A United Kingdom (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

 On every side the wicked prowl…
as vileness is exalted among humankind.

Psalm 12:1-2, 8

Famly

Seretse & Ruth Khama (with their daughter) stand against racism & colonialism in this powerful film. (c) Fox Searchlight Presents

Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s exquisite film is based on Susan Williams’ well-received 2007 book Color Bar. It seems remarkable to me that this story of an interracial love story should come out upon the heels of Loving. Asante’s film is about an international romance, whereas the latter is a domestic one in this country, but each had widespread repercussions. The state of Virginia’s attempt to destroy the Lovings’ marriage led to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down miscegenation laws. A United Kingdom had an international impact. When the British government, appeasing South Africa’s apartheid government, tried to prevent Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the latter a London office worker, from marrying, there was an uproar in both England and Africa. The film’s title is a cleverer one than the book’s in that it makes us think of Ruth Williams’ home country, while at the same time taking on an ironic twist, in that the fierce debate over the interracial marriage threatened to make Seretse’s homeland, the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, anything but united.

Seretse Khama is descended from a long line of Bechuanaland chiefs who bore the title of king. He has been in England to study law while his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) serves as regent. In 1947 in London at a church-sponsored dance he meets Ruth, they discover they have a love for jazz and dancing, and after a whirlwind romance, she accepts his proposal of marriage. One night on a street they learn depth of racism in England when several thugs attack them while they are out walking. British government representative Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) appears at Ruth’s office to warn her that their marriage is unacceptable to the government, and her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) tells her he will refuse to see her if she goes through with her plans. The two are sobered by the opposition, but decide to go ahead anyway. From the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, the clergy are against the interracial marriage, so they pledge themselves to each other in a civil marriage. So much for the church boldly preaching God’s love for all of humanity!

In Africa, many of the crowd awaiting them in front of the family home welcome them, but the uncle sends Ruth into the house while he engages in a long talk with his nephew, the substance being that he refuses to accept a white woman as their queen. Inside, Seretse’s aunt and sister serve Ruth with refreshments, but treat her coldly. Saying that a queen must be of and know her people, they charge that her marriage is demeaning to the women of their country.

The native tribal council accepts the marriage, to the chagrin of the local British officials and Uncle Tshekedi, who states that he will no longer accept Seretse as the future king. The couple are ordered to return to England so that they can deal in person with the government, but Seretse, seeing this as a plan that would prevent Ruth from returning to the country, convinces her she must stay behind.

We then follow them as they live apart, Ruth, after suffering an illness, slowly winning over her sister-in-law and others by her genuine interest in the welfare of the impoverished people. In London, Seretse faces the duplicity and racism of various government officials, even Winston Churchill, although we never see this iconic politician. We do see Clement Atlee, who appears bent on placating the new racist South African government that in 1950 is setting up its apartheid system, he also joining in on the plot to discredit and keep Seretse from returning to his country.  Told at first that he is exiled for five years, when Churchill returns to power, the new P.M. bans him for life, despite having claimed during the election process that he favored lifting the ban.

The courage and love of the two lovers is put to the test by all this opposition, with Seretse prevented from being present when Ruth births their first child, a daughter. Just what a plucky woman this former office typist is we see when she has to drive herself to the hospital. Earlier she had refused “the best doctor in Africa” because it would have meant traveling to South Africa.

The filmmakers probably turn the government officials into stereotypes, much as some American filmmakers have done with Southern “rednecks.” Many of the issues and history also have been simplified, but the film is not meant to be a documentary. It is a story, and all the better because it is basically a true one. The intrigue involving a mining company searching for diamonds is especially shortened, though it is made clear that the Brits would have loved to be able to claim the rights to the minerals by changing the status of Bechuanaland from a protectorate to a colony, hence their scheming to prevent Seretse from gaining power.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are well suited to their roles as the embattled couple bound by a love so strong that they will take on the world to maintain their bond. Quiet and unassuming in private, he becomes passionate when he addresses his people, telling him that he loves and wants to serve them, but that he also loves his wife and must have her by his side. Ms. Pike has us rooting for her as she moves from the ordinary life of a London typist, willing to lose her family for the sake of love and move to a totally unfamiliar land, where she is regarded by both the white colonials and most of the black population as an interloper.

The audience loved the Gandhian scene in Africa when the colonial officials have called for a mass meeting of the people to hear the terms of the new order they will live under. The camera shows us the officials, their wives, and the military brass all gathered on the platform. Then it is revealed that the field in front of them is empty. By now most of the people have accepted Ruth and the position of her husband, so they refuse to show up. Later on, the impasse between Seretse and his uncle is resolved in a very creative way, the scene of their reconciliation being a moving moment in the film. What an enchanting true story of the power of love and courage standing against racism and colonial oppression. Even more so when the end notes inform us that Seretse, after renouncing his claim to the crown, was elected president of the new nation of Botswana—and that he did not succumb, as far too many other African leaders did, to the lure of power and wealth.

Note: If you enjoyed this film, you will also want to see Ms. Amma Asante’s other film reviewed on this site, Belle, about a mixed-race woman in 18th century. Also, for more about Botswana see History Today’s50 Years of Botswana.

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

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

MalcKingBldwn

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.

 

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 7 min. Our content ratings:

Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

Psalm 9:9-19

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Dorothy leads her co-workers in what amounts to a march of triumph after she has enabled them to staff the new IBM room. (c) Fox 2000

A long time ago (1983) we were treated to the story of a group of white men who, according to author Tom Wolfe, had The Right Stuff, the seven hot shot Air Force jet pilots chosen for the Mercury 7 Program. What we did not know then was that behind those astronauts was a group of mathematics geniuses making sure that they returned to earth safely at the place where they could be picked up by our forces—and that many of these were female African Americans, who also had the right stuff. Their story, which includes their struggle for liberation in a racist, patriarchal world, is wonderfully told in this film based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book and directed by Theodore Melfi.

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Katherine Johnson had to be strong to not only survive, but thrive, amidst a sea of white hostility. (c) Fox 2000

The film, centering on Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), begins years before the 1960s when Katherine was recognized as a child prodigy in math and rewarded with a full college scholarship, enrolling at an age when other children her age were just beginning high school. Jump ahead in time, when we see three friends in a car stalled along a Virginia highway leading to Hampton Virginia’s Langley Research Center. One of them, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), is underneath the front of the car tinkering with something in order to get the car started again. The other two, Katherine and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) see a state police car, with its red-light flashing, approaching from behind.

