Jeremiah (1998)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

 Our star rating (1-5); 4

This review is mainly for you preachers. Every three years passages from the Book of Jeremiah are part of the summer lections. This year (2016) they are read during August, September, and much of October, so for the August Lectionary Links I have suggested a specific scene from the film for each Sunday. See these in the upcoming July 2016 issue of Visual Parables.

 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’

 But the Lord said to me,

‘Do not say, I am only a boy; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.

Jeremiah 1:1-8

Jermh

This Bible story film begins in the time of King Josiah when workers discover a scroll hidden in a jar in the temple. It contains the laws of Moses (probably most of what is now the Book of Deuteronomy), and it inspires the king to lead a reformation of his kingdom. In Anathoth, a village not far from Jerusalem, the boy Jeremiah lives with Hilkiah and his mother. During the night God commissions him to be a prophet despite the youth’s protest that he is too young. The boy then accompanies his parents to Jerusalem where he witnesses his priest father kill a sacrificial lamb during the festival.

The film jumps ahead 16 years to show in Babylon the new King of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar deciding to conquer Jerusalem. Back in Judah Hilkiah tells his son, now a young man, that he and a friend will have the honor of sacrificing a lamb at the temple. In Jerusalem Jeremiah goes to the royal palace where he sees King Jehoiakim issue an unjust verdict against a family from Anathoth that he cares about. On his way back to the temple he sees the quarreling and cheating of the people, as well as the huckstering of household idols. He stops long enough to sweep off the table and smash the clay idols, reminding me of the way in which Christ overturned the money exchanger tables centuries later in the restored temple. (You might recall he quoted Jeremiah at the time.)

Hilkiah criticizes his son for being late because he missed seeing his friend preside at the sacrifice. Now it is his turn. Dressed in the white linen robe of a priest, Jeremiah starts to kill the animal, but out in the crowd he sees the old man through whom God had previously spoke to him. Ignoring the lamb, he speaks to the people and to the king who has joined in the worship service. This is the famous Temple Sermon, as found in chapters 6 and 7 of the Biblical book. It is a strong rebuke of pretending to worship God at his temple while violating the covenant with God.

Thus TV director/writer Harry Winer skillfully weaves together the various narrative strands of the Biblical book to form a coherent biographical film. Unfortunately, he also injects a fictional love story about the young man’s courting a spunky neighbor girl named Judith. I write “unfortunately” because this takes up valuable screen time that could have been devoted to the prophet’s visions—left out are such incidents as the potter’s house and the lament “Is there no balm in Gilead?” that inspired the haunting Spiritual.

However I have to say that the love story insertion does serve to show the prophet’s anguish at what serving God cost him (a family). Also the fate of Judith’s family, due to the unjust decision of King Jehoiakim, is an important part of the sequence (reported above) in which the prophet witnesses the sins of king and people in Jerusalem.

What is included in the script does give viewers who have not read the Biblical account a good picture of this prophet saddled with the awful task of denouncing his own people when the enemy is right outside the gates. In our own times, during the Vietnam War and during President Bush’s Iraq war, protestors also were denounced as traitors—the two priests Frs. Dan & Phil Berrigan in the 60’s and the Dixie Chicks in the 00’s. Of course, none suffered as much as the Hebrew prophet did, first in a dark cell and then in the muddy bottom of the cistern into which he was dumped.

The scene in which the court prophet Hananiah cuts off the yoke Jeremiah is wearing is a powerful one with modern ramifications similar to what was just mentioned. Jeremiah has barged into King Zedekiah’s throne room wearing the yoke as an acted-out parable of the fate of disobedient Israel at the hands of the Assyrians. Hananiah, out to please the King, strikes the yoke from the prophet’s neck and tells his sovereign what he wants to hear, namely that God is not with Jeremiah but with the King and his schemes against Babylonia. Jeremiah, rising from the ground, declares that his opponent is a false prophet feeding the people a lie. During the Vietnam War prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan denounced an unjust war that was destroying America’s credibility, as well as the worthy War on Poverty, whereas others, such as Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman supported and blessed the war as a crusade against “godless Communism.” The latter were far more popular at first, with the former gaining more support as the gruesome truth of what we were actually doing to the Vietnamese people came to light, thanks to the reporting of journalists.

The film’s cast is uniformly good, with Patrick Dempsey playing the shy man who gradually became bolder with each new denunciation of his people’s apostasy. Stuart Bunce as his faithful scribe and spokesman Baruch; Klaus Maria Brandauer as the imperious King Nebuchadnezzar; Andrea Occhipinti as the ill-fated King Jehoiakim; and Oliver Reed, in his last TV role, as General Shapan, commander of the Assyrian army—all turn in good performances.

