Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Hero Pete Seeger

Although not a surprise--he was 94!--the death of folksinger/acitivist Pete Seeger saddens me. For more years than I like to admit to he has been one of my heroes. I was in high school when his and Burl Ives' recordings introduced me to folk music, and through folk music made me aware that the Fifties were not all that the later TV show HAPPY DAYS made them out to be. Mr. Seeger's involvement in the birth and spread of the Civil Rights Movement made me aware of the racial divide in our country and of the possibility of overcoming it.

I also became aware during those "happy days" of the anti-Communist witch hunts that rabid Congressmen were conducting against entertainers and actors suspsected of being even slightly "leftist." I had rejoiced when the folk group Pete had helped found "The Weavers" broke into the Top Ten songs with their hit "Good Night, Irene," but with the Congressional witch hunters branding Pete and his friends "Communists," their music soon disappeared from radio. It would not be until years later when Pete would be invited to sing on a TV program, and I am proud that it was one sponsored and produced by the National Council of Churches.

I eagerly bought the singer's LP records, listening to and being inspired by them, along with classical music and operas. I had my first opportunity to hear him when fellow pastor Roger Smith and I journeyed to Jackson, MS to join other "outside agitators" in The Miss. Summer Freedom Project. It was a sweltering night in an overcrowded "Negro church" in Jackson that the folksinger was entertaining the troops. This picture, whether taken by myself or by my friend Roger I can't recall (we both took so many and exchanged them that summer), is not detailed enough to show Pete's shirt soaked clear through and clinging to him. Hot though it was, he played and sang--or I should say, led singing, as he always saw himself as much of a catalyst for group singing as a solo performer--for over two hours. No one left, or as far as we were concerned, even thought of leaving early.

He was loved by all the Project participants for his courage as well as his music and advocacy of racial justice. Many other celebrities came to Jackson, which was good, but as far as I know, he was the only one who would go outside the city to some of the dangerous areas where the Klan ruled. Roger and I left early the next day to go to our assignment in Shaw (up in the Delta region), and all during our almost 3 weeks engaged in teaching, advising, canvassing for voter registration, and transporting would-be voters to the courthouse, memories of his leading us in singing of freedom and justice kept ringing in our minds and hearts.

The only other time I heard and met him in person was years later at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York where he stayed for a few days and presented a concert. I thanked him for his inspiring work through the years and hesitatntly held out several of his albums for autographing, which he graciously did. These are cherished items, even though today I listen to the songs on digitally transferred copies.

As a fitting way to remember him I recommend that you borrow a copy of the wonderful documentary PETE SEEGER: The Power of Song, probably available at your local library. Even though I was familiar with some of the events of his long life, it revealed a wealth of additional ones that made me admire him all the more. My new book Blessed Are the Filmmakers, due out sometime this year, will contain a review and discussion guide for this film. Let us thank God for the long and useful life of this wonderful man!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

This will be one of the last blogs on this site, My publishers at ReadtheSpirit.com are going to be moving all of the content from this blog to visualparables.org so that all my materials will be under one roof, so to speak. Please log onto that site to see the many film materials available here, and within a week or less, future postings on this blog.

Monday, January 20, 2014

But Do We Honor the Prophet?

Today there were the usual eulogies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that we expect to hear and see on TV, cable, and radio. If you are an older adult, you might know much of the "I Have a Dream" speech by heart, having heard it so man hundreds of times since this Holiday was established. Well and good, but for those really familiar with the life and writings of this great American, the question arises, "Are most of the effusive tributes being made to a very sanitized Dr. King, a Dr. King the American who no longer poses a threat to the status quo? Dr. King made his famous speech in 1963, which is mainly what we heard today...

But on April 4, 1967 he made a very different one that was not praised but condemned, even by some of his own staff. To them he went "off message" by condemning the Vietnam War, rathering than speaking just of civil rights. This cost him the support of President Johnson as well as many white liberals, and even most of the established black Civil Rights leaders. It confirmed to FBI head J.Edgar Hoover and many white racists that this radical was indeed a Communist in league with Russia.
Thus  I was glad tonight (Jan. 20) that Lawrence O'Donnell on his MSNBC program brought this speech up. A better student of history than most cable and network commentators, Mr. O'Donnell brought up the fact that Dr. King  not only saw the connection between the growing expense of the Vietnam War (in lives, black lives especially, and money) and the dwindling resources for the War on Poverty, but was willing to speak out on it at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. One of the reasons I like the old TV miniseries KING is that it includes this important sequence in Dr. King's life, showing that he was indeed a great prophet willing to walk in the footsteps of such prophets as Jeremiah, who was roundly despised by his fellow Jews for calling his countrymen to task for disobeyting the Covenant laws of mercy and justice. (You can see my review of the film at http://www.readthespirit.com/visual-parables/category/movie-reviews/) The film has some historical flaws, but all in all, it presents in a dramatic way the major events in his life.
So, as we honor the man whose eloquence virtually everyone now admires, let us also honor the prophet who, exactly a year after he made his costly prophetic speech in New York City, was struck down in Memphis because his mission was to help those who were victims of economic as well as racial oppression--who indeed pointed out that the two were intertwined.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Reflections on Oscar Nominations for 2013

Well, the list of Oscar nominations has been released, and now the Oscar buzz really begins. As usual, I was happy and disappointed by the choices. Happy that so many good films are being recognized. Disappointed that such a good one as Lee Daniels’ The Butler didn’t make the cut for “Best Picture,” or that the Saudi Arabian Wadjda and British-South African Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom were not honored. I suspect that we still are living in a time when the inclusion of a “black” film is a token gesture, so that there is room for just one such film on the list.
The Academy’s list differs greatly from my Top Ten List for Visual Parables because their criteria are centered more on aesthetics and box office success than spiritual or moral content. To see the list and also reviews of the various films available on visualparables.org click onto the title.