After a tense interchange featuring the usual white arrogance toward “coloreds” on display, the cop’s demeanor abruptly changes when their credentials prove that their claim to be NASA employees is true. Given that the USA is engaged in a frantic race to catch up to the Soviet Union in space, his patriotism wins out over his racism, and, because they are late for work, he offers a police escort right up to NASA’s gate. “The feistier of the three, Mary, declares, ““Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961!  Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”

I don’t know if this incident in this “based on a true story” actually happened, but it is an excellent way to illustrate that what the nation, and NASA in particular, needed then was a vision wider than the narrow inherited racist one. If only more of the whites with whom the three worked at the sprawling Langley facility had been more like that cop. When the three women were hired for their proficiency in mathematics, they were placed in a separate room marked “Colored Computers” because Virginia’s Jim Crow laws mandated separate work rooms, bathrooms, and dining areas wherever people worked. Today, long after IBM’s revolutionary computer breakthrough, we think of a computer as a thing. In the early 1960’s so were the three female mathematicians. They had two strikes against themselves—they were women, and worse, they were black. It becomes obvious that their white superior Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) regards Dorothy as a thing, rather than a person of worth.

When Katherine is promoted and moved to the Space Task Group, every eye of the white-shirted, dark tie-wearing men in the room are fixed on her as she warily finds her desk. The harassed chief Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the only one who ignores both her sex and race. When she has the audacity to pour a cup of coffee from the common urn, she finds the next day that someone has placed beside it a smaller pot (and presumably “equal” grade coffee) marked “Colored.” Worse, whenever she relieves herself, she must run to the only “Colored Restroom” available, located in a different building a half mile away. Her long bathroom breaks are noticed by everyone, as well as criticized, even though she takes her work with her. Her dashes to the restroom are shown so often, that it looks like the sequences could have been borrowed from Ground Hog Day.

The scene in which Harrison calls her on the carpet for her behavior is one of the film’s high points. The dam of pent up anger and frustration with the stupidity of the Jim Crow custom breaks, Katherine passionately lashing out with sharp words, leaving Harrison and her co-workers stunned. No doubt her colleagues surmise that this is the end of her career. Instead, there is the triumphant scene in which most of the black women stand by in a hallway and watch Harrison, a sledge hammer in hand, knocking down the large “Colored Bathroom” sign. Also, close by him is a security guard, who normally would gladly have enforced the Jim Crow rule, but now is helpless before the chief.

Katherine must also deal with her immediate boss Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), also a racist male chauvinist, who resents Harrison’s dictum that Katherine check his figures before submitting them to him. Stafford piles on the work and blacks out large portions of the reports he gives her. When she protests that she needs all the information to do her job verifying the figures, he smugly tells her that she does not have security clearance. Later, when he accompanies Harrison to meetings with the military in which details of launchings and landings are discussed, he refuses to include her, even though the decisions at the meetings change the numbers, thus rendering obsolete the many hours of work she has put into a report. Also, though she has done most of the work on a report, he refuses to allow her to add her name to his on the cover sheet.

Again, the scenes in which she is vindicated are sweet moments of triumph, topped probably by the scene in which astronaut John Glenn stops the countdown for his history making Friendship 7 orbit by insisting that one of “the girls” check the IBM machine’s numbers. When Harrison speaks with him on the phone, he asks “Which one,” to which Glenn replies, “The smart one.”

To the warm eulogies given John Glenn after his recent death I want to add how positively he is depicted in another scene as well. As played by Glen Powell, he is a dedicated astronaut with an unprejudiced eye. In the scene in which the Mercury astronauts visit the Langley Research Center, all the staff stand in straight-rowed groups on the field. True to Jim Crow dictates, the “colored” staff stands apart. The group of astronauts go down the line shaking hands, and, guided by their host, start to turn away before they reach the African Americans. However, Glenn leaves his comrades and strides over to the black women, exchanging pleasantries with Katherine and the others. If anyone in that period ever had “the right stuff” in its broadest sense, it was he.

The stories of Katherine’s two math whiz friends are also inspiring. Dorothy, who has been acting as the supervisor for the others in the “Colored Computers’ section, is treated with scarcely concealed condescension when she, several times, asks Vivian about the position vacated weeks before by the former supervisor. She also takes note of the large room into which the huge IBM machine is to be installed. (The planning was so poor that the wall around the small doorway must be smashed to get the computer moved in.) Once installed, the IBM staff is unable to get the main frame to work. Meanwhile, telling her friends that soon they will be made obsolete by the machine, the forward-looking Dorothy goes to Hampton’s white’s only Public Library to obtain a book on the computer language to be used with the machine. Of course, being black, she is hustled out by a security guard, but not before she has been able to hide on her person the sought-after manual.

Another of the delightful sequences of triumph comes when, after many days of studying the book and sneaking into the room to try to communicate with the computer, Dorothy is caught and chastised by the IBM staff. But when they read the print-out of her figures, their demeanor changes. Eventually not only Dorothy, as head of the division, but her black colleagues as well are staffing the room. As she leads the line of her colleagues to their new work quarters, the film not only gives a nod to The Right Stuff’s scene of the astronauts walking down a corridor, but also to the Civil Rights marches taking place in the South at that time. In my mind, as she led the women through the street and into the building housing the computer I could hear strains of “We Shall Overcome.”

The third story of quick-tonged Mary Jackson involves her seeking to become an engineer after a chief NASA engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, encourages her to look beyond her present situation. Also, supported by a husband who becomes chief caretaker of their children because of the incredibly long hours imposed by Al Harrison due to one more Soviet victory, she decides to seek an engineering degree. Her barrier, of course, is Virginia’s Jim Crow law closing public universities to blacks. Her solution is like the one in the scene with the racist cop. Eventually arguing her case before a judge all too willing to go along with Jim Crow, she lays aside her tartness and demurely appeals to the man’s patriotism. Once more love of country trumps racism.

