? Do you know someone who was treated badly because they were different? In what way were they not like others—a dark skin; could not speak well; dressed differently; were handicapped in some way; or---?
5. In the fight against Luke and his zombie crew in the Sea of Monsters Percy and his rival Clarissa grow to respect, and then to like, each other. How do you think Percy’s refusal to hold a grudge against her help them become friends? What do you think of Percy’s letting her take the Golden Fleece back to Half Blood Camp and receive the honor of bringing it back? Who really deserved the most credit? How is what Percy does an act of true friendship?