Frantz (2016)

(German/French with English subtitles)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.

Our content ratings  (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,[b]
and my bones waste away.

Psalm 31:9-10


Pierre is a welcome guest at the Hoffmeister home. (c) Music Box Films

Most of the main characters are in distress in French director François Ozon’s post World War 1 tale set in the small town of Quedlinburg, Germany. Twenty-some Anna (Paula Beer) is the depressed fiancée of Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke), but they will never marry because he was killed in the trenches near the end of the war. She is currently living with his grieving parents, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stoetzner) and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber). They regard her as a daughter, perhaps more so because Frantz had been their only child. Thus, when the middle-aged patient he is currently examining, known only as Kreutz (Johann von Buelow), reveals his desire to marry Anna, it is from the doctor that he seeks permission to court her. When Kreutz tells her that he can make her forget Frantz, she promptly turns him down, saying that she does not want to forget him.

During her daily pilgrimage to the cemetery where the family has created a symbolic grave (Frantz’s body having been tossed into a mass grave at the front), Anna spies a young man placing roses on it. When she asks around, she is told that he is Adrien Rivoir (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman staying at the local hotel. Later that day he comes to the Hoffmeisters’ to speak with the doctor, but the embittered old man orders him out of the house when his visitor tells him that he is French. Hans would not allow for any explanation. “Every French man is my son’s murderer,” he exclaims, his visitor agreeing that all soldiers are murderers. However, when Pierre returns and speaks with Anna and Magda, they are won over by his claim to have been a good friend of Frantz, the latter such a Francophile that he had become fluent in French, even as he had learned German. Hans, who has been listening in on their conversation, soon joins them.

Over the course of the next few days Pierre brings comfort to the household by recounting their visits to the Louvre where they were drawn to a Manet portrait of a young man with his head thrown back. The two men were also bound together by their love of and performance of music, with Pierre, a violinist in an orchestra in Paris, helping Frantz to improve his violin technique.

A most emotional sequence is the one in which Hans opens his son’s violin case and asks Pierre to play, saying the instrument is a gift to him. Pierre gently declines, but later, with all three Germans together, he does play a lovely melody for them. It looks like he and Anna are destined for each other when she joins in on the piano, their playing perhaps a symbol of the two once warring nations overcoming their old hostility and living together in harmony.

Countering this good feeling is a gnawing suspicion that the relationship between Pierre and Frantz might have been more than brotherly love, this fueled by the somewhat effeminate look of actor Pierre Niney. However, this conjecture is short lived. Pierre discloses something to Anna that is so shocking that she withdraws from him. She does not tell Hans and Magda Pierre’s secret, and soon after this he leaves town.

From Paris Pierre writes to her, but she hesitates to respond, torn so by her emotions. Before his abrupt departure, he had been scheduled to dine with the family. She lies to the couple about him, and this too is so disturbing to her that she confesses to her priest, revealing the terrible secret Pierre had confided to her. The cleric kindly observes that sometimes a lie can be better than telling the truth if the latter would bring only pain, and that there can be forgiveness for this.

By the time Anna replies to Pierre, her letter is returned, marked address unknown. In a turmoil, she does something irrational and deadly, but eventually emerges from her despair with the determination to go to Paris to search for Pierre. Her “parents” strongly support this, they also being very fond of their former enemy.

Besides the issue of telling lies to protect loved ones from pain, the film deals with the dark feelings of anger and resentment that war leaves in its aftermath. While in the village, some of the villagers express their hatred for the visiting Frenchman. Kreutz appears to be the head of a group that meet at the pub to grouse over their defeat in the War and to look toward a day when their country will be strong enough to thrust aside the humiliations forced upon it—we can easily imagine that in a few years they will be wearing Nazi armbands. When Pierre takes Anna to a local dance, Kreutz, upset because Anna had refused his invitation to take her, stirs up the crowd against the Frenchman.

Much later in the film, Hans enters the pub where Kreutz and his gang have been criticizing the doctor for his hospitality toward Pierre. One by one the men turn down Hans offer to buy them a round of drinks. When they attack the French for killing their sons (almost all of them had lost a boy), Hans launches a diatribe that ends with, “Who killed your boys? Who sent them to the front?” he asks accusingly. “We did: their fathers. We are responsible.” In Paris Anna also experiences the narrow, hostile patriotism of the French when at a café, the crowd joins in singing “La Marseillaise.” Ozon probably intends for us to recall the stirring scene in Casablanca when the patrons at Rick’s nightclub sang the anthem as a means of protesting the presence of the Nazi officers. What a difference the context makes, as in this film it is used to show the exclusion of Anna due to the lingering hatred between the two nations.