Although it is their work on which the filmmakers focus the most, there are numerous scenes of their families and personal lives—even a romance. At her church worship service Dorothy’s pastor acknowledges her important NASA work, and also welcomes newcomer Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a National Guard officer. The latter is drawn to Dorothy at the church picnic, but gets off on the wrong foot when he expresses his surprise that a woman could do such important work. Later, when he apologizes for his ignorance and arrogance, she accepts and warms up to him, the two beginning to spend together what little personal time she has. Although not shown, their time together has obviously included her three daughters. In perhaps the most charming proposal scene I know of, they are included when, at the family dinner table to which she has returned home a bit late, Jim brings in not only a dish of food, but also a small case with the engagement ring once worn by his mother.

The ring-offering scene, plus so many others, make this such an inspiring film that I would gladly award it more than five stars my web site allows. The scenes in which former detractors come around to admire and acknowledge the women as equals remind me of the ending of the two films about the black Tuskegee Airmen during WW 2, the first, a TV film with that name, and the other, Red Tails—in each of them their once racist foes express their gratitude and admiration for how skillfully the black airmen had protected them during their bombing missions over enemy territory.

I have read that some of the white characters were made up by the filmmakers so as to visualize the racist culture surrounding the women. Indeed, Al Harrison is a composite of three different directors. So, we must regard this film as a representation of the historic period and not a historical record. But the three women are real, and they made great contributions to our space program, so much so that Katherine Johnson, the surviving one*, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on November 24, 2015. And her marriage is real, she and Col. Johnson having been married for 52 years. These and other facts about the three we are told as pictures of the actors and the women they portrayed are shown during the end credits.

The cast is as good as the script, revealing a slice of our history that justifies the “hidden” in the title. Why weren’t any of them at least mentioned in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13? I suppose for the same reason that we never saw black cowboys in Westerns until after their heyday in the Fifties. Hidden Figures will rank high on VP’s Top Ten list, the women clearly depicted as persons of faith. This is a film we should be encouraging our adolescent daughters and granddaughters to see, if they still are listening to us.

  • Mary Jackson died on February 11, 2005, and Dorothy Vaughan on November 10, 2008.

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

The Free State of Jones (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 19 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;     do not forget the oppressed.

Psalm 10:12

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.

Galatians 6:7

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In the swamp in which he hides Newt teaches the slave Rachel how to shoot. (c) STX Entertainment

Gary Ross, director and co-writer, opens up a little known chapter of the Civil War and Reconstruction in this engaging film. There is even a shorter parallel story set in the 1940s that deals with the legacy of the first one. Just as the real Knight was controversial—a noble supporter of the Union and champion of blacks vs. lawless murderer and manipulator of blacks and white—so is this film. I was especially intrigued by it because when I was a boy I was thrilled by the 1949 film Tap Roots. It starred the runner up for Scarlett O’Hara, Susan Hayward, who played the daughter of a Mississippi plantation owner against the Civil War. The film was based on a novel, so I assumed it was a fictional, to good to be true story. Now I learn that the fictional planter was indeed based on a real person.

In 1862 Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is serving as a medic in the Confederate Army. He hauls on a stretcher the broken and bleeding bodies of soldiers struck down by musket balls to the bloody, overcrowded surgical tent where doctors are sawing off legs and stitching wounds. Off duty he talks with comrades, ruefully noting that plantation owners with 20 slaves are allowed to keep their oldest sons home, and those with 20, their second oldest. Most seem to agree that this is a rich man’s war fought for their plantations and cotton, and that the cost is being born by poor men. He sees his society’s same stratification in the field hospital when he gives a wounded private an officer’s coat, telling him that officers are always tended to first.

When a neighbor’s boy whom he know3s is shot and dies from the wound, Newton takes the body back home to the mother in Jones County. He rejoins his wife Serena (Keri Russell) and young children. To feed the troops the Confederates send out patrols to seize crops, livestock and other supplies from the local farmers. Knowing this, Newton shows his wife and children how to load, cock, and fire guns, so when the patrol rides up, he, Serena, and all three children are holding guns pointed at the intruders. The officer in charge tries to bluff his way, but when the family refuses to lower its guns, he remounts his horse and says they will be back.

With the help of the female tavern owner and her slave, Will finds refuge in the nearby bayou after escaping from the hounds sent to track him down. Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) shows up that night to bandage the leg a dog had mauled. The two had met before when she had come to treat with herbs the fever of his son. She leads him to the encampment of a group of runaway slaves, chief of whom was Moses (Mahershala Ali), still wearing a barbarous contraption of four iron spikes joined to a neck collar. Eventually Newton is able to secure the smithy tools so that he can free the man who becomes a close friend. Rachel, a house slave, comes and goes bringing food and supplies.

Other whites, their farms robbed join the runaways. At first there is racial tension. When Moses is called a “nigger,” Newton points out that they all are. Slowly the whites understand this, seeing that they have been treated in the same way. As the group, called The Knight Company, grows in size and armament, Newton leads them on ambushes and raids of Confederate parties out gathering supplies. They even manage to pick the corn crop at one large plantation, the women shucking the ears as the men bring it in, then load the crop onto wagons for transporting to their bayou..

Lt. Barbour (Bill Tangradi) and his superior Col. Robert Lowry (Wayne Pére) dare not enter the bayou, but they post in the county seat of Ellisville the promise of pardons for any who turn themselves in. When several of the men and boys decide to accept the offer, they are seized as they emerge from the swamp, bound up, taken to a huge tree, and hung from its widespread branches. This rouses the fury of Newton and his men—and women. When the black-clad women escort two of the coffins to the local churchyard for burial, the Colonel and a number of his men are on hand. As the women enter the yard, they pull out pistols and kill the closest Confederates. Men jump out of the caskets and the wagons, also firing at the Rebels. From underneath the church Newton and some of his men open fire, the Confederates overwhelmed by the surprise attacks. Newton stalks the badly wounded Colonel into the church, where he wreaks Old Testament vengeance on him.

Much more happens, including an impending a counter attack by a force of a thousand Confederates, and Newton proclaiming to his forces in Ellisville “The Free State of Jones,” where “every man is a man” and “no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich.” When General Sherman, who has successfully invaded the state, refuses to send soldiers and armaments to him, Newton leads his force back into the swamp.