This TNT production, part of its Bible Collection, belongs in your or your church library’s collection. Especially when the Common Lectionary O.T. lessons are taken from the Book of Jeremiah, this would be a good DVD to use in a Bible class on the Sundays when the pastor preaches on the lessons.

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

Affirm Films

AMISTAD (1997)

 

Rated R. Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 1; Sex 1/Nudity 4.

  The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah 9:2-4

Adams&Cinq

John Quincy Adams defended Cinque and the other captured Africans before the US Supreme Court.
(c) DreamWorks SKJ

The events swirling around the murder trial of a group of 53 Africans once held the attention of the nation, but then was largely forgotten, swallowed up by the cataclysmic events of the Civil War.  Barely mentioned, if at all, in many Black History books, the trials helped clarify the issues leading to the Civil War, and pitted two powerful men against each other, President Martin Van Buren and former President John Quincy Adams. Again, we are indebted to Stephen Speilberg for using his massive talents as a filmmaker to focus our attention on an important area of our history.

In  February of 1939 slaves from West Africa are shipped to Cuba where 53 of them are purchased, given false papers, and put aboard the schooner The Amistad for shipment to a plantation in the Caribbean. But led by Sengbe Pieh , called by the Spanish “Cinque,” the captives break free of their manacles, seize control of the ship and force the two surviving crew members to navigate the ship back to Africa. But the two manage to turn the vessel in the opposite direction at night, so that it follows a ragged course up the shoreline of the United States. Off the coast of Long Island a U.S. brig captures it, the two whites are freed, and the Africans sent to New Haven, Connecticut, where they are held for trial. No one can speak their language, nor do they understand English or Spanish, so it is assumed that they are legal slaves, and therefore must be guilt of mutiny and murder. Matters become complicated for the poor judge when a shipload of petitions are filed — one from the owners of the slaves, one from American  officers claiming ownership of the prisoners by right of salvage, one from the Spanish diplomat representing Queen Isabella II of Spain, and a petition from Abolitionists Lewis Tappan and Theodore Joadson, the only ones concerned about the welfare of the prisoners themselves.

Tappan and Joadson are joined by a young real estate attorney Roger Baldwin, who at first sees the case only in terms of property rights. But as he comes into frequent contact with Cinque and his fellow prisoners, Baldwin changes, finally seeing the case in terms of human dignity and freedom. There is a powerful moment in the trial in which Cinque stands among his manacled peers and cries out the only English words he has mastered, “Give us free…Give us free…Give us free!” New Haveners are polarized by the almost  daily sight of the ragged band of prisoners marched back and forth from their cell to the federal courthouse. Many church members sing hymns and offer support to the Africans, while others leer and jeer at them. One prisoner Yamba takes a Bible from one of the sympathizers, a book which, as we shall see later, has a great impact upon the illiterate men.

Joadson and Tappan try to enlist John Quinsy Adams to defend the prisoners, but he does not want to get involved. He does inspire Joadson by telling him that the lawyer who tells the best story wins the case. “What is their story?” “They’re from Africa,” the Abolitionist replies. “No, that is not their story,” Adams answers, “It is where they are from.” He then asks Joadson what is his story. That he is from Georgia? No, that is not his story. “Your story — you are an ex-slave, and have fought against great obstacles all your life. THAT is your story!” Realizing that the language barrier must be breached if they are to find the story of the prisoners, Joadson and Tappan scour the docks looking for someone who can speak Mende, the tribe and language of Cinque. When they find him, he becomes the key means for proving that the prisoners were not legal slaves but had indeed been abducted from their African homes and shipped through an infamous slave fort to Cuba. Through flashbacks we see the incredibly brutal abduction and harrowing Middle Passage transport, during which a number of men, women and children are thrown overboard because calculations show that there will not be enough food for everyone to survive on. Even though President Van Buran stacks the deck against the prisoners by replacing the original judge in the case with a man he thinks will favor the Southern interests, Roger Baldwin wins the case. But the jubilation of Cinque and friends is cut short by the news that the government is appealing the case to the Supreme Court. The outlook is grim, because seven of the nine Justices are themselves slaveholders. It is then that John Quincy Adams does agree to represent the Africans, and rises to what we now realize was the greatest moment of his life.