In the last act of the film the focus is almost entirely upon Anna’s emerging from the protection of and dependency upon the Hoffmeisters during her journey to Paris to find Pierre. She visits the Louvre, seeking out the Manet painting that Pierre had said was so impressive. She is surprised to discover that it is “The Suicide,” a subject as dark as the state of Pierre’s and her soul. Tracking down Pierre to an estate some distance from Paris, ruled over by Pierre’s aristocratic mother (Cyrielle Clair), leads to another unsettling discovery. And yet Anna’s message to the kind Hoffmeisters at the end seem to bear out Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Still, we wonder about her future and the wisdom of lying in order to protect loved ones from the pain of truth.

This is a fascinating film about complex people dealing with emotions that still resonate almost a hundred years later—the hostility between nations and their people. The film is shot mostly in crisp black and white, slowly morphing into color a few times: when we see Frantz and Pierre in France visiting the Louvre and playing their violins; and Anna and Pierre emerging from a dark tunnel in a huge rock overlooking the village and relishing the beautiful view of village and surrounding area; and, especially the film’s closing shot of Anna. Not knowing of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch dramatic film Broken Lullaby upon which Ozon has based his film, I was surprised by Pierre’s revelation that led to his sudden departure from Germany. The film is time specific, but the themes of guilt and grace are not. Even if you are averse to subtitled films, you should see this one.

This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.

Land of Mine (2015)

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content rating: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21


In his Oscar-nominated film, Danish director/writer Martin Zandvliet gives us a new slant on WW 2, as well as an always needed lesson on human decency. It is May, 1945, and though there is much fighting still ahead in Germany, the five-year-long nightmare of Nazi occupation is over for the people of Denmark. But as we will see, there are two lingering effects of that Nazi occupation—a deeply embedded hatred for their conquerors, and the dangerous land mines that the Germans had planted along the long western coast of the country just in case the Allies might try to come ashore there. Indeed, there are from a little over one million to two million of them.

Just before the title the film begins, we see a long column of German prisoners being marched along a country road. Danish Army Sgt. Rassmussen (Roland Moller) is heading in the opposite direction when he spots a prisoner carrying a Danish flag, obviously intending it as a souvenir. Stopping, he springs out and starts beating and kicking the man. He even hits another German who protests the cruel beating as he cries out that they must, “Get lost!” They do not belong, nor are they welcome here. “This my land,” he says. Thus, the film’s title takes on a double meaning.

Jump to a group of a group of German teenage boys who ae members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia created by the desperate Hitler because there were no more adult men available for fighting.  The gruff-voiced Lt. Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is telling them that since Germans planted the mines, it will be Germans who will clear them. He informs them, “Denmark is not your friend. No one wants to see you here.” Their brief training period of defusing the mines ends with each of them entering an enclosed area to defuse a live mine. As each boy nervously unscrews the cap and slowly removes the fuse, tension mounts. The exceeding nervous boy is the one whom we expect to fail, but—.

The remaining boys are given over to the care of Sgt. Rassmussen, who harbors the same hateful hostility toward them exhibited by Ebbe. He harshly addresses them on the section of the beach they are assigned to clear. They must clear 45,000 before they will be allowed to go home. Among the dozen and a half boys are twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), bricklayers who are looking forward to returning to their homeland because there will be so much work for them in restoring its bombed-out buildings. Helmut (Joel Basman) is the cynical malcontent, always seeing the worst side of things. The opposite of Helmut is Wilhelm (Leon Seidel), always looking on the bright side. Emerging as the group’s natural leader is Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), and even he looks like he should be attending high school classes rather dressed in a German uniform.

The boys are set to work, toiling fearfully as they unscrew the mine caps and slowly remove the fuses. The Sergeant drives them relentlessly, herding them before sundown into a shed that he locks by dropping a bar across the door. About a hundred or so yards away a woman (Laura Bro) whose beach side farmstead they’re quartered on often gazes at them with disdain. Her little daughter Elizabeth (Zoe Zandvliet) is too young to know to hate them, so when one of the boys approaches her to talk and bandages the damaged leg of her doll, the girl is all smiles. Their friendly exchange ends abruptly when the mother storms over to them, sternly warning her daughter to stay away from the Germans.