In a series of black and white photos we see that the war is ended, and Congress passes amendments to free the slaves and to give them the right to vote. In a fairly short segment we see the former slaves working their own land, and then when the whites, still controlling the government, pass a law that in effect continues slavery, Newton joins his black friends in rescuing a young son who has been ceased by his former owner and forced to work in the fields. When Congress sends in troops to enforce the Constitutional amendments by protecting blacks, and a Freedman’s School is set up, things look up for the blacks. The scene in which Newton and his black friends come to the courthouse to cast their votes is far tenser than the one I witnessed in 1964 at Cleveland, MS when I drove a black woman to the courthouse. Newt and his friends carried loaded and cocked shotguns, and they were met by angry whites, also armed and ready to exchange gunfire if anyone made a misstep. Inside the registrar tried to pretend that they were out of forms. When it became obvious that Newton and company were prepared to stay and wait him out, he relented, and the registrants were allowed to cast their ballots. However, it was the racists who did the counting, with the white candidate winning by over 400 to 2 votes.

There are more sobering scenes with the night-riding KKK burning homes and the church where the pro-Union people meet, and numerous lynchings. Then comes the fateful year of 1876 when the controversial election of President Hayes and his subsequent withdrawal of soldiers from the South allowed the racists whites to continue their oppression of blacks. Newton, withdrawing from politics, settles in with both Serena and Rachel (though the wives were in separate cabins), the film claiming the threesome living in harmony. History tells us that the fertile Newton sired nine children with Serena and five with Rachel, and that he lived until 1922.

That parallel 1948 story about Davis Knight, a descendant of Newton and Rachel, is told in bits and pieces, much of it in a Mississippi courtroom. He had fallen in love with a white woman, and because he and his kin were regarded as Negroes, was prosecuted as a violator of Mississippi’s miscegenation laws. This is dropped so suddenly into the more dramatic Civil War story that to many it seems obtrusive. It probably is, but still I was glad to know of this incident.

More serious objections against the film have been raised by critics attacking the filmmaker’s probable glossing over flaws in Newton and the simplistic depiction of racial harmony. It is true that Matthew McConaughey’s impassioned performance as the poor farmer turned rebel against the Rebels sweeps us away, so that we accept him as the saintly hero, very much akin to that of the figure in the song that the Knight Company sings, “John Brown’s Body.” And yet his killing of the Confederate colonel in a church and his liaison with Rachel during his wife’s absence, as well as his choosing to live intimately with both women after the war—these and other less than saintly acts show us what a flawed character he was. This is in keeping with the way in which so-called “Bible heroes” are depicted in the Old Testament, figures with plenty of unsavory flaws whom God could nonetheless use in his ever-continuing move to free the downtrodden and oppressed. The film too may be flawed, but it is one that those who care about social justice should feel duty-bound to see.

 This review with a set of discussion questions is in the July issue of VP.

 

The Hateful Eight (2016)

Rated G. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 9; Language 5; Sex 4/Nudity 2 .

Our star rating (1-5): 4

They are free from common human burdens;

they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace;

they clothe themselves with violence.

From their callous hearts comes iniquity their evil imaginations have no limits

Psalm 73:5-7

MajDaisyRuth

Major Warren, Daisy, & John Ruth.     (c) The Weinstein Co.

Although I loved Pulp Fiction because of its unusual theme of grace running through its three stories, I have since had ambiguous feelings about Quentin Tarantino other films. His re-imagining of World War Two and the old West in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained show him on the side of justice, but his overly embracement of redemptive violence makes his films as bloody as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He continues on this gory path with this new film, and maybe, as some have charged, added more than a touch of misogamy. The characters in this twisted tale certainly live up to the film’s title. Despite my qualms, one striking image in the film makes me wonder if the writer/director intends us to see this as his version of the Passion Story set in post-Civil War Wyoming.

Crucifx

The image referred to above is the opening one of a large weathered Crucifix standing alongside the road traveled by a stagecoach. The camera lingers on the close-up of Christ’s face, the wood or stone (hard to tell) a weathered grayish color. Then very slowly the camera pulls back to reveal the full figure and then the road. The statue is partially covered by snow, which also blankets the countryside. More snow is falling from the clouded sky, driven by a wind that promises that a blizzard is on the way. The Crucifix stands in mute witness to the faith of Spanish explorers and friars reaching this far north before receding to the warmer clime of the Southwest. This testimony to their zeal remains, but, as we will see, very little of the faith itself was left behind. This is the Devil’s country, well summed up in the old phrase “God forsaken.”

Against the majestic backdrop of snow-covered mountains we see a stagecoach pulled by six horses. Driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks), wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold and the snow, pulls up his steeds when a man stands in his path, his saddle and several dead bodies heaped beside him.

Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) asks for a ride, but because the coach has been hired excusively by John “The Hangman” Ruth (Curt Russel), O.B. says that he will have to talk with him. Ruth is a bounty hunter shackled to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), murderer and head of the Domergue Gang. One of her eyes is blackened, and her hair is as unkempt as a grizzly’s. He plans to turn her over in Red Rock for the $10,000 bounty on her head.

The black man also is a bounty hunter headed for Red Rock to collect the bounty on the men he has killed. The two have differing philosophies in regard to their dangerous trade, Warren believing the “Dead” in the “Wanted Dead or Alive” is best because the dead give less trouble. During their conversation Ruth is impressed by the Major’s showing him of a letter sent to him by Abraham Lincoln. He marvels that they were “pen pals.”

A little later the coach stops again for another would-be passenger whose horse has expired. He is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), but Ruth not wanting anyone else in their crowded compartment, decides to leave him. Mannix states that if he perishes out here in the cold, they will not receive their bounty, and, indeed, will be accused of murder—he is headed for Red Rock to assume his new post as Sherrif. Ruth does not believe him, but decides he had best take him along, just in case. The atmosphere inside is loaded with hostility, the Major having fought in the Union army and Mannix still an ardent supporter of the Cause. Daisy also is contemptuous of “the nigger.”

They arrive at the stopover known as Minnie’s Haberdashery just as the storm descends in full fury. Minnie and her helpers are nowhere to be found. In charge is the bearded Mexican who goes by the Anglo name of Bob (Demian Bichir). Minnie’s companion, the lazy Sweet Bob (Gene Jones), is also gone from the fireside chair he hardly ever vacates. He and Minnie went to tend to a family matter, Bob explains. Sitting near the fire with a chess board between his and Sweet Dave’s chair is an old man dressed in a Confederate officer’s uniform. When Mannix discovers this is General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), he salutes him.