Although the violence of the mutiny is depicted more graphically than necessary, “Amistad” is a film that should be “must seeing” for youth and adults. It is another of the precious historical episodes in the tangled history of blacks and whites of the U.S. that should be honored and told over and over, “lest we forget.” Some rich scenes for preaching/teaching:

For Reflection/Discussion

-1. The importance of “our story,” in the exchange between Adams and Joadson. Even the politically appointed judge is swept along by the African’s story, as later are most of the Supreme Court Justices.

-2. The thirst for freedom so eloquently shown in Cinque’s pleas, “Give us free…”

-3. The tremendous importance of communication between people of disparate cultures and stations in life. Through gestures and sketches Baldwin and Cinque manage to get across some basic facts to each other. But it is through the dignified bearing of Cinque and others that Baldwin comes to understand that the Africans are human beings worthy of equal treatment.

-4. The Bible incident — “In the beginning was the image”?One of the prisoners, Yamba, has been studying the pictures in the Bible he took out of the hands of one of the Christian sympathizers who greet them each time the prisoners are taken outside their cell. He tells his fellow prisoners, as he points to an engraving of the Hebrews in slavery, that these are a people that suffered even more than we. He turns to a picture of the Nativity. And who is he? someone asks. Yamba answers that he is not certain, but that apparently his birth made a big difference — everywhere he goes he is followed by the sun — he points to the aureole the artists of the period often placed around Christ’s head. From the pictures of healing and of the events of Holy Week, the illiterate African is able to grasp the essence of Christ. We know this is the case when Yamba, enroute to the courthouse again, looks up at the masts of the sailing ships; the camera comes in emphasizing that the each of the masts form a cross.

-5. Cinque’s story of  the lion terrorizing his people and of his fortuitous killing of it by a well-thrown rock.  Before the Supreme Court John Quincy Adams uses the story, “We are going to fight a lion that could tear our country apart, and all we have is a rock.

 

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our advisories: Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

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

Psalm 10.12

 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Luke 4:16-18

1

Patsy pleads with her master while Pratt looks on.
(c) 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

We allude to the existence of the free black population in the United States, than which a more indolent, degraded, corrupting, miserable class of beings does not exist within the pale of civilized society. Destitute of moral principle, and devoid of native energy, their mode of life is in unison with the base propensities of their nature, which they seek alone to gratify.

From p. 491 of “A Plan of National Colonization” in Bible Defense of Slavery, printed in Glasgow, KY, 1853. (Same year as Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave.)

Director Steve McQueen’s film, based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup, gives quite a different picture of a free black person than the two ministers responsible for the above quoted book, a long and repetitious (“the curse on Ham” is constantly reiterated) attack on abolitionism. In 1841 Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a well-dressed married man whose skills include building, engineering, and playing the fiddle. He lives with his wife and children in an elegant frame house in Saratoga, New York, where leading white citizens hold him in high esteem (which will prove very important years later).

Lured by two smooth talking tricksters to Washington DC with the promise of a handsomely rewarding job playing his fiddle in a circus, he is treated to a dinner at which the pair keep replenishing his wine glass. (This was a surprising scene in that the upscale restaurant would serve a mixed race party, given the proslavery society of Washington in 1841!) He wakes the next morning manacled and chained in a slave holding cell. When he protests that he is a free man, the attendant beats him into silence, declaring that he is an escaped slave from Georgia.

A fellow prisoner warns him not to reveal that he can read and write if he wants to survive, to which Solomon replies, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” However, he will soon learn that if he is to live, he must first survive, and that that task is not easy, beatings and death occurring all around and, in the case of the former, to him. He and his fellow captives, some of whom actually are captured runaways, are taken by steamboat to New Orleans, where slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) inspects them and displays them as if they were cattle. He dismisses Solomon’s claim to his own name, telling him that he now is “Pratt.”  Inviting his customers to partake of refreshments as they look over his “merchandise,” he praises one for his strength and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a young mother, for her looks. Her young son and even younger daughter cling to her shirt.