As the days pass, hunger grips the boys. Neither when they arise, nor when they are penned in at night is there any food. At first there are just complaints among the boys about their lack of meals, but as the days go by, they become faint, even sick, with hunger. The latter effect comes about after one of them sneaks out at night and brings back some grain from the woman’s shed. The next day the boys are vomiting. When the angry Rassmussen investigates, the woman explains that there were animal droppings amidst the grain. Sebastian tries to apologize that he did not prevent the boy from sneaking out, but Rassmussen wants no talking from him.

At last, concerned for the slow progress of their work, rather than for the boys’ welfare, Rassmussen takes it upon himself to go and appropriate some food. The next morning the first boy out the door is pleasantly surprised to find loaves of bread and a small pile of vegetables awaiting them. Slowly as the boys make progress Rassmussen’s attitude begins to change toward Sebastian as they begin to talk together.  One night as he is putting the cross bar in place, he drops it, leaving the door unbarred. No doubt an incident from another night hastened him on a new course. He had witnessed Epp and a couple of his men viciously humiliate one of the boys and had hastened to stop the abuse.  Also, Epp had criticized him for sneaking food out for the boys. When the hands of one of the boys are blown off, the Sergeant especially softens. He even joins the group in a spirited game of soccer and cheers them on when they set up foot races on the beach. During a conversation with Sebastian he almost becomes fatherly toward the boy. The film seems to be following the usual path of the curmudgeon coming over to the side of the despised, but then something terrible happens that revives Rassmussen hatred of all things German, and the boys are abruptly worst off than before. By now we have become to care deeply for these boys, so that when one of them breaks under the intolerable strain with tragic consequences, we feel their hurt and despair. What transpires in the last act of the film  lifts our spirits again, reviving our hope in humanity.

This is a film that could not have been produced during the years following the war when everything pointed to the bestiality of the Germans and the nobility of the Allies. Only with the passage of years have filmmakers shown that there is a dark side to all humans, that the Danes, who so nobly saved the lives of so many Jews, were also capable of cruelty toward the enemy. It helps that the filmmaker chose boys as the prisoners rather than hardened older soldiers. It would be almost impossible to arouse in the audience compassion for Nazis guilty of so many atrocities toward peasants and Jews alike. There is no talk of politics among the boys, no indication that any of them had been fanatical members of the Hitler Youth pouring out with uplifted arms their adoration for their  Führer. Only boys expressing their hopes and dreams of returning to their homes. When Epp betrays them (the remnant, that is, who survive a horrendous accident) by sending them to another beach encampment to remove still more mines, instead of to their homeland as promised, we see that he is little better than the Nazis who had driven him so deeply into hatred and prejudice. (As I write this, the end scene of the animated version of Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind in which the farm animals, once enslaved to a human, watch their leader, the pig named Napoleon, in the house playing cards with a human and they cannot tell the difference between the two.) Powerless to counter the orders of his superior, Rassmussen is left to decide what he should do in the face of such injustice.

This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.


An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story (2016)

Documentary. Running time: c. 1 hour. Our star rating: 5


NOTE TO VIEWERS—This thought-provoking documentary is available on DVD via a link to Journey Films, at the end of this review—however, it also will be airing on public television’s WORLD Channel on April 16, 2017. Check your cable listings to see if the channel is available to you. There also is a paperback book, from Eerdmans Publishing and Amazon, that is a companion volume to the documentary.

Film Review:

I always look forward to a new Martin Doblmeier documentary, so many of which, like his Bonhoeffer, first being offered to the public on PBS. His latest is on the American mid-20th century theologian who is still read today, and not just by theologians, but by politicians as well. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were avid readers of his works, and a prominent political analyst, the New York Times writer David Brooks, also appreciates Niebuhr’s keen insights into group and individual behavior and ethics. This is a fine documentary that combines archival stills, news clips, various experts, many of them well-known, commenting upon the man and his writings. By the end of the film the average person who knows Niebuhr only as the author of the famous Serenity Prayer will have a much fuller appreciation of this major influence upon American life ever since he came into prominence in the 1930s.