Also holed up in the store is an Englishman calling himself Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth). He too is headed for Red Rock to perform the duties of a hangman. When Ruth tells everyone that he aims to take Daisy to be hanged, she makes the motion of a hanging rope as she turns her head to one side and sticks out her tongue as if breathing her last. The other occupant of the shelter is Joe Cage (Michael Madsen), a man of few words. He answers Ruth’s question about what he is writing in a notebook that it is his memoirs.

The rest of the action takes place in the claustrophobic confines of the store. There are hints that all is not well—a quick shot of a jelly bean stuck in a crack of the floorboards; a door that has to be nailed shut to keep out the wind each time someone goes in or out; and Bob himself, not all looking like one you would entrust your store to. What happened to the lock and latch? (Opening, nailing it shut, only to kick it open again becomes the running joke.) If the atmosphere in the confines of the stagecoach was hostile, it is now poisonous due to the lingering racism and hatred from the Civil War. Although the epithet “nigger” is under-used in comparison to Django Unchanged, it is still almost as stinging coming from the General, Mannix, and Daisy. Some samples of their exchanges: Not caring to know Warren’s name, General Sandy Smithers says, “I don’t know that nigger. But I know he’s a nigger. And that’s all I need to know.” Offering contrasting views: Mannix, “’Cuz when niggers are scared, that’s when white folks are safe,” and Warren, “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed.” Things grow so tense that it is suggested that they divide the room into a Northern and a Southern district.

The story takes on the aspects of an Agatha Christy mystery, especially when someone slips poison into the coffee that dispatches two of the characters in a most gruesome way. Who is the guilty party, and why was this done? Daisy saw who did it, but she is not about to reveal anything. There is also a cold-blooded killing when Major Warren delivers an obscene narrative about how he had forced the son of one of the travelers to commit fellatio on him before shooting prisoner.

In an earlier exchange we learn what a vicious killer during the War Warren had been when Mannix tells the story of the Major’s imprisonment by the Confederates. The prison was built of dry wood, so Warren’s escape plan included setting fire to it. To continue in the sheriff’s own words, “There was a rookie regiment there spending the overnight in the camp! 47 men, BURNT TO A CRISP! Southern youth, farmer’s sons, cream of the crop.” Warren adds, “And I say let ’em burn!” Shocked, Mannix glares at Warren as the black man continues, “I’m supposed to apologize for killin’ Johnny Reb? You joined the war to keep niggers in chains. I joined the war to kill white Southern crackers. And that means killing ’em in any way I can! Shoot ’em, stab ’em, drown ’em, burn ’em, throw a big ‘ol rock on their heads! Whatever it took to keep white Southern crackers in the ground, that’s what I joined the war to do and that’s what I did!”

Clearly this is not a film for everyone. It is not the violence itself that upsets me, but the appaent viewpoint of the filmmaker that violence is not only justified, but enjoyable. The description of Warren’s burning alive the 47 sleeping Rebel soldiers will bring to mind Inglorious Basterds, in which we are intended to celebrate the incineration of a group of Nazis and their wives trapped in an underground bunker. Tarentino’s view of justice is that of the early Old Testament, long before the book of Isaiah was written—indeed his idea of unlimited vengeance gave rise to the command to extract only “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”. The filmmaker employs an image from the New Testament, the Crucifix, but he does not embrace its message of reconciliation and redemption. (Though it could be argued that he does in Pulp Fiction.)

The plot and characters in this film are fascinating, and Spaghetti Westen composer Ennio Morricone enhances the action and mood with his score. There has been some debate as to whether or not the film is really a Western, despite its setting and time. For those willing to see and think aloud with others about the film, the writer does again reveal and decry the racism that permeates our society—not only that of the post-Civil War period, but also of more recent times, especially that during the period when Hollywood’s version of the Western excluded blacks. During the heyday of the Western in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s all the mainstream Westerns featured white cowboys, blacks showing up once in a while in servile roles, despite the fact that almost a fourth of real cowboys had been African Americans.

Thus, I can say that The Hateful Eight is a very mixed bag of a film, one that rubs our noses in human depravity. I suggested that it might be discussed as a Passion story—we see the tall Crucifix again in the scene that takes us back a few hours to the morning of the day on which the stage stops at Minnie’s. In this story there is a brutal execution, but one will not be able to find a Christ Figure in it, other than the statue itself. The thoughts, words, and deeds of the Hateful Eight characters are precisely the reasons why Christians believe that Christ came and died on the cross!

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.

Race (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2 .

Our star rating (1-5): 4

When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.

Proverbs 21:15

For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.

The righteous shall be kept safe forever,

but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.

Psalm 37:28

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?

Run in such a way that you may win it.

1 Corinthians 9:24

Running

Jesse runs faster than any one alive at OSU & at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.           (c) Focus Features

Director Stephen Hopkins’ biographical film from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse about Olympic track star Jesse Owens is a social justice as well as a sports film. It follows in the proud tradition of The Jackie Robinson Story; 42; Remember the Titans; Glory Road; Invictus; McFarland, USA; and a host of others. Although James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was born a sharecropper’s son in Alabama, the film opens in Cleveland, Ohio, where the Owens family had moved as part of the mass migration from the South during the 20s and 30s. (The film passes over the incident wherein a high school teacher had asked for the new student’s name for her role book and had mistaken his answer of “J.C. Owens” to mean Jessie Owens, this mistake becoming the nickname that stayed with him throughout his life.)

Already known for his track achievements in high school, Jesse (Stephan James) is working several jobs in order to earn support money for his long-time girlfriend Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) and their out of wedlock daughter. When Jesse enters Ohio State University on an athletic scholarship, track coach Larry Snyder (Stephan James) becomes his mentor, even helping him with finances so that his time will not be split between a part-time job and his rigorous training. There follows the usual sequence of shots showing the tough training regimine every successful sports figure must endure. Jesse more than lives up to his coach’s expectations, as we see in the sequence at the 1935 Big Ten Track Meet at Ann Arbor Michigan where in under an hour the athlete sets three world records. This has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.” It looks like Jesse will be a shoo-in for the American Olympic Track Team and the opportunity to win further glory at the Berlin Olympic Games. Or will it?