“…and this is the circumstance of separating the families of slaves, by their being sometimes sold to other masters. On this subject, abolitionists argue the same as they would were the case their own, imagining that Negro parents feel such a circumstance as acutely, and as sentimentally as white families would under similar circumstances. But this is a mistake, we believe, and does not apply to the negro’s case, as it would to that of the whites on account of a want of the higher intellectual faculties of the mind of the blacks. On occasions of severe bereavement, the feelings of Negro parents seem to be of shorter duration…” Ibid, p. 382

The purchase of the slaves is accompanied by a black fiddler playing discretely. All is calm and orderly, with planter William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) buying Pratt and Eliza. Eliza begs Ford to buy her remaining child when the other is bought by a different planter, but Ford says that the price is too high, whereupon Eliza shrieks loudly, disrupting the proceedings. When Ford brings his new purchases home, his wife and house servants stand by the steps of the spacious white mansion, looking on as the slaves are unloaded from the wagon, Eliza still sobbing. The wife evinces a note of distaste when her husband tells her that Eliza’s children were sold to others, but then she says to the weeping mother, “Your children will soon be forgotten.”

Life on the plantation is harsh, and Eliza does not forget her children, weeks afterward still sobbing and moaning during waking hours. The Overseer (Dickie Gravois) and his Field Boss (Paul Dano) are cruel, warning the newcomers about whippings meted out as punishment for infringements of any rule. The slaves are put to work cutting down trees and bringing the stripped trunks to the plantation’s sawmill. Field Boss John Tibeats takes a special disliking for Pratt when the latter suggests that it would be a lot quicker to tie the tree trunks together for rafts and pole them along the canal rather than haul them overland through the brush to the mill. Tibeats scornfully turns down the suggestion, but the open-minded Ford tells Pratt to give it a try, and is delighted when Pratt proves to be right.

Tibeats, upset by this, criticizes and taunts Pratt until the latter resists, struggling against his oppressor, beating the smaller white man to the ground and whipping him. Tibeats runs off, returning with two burly men who start to hang the slave from a tree. The Overseer rushes in just in time to drive off the three, but he leaves Pratt strung up, barely able to keep himself from strangulation by supporting his body on tiptoe in the mud. The day drags on with Pratt struggling to stay up on his toes. Sadly, the mistress sees this but does nothing, and all the slaves but one go about their chores as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. The exception is a female slave who hurriedly gives Pratt a drink of water before running off. When Ford returns home that night, he cuts the rope and brings the prostrate mud-caked Pratt into the mansion, laying him on a blanket.

Pratt’s fortunes sink even lower when Ford comes upon hard times and Pratt is sold to the vicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has any field hand falling short of picking the daily allotment of cotton whipped.

Here the well being of the slave is a matter of deep interest to the master. Like the venerable Patriarchs of olden time, they delight to administer to the wants and happiness of those whom God has committed to their hands. If the slave is sick, a physician administers to his wants; if hungry or naked, he has but to look to his master who provides what is necessary without any care on the part of the slave. No constable or sheriff dogs his steps, for he is out of debt and free from all responsibility, save that of good and blessed behavior.” Ibid, p. 417

Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) always picks two or three times as much as the other hands, but a word of praise is her only reward. She bonds with Pratt, though he is reluctant to have sex with her. Epps isn’t however, frequently sneaking out and raping her right in the crude cabin where the men lie in their bunks pretending not to be awake. Thus everyone is aware of this, including Mary (Sarah Paulson), Epp’s jealous wife. In the book she tries to bribe Pratt to take Eliza to the edge of the swamp and drown her, but in the film, evidently to show how far into despair the slave girl has sunk, it is Patsey herself who pleads with Pratt to drown her. Either way, he refuses. He tells the girl he is worried about their souls, but she responds that God is a god of mercy and would not condemn him because his killing her would be an act of mercy.

As events unfold both Patsey and Pratt receive further degradation and whippings, these scenes being very difficult to watch, the raw wounds on their backs (and of many other’s as well) revealed in all their gruesomeness by the camera. One of the degradations is Epp’s rousing them from their sleep and forcing them to come into his mansion to perform a dance to a tune played by Pratt, while he and (sometimes) guests looked on with amusement. Pratt sinks into the same slough of despond engulfing Patsey, especially after one of the slaves dies from his mistreatment. In a scene sure to earn Chiwetel Ejiofor at least an Oscar nod, if not the award itself, we see him standing with his fellow slaves by the side of the pitiful little plot set aside for dead slaves. The others are singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” but Pratt stands silently for what seems like a long time. In a medium and then a close shot of his face we can see by the glacial change of his expression his spirit slowly being lifted up by the song. First he just mouths the words. Then we can hear his voice starting to blend with the others. By the time he is singing with enthusiasm, his earlier expressionless face has been transfigured into one of hope. His dream of returning to his family is reborn. We can see the return of his earlier determination, not just to survive, but to live.