Through visuals and words, we follow Niebuhr from his birth in the Midwest to his time as a prophetic pastor in an urban Detroit church (which under his leadership grew from under 100 to 700 members) to his call to teach at New York City’s prestigious Union Theological Seminary, despite the fact that he did not possess a Ph. D. This lack created some raised eyebrows and disdain among his faculty peers, but the theology he gained through the experience of working in a city environment was so perceptive that he gained the respect of all who heard or read him, especially when his Moral Man and Immoral Society was published in 1932. Keenly aware of what was going on in Germany, he was responsible for bringing Paul Tillich to Union, and also for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short stay.

Many of those associated with President Roosevelt were influenced by Niebuhr, as well as JFK. Dr. King credits him with leading him out of the naïve liberalism of his seminary days, though disagreeing with him concerning pacifism. His insight from the Scriptures and his experience that an individual person is apt to be more loving than when in a group, and that our goal in society is to bring justice as close to love as possible, still resonates today.

We also learn from the film what a great companion his wife Ursula Kepple-Compton was, herself a scholar and teacher who helped him write several of his books. His brother Helmut Richard Niebuhr also was quite famous, and still is, thanks to his book Christ and Culture. As a result of inter-faith activities Niebuhr became friends with the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, so much so that before his death he asked for him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The widowed Mrs. Heschel is one of those who are interviewed in the film.

The film’s many other contributors include the already mentioned David Brooks, former President Jimmy Carter, theologian Cornel West, civil rights leader Andrew Young, theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Ron Stone, Niebuhr’s daughter Elizabeth Sifton, and many scholars and political activists.

Director Doblmeier clearly has done his homework, providing us with a picture of a man living in challenging times who lives on in his important writings and the careers of so many who readily admit their indebtedness to him.

This highly entertaining film would make a for a fine study for an adult church school class. Were I to use it, I would have the group watch the entire film during the first class, and then watch & discuss it in 10 to 15 minute segments for another 3 to 5 class sessions.

The DVD is available for $19.95 from Journey Films ( or

New! Visual Parables Journal for March 2017

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The March 2017 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: A Dog’s Purpose, Get Out, The Red Turtle, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, The Comedian, Toni Erdmann, and many more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.


The Red Turtle (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 20 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Genesis 2:18


When his raft is destroyed a 3rd time, the man discovers what has been preventing his escape from the island. (c) Sony Picture Classics

British-Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s first feature length animated film takes up the shipwreck starting point of Robinson Caruso and Castaway, but then forges its own path to a conclusion about survival and making a home. Based on their admiration of his widely admired two short films, Japan’s Studio Ghibli invited him to make a feature-length film, however he wanted to. They provided such excellent supporters as the studio’s Isao Takahata* and Hayao Miyazaki. (It would be fascinating to have been present during their interchanges.) This French-Belgian-Japanese production probably will appeal more to adults than children, due to its slow pace and almost total lack of dialogue, but there are enough elements, especially a gang of amusing crabs, that make this a good choice for a family outing.

We plunge into the middle of the action with an un-named mariner tossed about by huge waves, his ship apparently having sunk. He manages to swim to an island on which a forest of bamboo and fruit trees surround a bald mountain gently sloping upwards. Just about everywhere he goes, he is followed by the group of crabs. Indeed, it was one of these crawling up his trouser leg that had awakened him on the beach. They are not anthropomorphized, but they add a touch of whimsy to the proceedings.

Obviously longing for home, he dreams one night of a bridge leading away from the island. Then of a costumed string quartet playing on the beach at low tide. We knew he is Caucasian; now that he must be a European. He discovers edible fruit in the forest, and potable water in a pool located in the center of the island. The man builds a raft from the abundant supply of bamboo, using a small tree with thick foliage as his sail. Setting forth toward the open sea, he feels something from below bumping the vessel, but he is unable to discover what it is. Then with louder thumps, the unseen creature demolishes the raft. He starts over again. Same thing happens. The third time is no charm, but the man does learn what his nemesis is—a large red turtle. Back to shore again.