This question is dealt with in the sub-story centering on American Olympic Committee president Judge Jeremiah Maroney (William Hurt) and industrialist Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons). Maroney wants to boycott the Olympics because of the reports of the oppression of Jews coming out of Nazi Germany, as well as Hitler’s decree that no Jews or blacks be allowed to play. Their debate is passionate, with Brundage siding with the athletes who have worked so hard to earn the right to compete in the Games. He argues that Depression weary Americans are craving for the kind of hero that the Olympics can provide. Brundage travels to Germany to negotiate with Hitler’s right hand man in charge of the games Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), Minister of Propaganda. The Nazis, faced with the Americans threat of a boycott, give in to the demand that all athletes be allowed to compete. Hitler is convinced that the German athletes will emerge triumphant, proving his racial claims of the superiority of the Aryan race.

Although the Germans accede to the Americans’ demands, the US Olympic Committee is still split about taking part, finally siding with Brundage. However, Jesse’s participation is still up in the air because an official from the NAACP visits him and his family with the request to stay home. The civil rights group has joined its sister Jewish organizations in lobbying for the Olympics boycott. Thus Jesse is caught up in the international tug of war waged by those opposed to tyranny and those willing to compromise with it for the sake of the Games. Owens’ father Henry (Andrew Moodie) observes that he will be criticized no matter what he decides: racists hate him whether he plays or doesn’t, wins or loses, and their own people will reject him if he plays and loses.

A second sub-story of struggle also is woven throughout the film, that of famous (or to many “infamous”) German actress turned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten). She had won Hitler’s favor by her truly artistic Triumph of the Will, filmed at the 1934 Nazi Party Convention in Nuremberg. Still considered by many as the best propaganda movie of all time, its making had been opposed by Goebbels, partly because of her sex. Apparently regarding her as a rival, he places various roadblocks in her way before and during the Games, but, because she knows she has Hitler’s personal backing, she manages to overcome them all, thus producing what has been regarded as the first and best Olympic documentary film ever, Olympia. She had over 30 cameras shooting the events as they happened, but she also staged many shots to achieve artistic angles impossible to capture during the actual event. Notorious for re-shooting a scene as many as 50 times, here we see her asking Jesse to make a broad jump just once more. As depicted here, Leni is portrayed as an independent-minded filmmaker, and less the Nazi party loyalist most observers believed her to be.

The film concentrates on the years between 1934 and 1936, and it does show a major flaw in Jesse’s character. His marvelous track performance at Ann Arbor had made him a celebrity despite his race. This apparently went to his head when young female fans showered him with attention. Foresaking Ruth and his daughter back home, he entered into an affair with Los Angeles socialite Quincella Nickerson (Chantel Riley). Ruth found out about their relationship by reading about it in a newspaper. It took considerable effort on Jesse’s part, once he came to his senses, to woo her back.

The film’s title serves it well with its double meaning. Jesse might well say, referring to the oval track, “Out there there ain’t no black or white, just fast or slow,” but off the track his race very much matters. He might as well be living back in Jim Crow Alabama as in Ohio, because when he boards the bus for Columbus, he has to sit in the back of the bus. At OSU the racist football players stop him and a teammate from entering the showers while the football players are using them. In the locker room coach Snyder engages in a heated argument with the football coach over the right of his black athletes to use the facilities. Indeed, it is Coach Snyder who brings Jesse himself out of the servility that his Southern heritage has embedded in him. When they first meet Jesses does not make eye contact, looking downward instead, as generations of Southern blacks were trained to do. Snyder orders his new student to look at him directly, at which point we can see by the young man’s expression the dawning of a newfound freedom.

Jesse’s stepping into the huge Nazi stadium designed by Speer is a thrilling cinematic moment, the camera slowly panning around the throngs and then tilting upward to reveal the enormous dirigible The Hindenburg flying overhead. Jesse not only wins two gold medals in racing and one in the broad jump, he also gains a friend in his chief competitor Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross).

European broad jump champion Luz, himself deserving a film devoted to telling his story, is watching the other athletes attempt to qualify when he sees Jesse foul by stepping over the line when launching himself into the air. The German walks over to the dejected athlete and advises him to start his jump several inches behind the line because Jesse always jumped farther than the 7.5 meter requirement. The American does so, and easily qualifies. In the final contest Jessie comes in first, and Luz second. The German congratulates Jesse and poses with him for a picture, even though he knows that Hitler would not be pleased by this show of sportsmanship. Hitler himself does not shake hands with any of the victors because of a dispute with the Olympic Committee. On the first day of the Games he had congratulated the German winners and then left the stadium. The Olympic Committee insisted that he thereafter would shake hands with all winners or none at all, and so the dictator chose the latter.

Jesse’s 4th gold medal, in the 4 x100 meter relay, came about because American complicity in the Nazis’ racist politics. The decision was made to bench the two Jewish athletes of the American relay team, Marty Glickman (Jeremy Ferdman) and Sam Stoller (Giacomo Gianniotti), allegedly because the Nazis had kept hidden two top athletes that were faster than the Amricans. Supposedly Jesse and another runner, faster than Glickman and Stoller, are necessary for the gold. Jesse objects, not wanting to displace anyone, but the coach over rules him. The film does not spare Avery Brundage from being involved in the humiliating decision, the Olympic Committee member apparently deferring to Hitler’s wishes.

It has taken Hollywood a long time to honor Jesse Owens’ incredible achievements in Berlin—80 years in all. This film does a credible job, with Stephan James especially inspiring in the title role. (He played C-R leader John Lewis in Selma.) As a record of the racism endemic still to our society, the film moves far beyond the topic of sports achievement. Even back in New York Jesse, now married to Ruth, faced discrimination when, after a ticker tape parade in honor of his achievements, he was forced by the management of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to reach the banquet hall where guests were waiting to meet him by way of a freight elevator rather than through the front door. The film’s end notes also report that President Roosevelt never sent him a telegram of congratulations or invited him to the White House, as would be the normal honor given to an Olympian multiple-gold medal winner. What a sad commentary, given that Jesse Owens great accomplishment was his destruction of the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy! I would love to know where Eleanor was and what she said to her husband about this, given her strong advocacy for Marian Anderson and the Tuskegee Airmen.