Best Picture

It is good that so many films are again included, though I wish that there were the full possible contingent of 10 so as to include either the Coen Brothers’ wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis or Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Despite the quality of such films as American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, I don’t think either is equal to the two omitted films.

American Hustle

David O. Russell’s “based on a true story” film features some wonderful performances, but the subject of the rise and fall of scam artists isn’t nearly as important as that of several of the other films on the list.

Captain Phillips

This is a good parable of courage and resourcefulness, with another fine performance by Tom Hanks. Another plus factor is the all too brief depiction of the plight of the Somali peasants who are forced by world economic circumstances beyond their control (or understanding) to choose between starving or stealing. I find it remarkable that the Academy members seem to understand this by nominating the nonprofessional Barkhad Abdi for a “Best Supporting Actor” award for his excellent performance as the pirate leader.

Dallas Buyers Club

It is no surprise that Matthew McConaughey was nominated as “Best Actor” in this character transformation film. We move from intense disapproval of his philandering, gay bashing, and drug ingesting early in the film to a grudging admiration for the way he emerges from total self-absorption to championing the underdog gay community later on. That the film is based on a “true story” makes it even moe compelling.


Technically perhaps the most complicated of the films, and aesthetically perhaps the most beautiful, this tale of pluck and survival certainly deserves to be on the list, even though I did not include it on Visual Parables Top Ten list. Beyond the mere technical aspect is Sandra Bullock’s great performance as the heroine for whom our daughters can look up to.


Spike Jonze’s truly great film cautionary film about our relationship to our digital devices and r relationship to each other bumped the wonderful Wadjda from the Top Ten list for Presbyterian News Service because of its late arrival in the Cincinnati area. The last shot of the two friends sitting together on the roof of their apartment building is the perfect ending, designed to make us think about how we are involved with social media and friends and neighbors.


This reversal of the Prodigal Son parable confirms that Alexander Payne is one of the best directors in Hollywood. Seldom has unconditional love been presented as effectively as in what the son does for his father through the course of their trip from Montana to Nebraska and back.


Both a social problem film (the mistreatment of out of wedlock mothers by the Irish Catholic Church) and a personal memoir, this is a moving story of a woman of faith so strong that she can forgive the nuns who sorely abused her 50 years earlier.

The Wolf of Wall Street

I think this “true story” is way too over the top to be on this list, as entertaining as it is. It is the name of its director Martin Scorsese and the performances of Leonardo De Caprio and Jonah Hill that swayed the Academy voters to nominate the film.

12 Years a Slave

This is my favorite candidate both because of the light it sheds on our dark past and the skill of  director Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s truly magnificent performance as the runaway who moves from total despair to acceptance to hope. I believe that it would be good for the country if this film were so honored, hopefully convincing more people to go and see it. Already the possibility of it being nominated has moved the studio to re-release it. I hope those who have seen the film will talk it up, maybe organizing a discussion group to explore the film’s relevance for today.

Best Actor

I am torn between three of the excellent nominees.

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Very good as a guy who scams the gullible, yet who still has a touch of decency so that he tries to protect a good-hearted politician who unwisely attempts to use underhanded means to achieve public good.

Bruce Dern, Nebraska
This may be the last chance that this fine second tier actor for this award, so I would be happy if it he is chosen, even though my favorite is the star of 12 Years a Slave.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
One of our finest actors, but I think this should not be his year in a film that is not as important as some others.

Matthew McConaughy, Dallas Buyers Club
He is deserving of the title because of the incredible preparation involving weight loss, as well as his on-screen performance. He convincingly moves us from repulsion to acceptance.

Chiwetel Ojiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Both because of the importance of the film and because of his on-screen performance, I hope he wins. When I watched that scene at the slave cemetery wherein we see his face change from despair to hope as his friends sang “Roll, Jordan Roll,” I felt that he had at least a nomination clenched, if not the award itself.

Best Actress

Amy Adams, American Hustle
A wonderful performance, but…

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
It is good to see Woody Allen back in great form, as well as Ms. Blanchett’s fine performance as a woman who is her own worst enemy.

Sandra Bullock, Gravity
A very good performance to place along the one in Blindside.

Judi Dench, Philomena
My favorite to win because of the importance of the film’s theme of discovery and forgiveness, as well as her delightful performance.

Still another great performance by this phenomenal actress, I would not be too disappointed if she noses out Ms. Dench. What a portrait of a woman so shaped by her own sad childhood that she is making everyone else as miserable as herself!

This probably enough for now, though I do want to add that I have seen but one of the foreign films nominated--part of the penalty for living in “fly over country” is that we often are weeks or months late in seeing films available much earlier on the West and East coasts. Still, because of the great way that the themes of unjust persecution and reconciliation are tied in with the celebration of the Nativity, I am rooting for The Hunt.

Other nominations worth thinking about, but not now:

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best supporting actress

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Best director

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Foreign Film  The Hunt, Denmark