The mystery as to why the turtle opposes his leaving unfolds slowly. When the creature is washed ashore, the man vengefully flips it on its back, leaving it to slowly die of dehydration. But then it shapeshifts into a lovely red-headed maiden. The man no longer attempts to flee, the pair making do with the resources of the island to make a comfortable life for themselves, and the son they eventually produce. Not that their life is entirely an Eden: the boy falls into the same deep crevice with water at the bottom that the father had years earlier, but also manages to swim through a subterranean tunnel to rejoin his parents. And years later, a tsunami sweeps across the island, leaving us to wonder for a while if all the family members have survived. Many decades after the man had swum ashore the story ends in a bittersweet way, foreign to any Disney film.

The hand-drawn figures are simple, the animators spending more effort on the details of the jungle and sea. Those who delight in walking along a beach, or sitting while the sun rises or sets, will love the colors. The night scenes, of which there are many, are in black and white. In addition to the resplendent visual beauty, composer Laurent Perez Del Mar’s musical score enhances the action and makes one feel the beauty of woods, sky and sea. The effect of the music perhaps is heightened by the lack of any dialogue, the only discernable word being a “Hey,” uttered by the man early on when he is frustrated by his failure to leave the island. One might consider this Oscar-nominated film as a visual meditation of life and loss, ameliorated by unexpected companionship.

*Mr. Takahata directed my favorite anime’ film, the haunting Grave of the Fireflies, about an orphaned Japanese brother and little sister, bombed out and living on the streets of Kobe near the end of WW 2. I see that my review, published in another magazine many years ago has been lost, so I’ll have to rewrite it, this being a wonderful film that should be widely known.

This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.

The Salesman (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours   min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;

they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

Psalm 58:10

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’

Romans 12:19


Iranian Amad & wife Rana star in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman. (c) Amazon Studios

It is unfortunate that Iranian director/writer Asghar Farhadi, who in 2011 gave us A Separation, was prevented by international politics from accepting his Oscar for The Salesman. At least he was able to receive in person the Oscar for his 2011 film. His new film, paying tribute to the American drama Death of a Salesman, is a powerful study of vengeance and its effects on a group of residents of present day Tehran.

The married Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) Etesami hastily leave their apartment when it appears that the building is close to collapsing. Their friend offers them another apartment but fails to inform them that its former occupant was forced to leave because she practiced the “world’s oldest profession.” She has left behind many of her possessions in a storage closet, but has refused to come and remove them.  The couple, members of an amateur drama troupe, have been rehearsing a scene from Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winner, the husband playing Willy Loman, and his wife playing Linda.

The play recedes in importance when a former client of the woman sneaks into the apartment one night while Amad is away and Rana is taking a shower—she had pressed the admittance buzzer believing that it was her husband. The stranger sexually assaults her, but she fights back, injuring his foot in the process. He flees, leaving splotches of his blood behind. The enraged Rana wants to call the police, but Rana is so traumatized that she cannot bare to go through the humiliating interrogation process.

Amad is a high teacher, well-liked by his students, but Rana is now so fearful that she does not want him to leave her alone in the apartment. Feeling guilt that he had not been able to protect her, he goes back to their old apartment, where he finds some clues that will set him forth on an obsessive search for the rapist. This leads to a third act that is as powerful as any that I have seen regarding the passionate desire to extract vengeance and a plea to “let it go.” Little wonder that Shahab Hosseini has won acting awards in Europe for his portrayal of the aggrieved husband, and the film so many awards. We see the opposing sentiments of the two Scriptures quoted above embodied in both the husband and the wife in this memorable film. Do not let the subtitles keep you from seeking out this striking film.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.

Amazon Studios

I am Not Your Negro (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees,

and that write grievousness which they have prescribed;

To turn aside the needy from judgment,

and to take away the right from the poor of my people,

that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!

Isaiah 10:1-2 (KJV)

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Matthew 12:29-31


Malcolm X & MLK, Jr. were friends of James Baldwin.          (c) Magnolia Pictures

When I was in seminary and early ministry James Baldwin through his provocative writings made a deep impression on me. Many times, I quoted his statement that being a black man in America meant being in a perpetual state of rage. His polemical The Fire Next Time I regarded as every bit of a God-sent prophecy as the denunciations of injustice hurled forth by Amos and Jeremiah. And now we see, thanks to this work by film-director prophet-Raoul Peck, that Baldwin’s words are as relevant today as they were a half century ago. Despite what the naïve Supreme Court justices thought when they ripped out the heart of the Civil Rights Act, racism is still almost as strong as it was when Jim Crow laws kept “Negroes” in their place. Racism has just gone underground, those still under its sway defending themselves by using the term “political correctness” against anyone who would call them out on their remarks and acts (usually disguised by code words and phrases such as “law and order”).