This is an excellent film for church youth groups to see and discuss. Young viewers will readily see its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement and the racist events around the country that inspired it. Hopefully the film will not get lost amidst all the hoopla over the silly super hero epics that too often dominate the screens of cinemaplexes. Here is a real hero who pushes his physical and mental powers to their limits without any recourse to super powers. With the help of readers like you, this film will find the large audience that it deserves

Note: The 1936 Olympics also figures in the film Unbroken, the story of runner Louis Zamperini who ran in the  5000-meter race. Although he did not win a medal, coming in 8th, his final lap of 56 seconds was fast enough to gain the attention of Hitler, who asked for a meeting.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.

Blood Done Sign My Name (2010)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground…

…Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…

Hebrews 11:32-38 & 12:1-2

Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

VernPreach

The Rev. Vernon Tyson preaches to his congregation.                     (c) Paladin

 The Hebrew prophet’s pictorial poem of shalom is similar to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of racial harmony in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However in 1970 in the small town of Oxford, N.C., the setting of director/writer Jeb Stuart’s docudrama, there is little trace of either vision. Dr. King has been dead for two years, and even the small stride forward of the 1964 Civil Rights Act has changed nothing in this little tobacco warehouse center north of Raleigh. The film, based on the book by Duke University Professor Timothy B. Tyson, chronicles how change finally did upend things in the town, change brought about when enough people became galvanized by the “blood that done sign my name,” shed by one of the town’s murdered black citizens.

BenTeachng

Ben Chavis challenges his English class.                     (c) Paladin

There are two stories woven throughout the film, one of a white man, and one of a black man, each of which provides us with a view of the racial views of their peers. Now before you say. “There Hollywood goes again, thinking they have to start with a white guy in order to draw an audience to the story of oppressed blacks,” let me point out that the book’s author Timothy B. Tyson lived part of the story. He was the 10-year-old son of the liberal white minister Vernon Tyson (Rick Schroder), who, at the beginning of the film, is driving into town with his wife Martha (Susan Walters) and their four children to start his new pastoral assignment. Across town at about the same time, the black Ben Chavis (Nate Parker) has returned to his hometown to teach English at his all-black high school. It might be 1970, 16 years after the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling, but Oxford is as racially segregated as it was when the Jim Crow laws were passed in the decades following Reconstruction. All children still attend separate schools; blacks must buy their movie tickets and enter by a side door and sit in the balcony; their money is welcome in the stores, but they can work in them only if they push a broom; and in two scenes we see that a white barber will not cut a black’s hair, and a white grocery store owner sells goods at jacked-up prices, telling one upset woman that she can walk the distance to a store in another town if she wants the item at the cheaper price. Optimists might point out that the town has added an African American to the police force, but everyone knows that he is not permitted to ticket or arrest a white man.

There are brief shots of Rev. Tyson going about his pastoral duties as he settles into his new life, and one memorable scene in which he visits a shut-in that sets the stage for what will follow. The elderly woman tells him that she has seen a lot of pastors come and go, and that they all fell into two groups—priests or prophets. “The priests told us the comforting things we wanted to hear. The prophets challenged us with the difficult things we needed to hear. Which one are you?” He replies, “I try to be a little bit of both.” She shows her concern in her reply that in these times he will find it hard to be both. (Would that all ministers had such members willing to speak their minds so honestly to them.)

Rev. Tyson soon finds the lady’s words confirmed. He raises his congregation’s eyebrows when he preaches that everyone is equal, and direct opposition arises when, without consulting his board, he extends an invitation to Dr. Samuel Proctor, president of the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, to speak on a Sunday morning. This struck me at first as being very naïve on his part, though we do see that he has cultivated at least one church member as a strong supporter. When the disgruntled church board gathers in an emergency meeting to challenge his invitation, the Reverend faces them down He points out to them that as pastor of the church he does indeed have the authority to invite any speaker he wants—he opens the Methodist Book of Discipline as he points to the section he is quoting. When he assumes the pulpit on Sunday Dr. Proctor proves more astute than his host. Knowing he would be facing many hostile members, the guest begins his sermon with a humorous football story that gets the congregation laughing. (There is a funny shot of one of the nervous board members looking around first before laughing himself, the man apparently afraid to be the first to enjoy the humor of the story told by a black man.)

At the black high school Ben Chavis quickly earns the respect of his English Class students when he affirms the report that they had heard that he knew Stokely Carmichael. They soon learn that he wants them to think for themselves and stand up for what is right. Chavis’s family is well off, his widowed mother living in a large house filled at mealtimes with family. During his off-hours Chavis decides to refurbish and re-open his deceased father’s old diner, which, when finished, quickly becomes one of the few places where African Americans can eat, talk, and dance with no harassment from whites. Chavis also soon learns that the usual means of bringing about change are blocked when he and his students bring their grievance to a town meeting, and the officials pull a clumsy maneuver that prevents the board from even bringing up and voting on their concern. All that the blacks were asking was that the hoops missing from the basketball court of the city park be restored. This might seem to be a paltry request—until you recall that they had been removed because blacks were using the park too much.

One scene between Rev. Tyson and young Tim (Gattlin Griffith) at first seemed a bit artificially over-dramatized until I remembered that the film was based on the grown-up Tim’s memoir. The father takes his boys on a swimming trek into the country, but instead of returning home at dusk, he leads them to a cluster of large rocks. They crouch down and watch in a green field a group of whites getting out of their cars. As the women carry picnic baskets and blankets and the children play, the men slowly erect a huge cross that is covered with burlap. Tim stands up and says eagerly, “It’s a revival!” His father, pulling him down, assures him that it is not. The white children play games, and then, led by a man in a black robe, the other men in white robes and hoods walk through the crowd to pick up torches. Darkness has fallen as each man intones “The Light of Jesus,” receiving a torch. The crowd responds, “The Light of Christ.” The litany continues as the torch-bearing Klansmen form a circle around the cross. The liturgy includes many references to God, Christ, and purity in a dark world. The wide-eyed Tim, becoming fearful as the cross is set ablaze, asks that they leave. They do so just as one of the Klansmen, having heard the boy, sets out to search for the intruders. Thus Tim learns that the racial hatred he encounters at school is but a reflection of that of his classmates’ elders.