In the bosom of the a Negro man, the idea of liberty, freedom and independence, does not give rise to the same sensations, hopes, and expectations, that it does in the bosom of the whites. To the mind of a slave, or even of a free black man, with but small exception, the idea of liberty is but the idea of a holyday, in which they are to be let loose from all restraint or control; they are to play, work, or sleep, as may suit their inclination, following out to the utmost, the perfect indulgence of indolence, stupidity, and the animal passions.” Ibid, pp. 387-388.

A couple of times we expect Pratt to run away in order to achieve his dream of liberty, especially when sent into town on an errand for supplies. He does leave the well-trod trail through the woods, but is soon stopped by a party of whites about to hang some captured runaways. The whites no doubt constitute one of the patrols ubiquitous throughout the South, empowered to run down and capture any slave trying to escape to the North. Explaining his errand, Pratt heads to town. His eventual return to freedom is more prosaic, brought about through the good graces of an itinerant Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a rare man who dares to express to Epp his disdain for slavery. As Pratt works alongside the unorthodox white man, his protective reserve begins to dissolve—earlier another white man to whom he had revealed his desire for freedom had betrayed him—and he bares his soul, telling his incredible story. What happens next will warm your heart, though this will be tempered by the realization that those left behind by Solomon will secure no such justice for themselves.

Director Steve McQueen’s film is important in that most Americans have been raised on the false view of the South engendered in the masterfully made Gone With the Wind, in which the only blow struck against a slave was Scarlett’s slapping the overly excitable house slave Prissy. This and most films (including Westerns in which the hero is often a former rebel soldier) depicting the South show it as a land of cultivated people dedicated to a lost cause and victimized by rapacious Yankees after the War Between the States. 12 Years a Slave, rips the cover off the phrase The Southern Way of Life to reveal the brute force upon which it was built. To his credit Quinten Tarantino’s Django Unchained attempted to do this, the whippings and lynching shown in gory detail, but the film turned out to be a blood-soaked revenge fantasy so out of touch with reality as to make it more of a Marvel Comics tale than a slice of history.

Mr. McQueen reminds us of the brutal origins of the racism that still infects us as a society, despite our election of a black president. During the last election President Obama was often depicted as an African savage or an ape or monkey by organizations of the far right. (See the infamous Tea Party Comix .) If enough Americans go out and then discuss the film, it would be a sign of progress in our continual struggle against racism. The excerpts from the antebellum Bible Defense of Slavery juxtaposed throughout this review illustrate the racism prevalent not just among Southerners but also among all too many Northerners as well t that time. The Peculiar Institution may have been located south of the Ohio River, but the racism supporting it knew no bounds of geography—and, we must add, no boundaries of time as well. Alan Dershowitz called this film the African-American Schindler’s List. A pretty good comparison, though I think a more apt one would be to the popular 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Hailey’s Roots. A few days after its airing a white funeral director said to me on the way to the cemetery, “Now I understand why so many blacks are so angry.” I hope there will be a similar reaction among white viewers to this film. Now that I have written the review I can hardly wait to get to working on the Reflection/Discussion questions! This is a “must see” film for every adult and teenager.

Addendum on Bible Defense of Slavery

I came across this cloth bound book when preaching at Dryridge Presbyterian Church, located in the most southern part of Cincinnati Presbytery, almost 40 miles south of the Ohio River. I vowed that someday I would examine it more closely. Oddly enough, the very next Sunday I was filling in at the Ripley Presbyterian Church, once served by the most famous abolitionist of the region, John Rankin, who, with his wife and sons helped a large number of runaway slaves escape north to freedom in Canada. Thus in the course of a week I spanned the two irreconcilable sides that divided our nation in the 19th century.

As soon as Steve McQueen’s film came out, I sought permission to borrow the book (I am currently serving as moderator of the church’s session and occasionally still fill in for the pastor.) Scanning and speed-reading my way through the book’s yellowed pages, I came upon the above quoted passages that reveal the beliefs that motivated such slave owners and their white underlings in the film. This, the sixth edition (1853) of a book originally published in 1843, was issued 160 years ago, but the beliefs of its authors can still be found in the hearts and minds of too many Americans. After writing all of the above, I came across an on-line edition of Bible Defense of Slavery provided by the University of Pittsburgh’s University Library System. You can also read the text of 12 Years a Slave, complete with its 7 illustrations–just click onto either title.

If you find this material useful, please help us keep afloat financially by going to the Visual Parables Store and buy access to one of the issues–or buy an annual subscription to Visual Parables. This review, with 14 discussion questions, is in the December 2013 issue of VP.