The Haitian-born filmmaker in a way finishes a work that Baldwin was working on at the time of his death in 1987, Remember This House. He had completed just 30 pages and was hoping to visit the survivors of the three prophets he had cherished as friends, murdered between 1963 and 1967, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As we see words addressed to his literary agent typed onto the screen, Baldwin wanted “these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.”

The author’s text from his unfinished book are scattered throughout the film, read forcefully by Samuel L. Jackson. We hear Baldwin himself in numerous clips from his TV appearances and speeches on college campuses. All of these provide evidence of what an articulate and courageous observer he was, a true prophet willing to call out liberal whites, as well as rabid segregationists, on their shortcomings. Whites too often, Baldwin observed, thought racism to be an individual affair, conquered by converting the individual, when in reality it was systemic, embedded in our culture. The director also inserts archival photos and news clips from Civil Rights demonstrations and clips of his three friends, as well as photos and clips from ads demeaning to blacks, the latter including scenes from Hollywood films. None of the black screen characters, he says, acted like any black person he knew.

The film clips will be of special interest to VP readers. They go back to the silent era’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin­ and the Thirties era King Kong, Dance, Fool, Dance, and the Stepin Fetchit movies with their negative image of blacks. Films from later on include Imitation of Life, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Defiant Ones. Baldwin’s comments on the latter remind me of my surprise years ago, when I first read his report of the reaction to the film of the audience in Harlem (I think this was in The Fire Next time.). Like other whites, I saw the film, about a black and a white convict (played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) escaping while still chained together, as an appeal to racial brotherhood because their hatred of each other slowly changes to mutual respect. Blacks saw it otherwise. The two convicts manage to break the chain that had bound them together. When Poitier’s character jumps aboard a slow-moving freight train, Curtis’ almost reaches the black’s outstretched hand, so he can be pulled aboard. Failing to do so, the black jumps off, now unwilling to abandon his friend. Baldwin approvingly reports that the black audience yelled, “Fool! Get back on the train!” The author points out that liberal depictions of black-white relations in film are attempts to get blacks to let whites off the hook and make them feel better without really facing up to the enormous damage that racism has inflicted on blacks—and on whites as well.

Early Hollywood’s negative view of blacks was carried over into print, a series of shameful magazine ads depicting blacks only in servant roles, adding a touch of color to the mostly B&W documentary. (Aunt Jemima was just one of many such servile characters.)

Just as traditional Christianity teaches the total depravity of humanity, Baldwin teaches the total depravity of American society because of the embedded racism in it. Indeed, he fled his native land to Paris so that he could experience for the first time a sense of freedom, but felt compelled to return to the U.S. when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. He says that he wanted to be a witness (and participant) to the struggle to change America, rather than watch if from afar.

Baldwin wrote as an outsider, pointing out that he was not Black Muslim, a Black Panther, nor a Christian –the latter, he says because the church did not practice the command to love the neighbor. He also might have added that the intense loathing of homosexuals of most of church leaders and members at the time also put him outside its pale. (There is just one mention of his homosexuality in the film, revealed in an excerpt from a report by the FBI that kept a watch on him because Hoover saw the writer as Communist endangering the security of America.)

Because of his repeatedly calling out the “moral apathy of American whites’, viewers might be reminded of Baldwin’s friend’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which Dr. King denounced his Southern white detractor’s, some of whom considered themselves liberal, and complained that he was pushing racial matters too hastily. By including scenes from Ferguson and recent police beatings and shootings (including Trayvon Martin’s murder), the director shows that the Black Lives Matter movement is very much needed.

This is truly a movie that matters, and should be seen and discussed along with another film that ought to dispel illusions that racism has been defeated, Ava DuVerna’s 13th. Some have called racism “America’s Original Sin.” When Jesus’s summary of the Law is read, it is apparent that it is indeed the church’s, given the long history of so many of its members’ complicity in the slave trade, slavery, and the maintenance of segregation. All religious leaders who believe that the Scriptures have relevance to current life should be calling this important film to their people’s attention!

In closing, I leave you with these Baldwin quotes to ponder:

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Note: This director’s film Lumumba can also be found on this site.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.