Matters are brought to the boiling point when Ben Chavis’s cousin, Henry “Dickie” Marrow (A. C. Sanford), a soldier who has just returned from Vietnam, is brutally murdered at nighttime when he had gone looking for a friend plus a coke for a thirsty neighbor. White owner Robert Teel (Nick Searcy) is inside his store when he hears his married son angrily accosting Marrow with a baseball bat. The son had mistakenly thought Marrow had said something inappropriate to his wife. The elder Teel is armed with a shotgun, and one of the two sons that run out with him has a rifle. Not only is the hapless Marrow wounded by the shotgun blast, but the three whites brutally kick and strike him with their fists, feet, and guns as he pleads for his life. The son with a rifle shoots the downed man in the head. There are witnesses, but they are black, and very fearful.

At the graveside service for Marrow, the outsider Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami) arrives and charms his way past the line of state troopers gathered to keep such persons as he away. Frinks, who deserves a movie all to himself, was a national figure in the civil rights movement, sent to Oxford after Chavis’s mother had telephoned Ralph Abernathy to send help in organizing the blacks. His fiery graveside talk arouses the people so much that they form a slogan-chanting procession when they leave the cemetery. Later, when the people gather at the Chavis restaurant, Ben Chavis asks Frinks what he plans to do next, to which the response is a correction, not “I” but “we.” To the puzzlement of all, Frinks asks that they go find and bring to him a mule.

It turns out that the mule is to pull an old wagon on which the widowed Mrs. Marrow and her young daughters will ride while sitting upon a draped coffin. The people have agreed to stage a march on the capitol some fifty miles away to protest to the governor the unjust treatment of blacks. The group starts out with just 70 marchers, but by the time they reach Raleigh their number has grown to about a thousand. However, the governor refuses to meet with Marrow’s widow, which leaves Chavis almost as mad at Frinks as at the absent politician. Frinks tells him that he did not promise a meeting, only that he would call the governor and ask for one, which he did. He describes his role as being that of a stoker, one who stokes the fires, in this case of resentment, so that the flames of resistance will rise up and galvanize the communities into which he is sent. The Oxford blacks are now aroused and organized, and it will be up to Chavis and them to finish the battle that he has helped start. There is another Southern community in a racial crisis needing his leadership.

Back in Oxford the blacks react with such fury to the governor’s refusal to meet with Mrs. Marrow that a group of younger ones sneak out at night and hurl Molotov cocktails at two of the large tobacco storage warehouses, the buildings and their contents going up in fire and smoke. Chavis watches in silence with other older blacks the conflagration. On the other side of town the Tyson family gaze at the horizon, lit up by the raging inferno. When Tim asks if it will come here, his father says no, though he well knows that an inferno of another order will indeed engulf them.

The trial of the killers is a very dramatic one, the whites lying about the circumstances of the killing. However, the evidence is overwhelming, and the argument for their guilt by the black associate prosecutor—surely a novelty in that town—is persuasive. There is also a surprising revelation concerning the second son that further upsets the blacks in the courtroom audience. Despite all of the evidence, the jury votes unanimously for acquittal.

As the jury’s pronouncement is read the camera cuts back and forth between Rev. Tyson in the Methodist sanctuary praying for forgiveness and Ben Chavis in his church raising provocative questions about the status quo, and then suggesting to the people that they spend their money outside of Oxford. This folding together of time and incidents is obviously dramatic license. This time the reaction of the blacks, while still angry, is more measured and bound to achieve better results than burning down buildings. What follows is telescoped by blacks describing the effectiveness of their boycott. But we also see the Methodist board calling Rev. Tyson into a meeting and then…

During the final few minutes of the film several people talk about spending their money out of town rather than at the local stores owned by racists who mistreat them. As in many other towns in the Jim Crow South, Mammon speaks louder than faith or morality. A much reduced town (the destruction of the tobacco warehouses also contributing to the local decline) gives in eventually to the demands of the boycotters, but neither Tyson nor Chavis are around to enjoy the fruits of victory. Just as the film began with the Tyson family in their car towing a trailer containing their possessions, so we see them again, this time heading out of town the father trying to convince little Tim that they were not “run out of town.” According to Roger Ebert’s review, Rev. Tyson went on to pastor a series of larger churches, one of them an integrated church, whereas Ben Chavis left town for full time civil rights work, eventually becoming the youngest head ever of the N.A.A.C.P. and organizer of the Million Man March on Washington.

Thus the film does not follow the usual arc of a brave man emerging triumphant. Nor does Vernon Tyson and Ben Chavis meet, as I kept expecting them to. This made me realize what a huge wall Jim Crow had erected, in that two such men with similar values and agendas living in the same town did not meet personally. Though the minister and the future civil rights leader did attend Henry Marrow’s graveside service, they exchanged no greetings. Following the murder, the role of the minister is reduced to that of spectator rather than leader, though I suspect he must have taken some heat for attending the service and then the trial and approving the march on Raleigh. He might not have convinced many of his parishioners about the equality of the races, but his impact on his youngest son was immense, the boy now being Professor Timothy B. Tyson, a scholar of African-American history.

To shift from the story, I want to report that the acting is fine, Rick Schroder and Nate Parker never overly dramatic, exuding a quiet strength that enables them to stand up for their beliefs. Afemo Omilami as Golden Frinks dominates every scene he is in. We can readily understand why this fiery speaker could stir a crowd to action. We also see that his moving from place to place provides so little opportunity to get to really know people that he can take an almost manipulative approach to them. As he acknowledges, he is no Martin Luther King, but a stoker who does his job and moves on. In addition to the fine acting, John Leftwich’s musical score, incorporating numerous gospel and civil rights songs sung by powerful black soloists and choirs, contributes much to the effectiveness of the film.

The film’s name comes from a stirring speech that Golden Frinks makes at the state house in Raleigh, “We will not stop until we have justice. No! Blood has done signed our name! The blood of Martin Luther King…the blood of Medgar Evers…the blood of Malcolm X…the blood of Dickie Marrows brought us here today.” His speech, with its litany-like reference to civil rights martyrs calls to mind the stirring recitation of the great men and women of faith listed near the end of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In a way this entire, under appreciated, film does the same. The film has its faults, but so much of it is so powerful, as well as informative of some little known modern heroes of the faith, that it deserves more than the meager attention it received when released in 2010. Again, we can be thankful for DVD and streaming video formats that allow it to reach a larger audience. I hope that you will not only see and use it in your own group or church, but also tell others about it—perhaps by sending them this review. You can be certain that there will be lots of discussion questions attached to it when it appears in the February issue.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of VP.