Genre: Historical Drama
Starring: David Oyelowo (Middle of Nowhere, Jack Reacher), Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Transports you back to this momentous event as if you were there!
If you think anything like me you may feel obligated to see this film (especially so close to MLK Day), but because of the heavy-duty subject matter you may be reluctant to actually do it. After all, most of us see films to escape from our hum-drum lives and be entertained. I mean, who wants to feel uncomfortable and be reminded of a sordid chapter from our nation’s history?
Thankfully, I have a wife who was intent on going so I had no valid excuse to stay home. I am glad I went to see such a high quality film–though I was mortified to see the ruthless, brutality of the Selma police force and the Alabama State Troopers against unarmed, peaceful, black protesters–like millions of others in America at the time who were watching it on TV.
To the credit of its producers, the movie does not try to cover too much territory and focuses primarily on the events that eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally gave African-Americans the right to vote.
Actor David Oyelowo, playing the role of Martin Luther King, does a magnificent job of conveying King’s passion, sensitivity, and charismatic personality. The film also does not omit King’s adulterous relationships but handles it discreetly in a scene where his wife (played convincingly by Carmen Ejogo) confronts him after hearing a brief audio recording together of one of his liaisons. The scenes with King and the domineering, foulmouthed LBJ are lessons in courage, integrity, and iron resolve. Some lines from the movie may come as a shock (especially if they are true) such as when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suggests taking King out, or doing things to cause problems within his marriage to demoralize him.
My only negative critique of the movie would be including Oprah in the cast. As a cultural icon I thought she detracted from the story. I even voiced out loud (which I never do in a theater), “No. What are they doing that for?” at still another camera shot of her. Even if you don’t express it verbally, your mind will probably make the side note: Oh, there’s Oprah again.
In the final analysis, this excellent film is not about our sordid past but about a gifted and flawed man who had the guts to reprove a nation in denial about repressing the rights of its own people and the heart to give his life to see that changed.
I’m warning you, though. If you see this film, be prepared to have chills going up and down your spine as King gives his speech when they finally reach Montgomery: “Like any man, I’d like to live a long life but it doesn’t matter to me now because I’ve been to the mountain top and I’ve seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!”
“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong” (Exodus 23:2)
Belle (2013) PG
Genre: Historical Romance
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights, Jupiter Ascending), Tom Wilkinson(Sense and Sensibility), Sam Reid (The Railway Man)
Director: Amma Asante (A Way of Life)
Writer: Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God, TV movie, 2005)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Belle is an excellent period film based on the true story of a young, mulatto woman raised in a British aristocratic family during the 18th century. What makes the family dynamic so unusual is the family’s patriarch is the Lord Chief Justice who will rule in a nationally, high-profile case that will legally determine if slaves are “human beings” or the “property” of their slave owners. When Belle learns the details of the trial by reading the evidence in the judge’s office, she realizes she must risk his love (who was her father figure) and speak out on behalf of her race. A passionate, anti-slavery advocate also seeks to influence the judge at every opportunity, while at the same time, becoming increasingly smitten with Belle’s intelligence, poise, and beauty.
“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14b)
Suffragette (2016) PG-13
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep
Writer: Abi Morgan
Director: Sarah Gavron
The movie's title is the name originally given to English women who sought to legalize a woman's right to vote in the early 1900s. The story follows the involvement of a young laundry worker, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), in the movement, who at first reluctantly testifies before political leaders, but then becomes fully engaged in the fight. Their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), boldly tells her troops in so many words: "We've tried to convince lawmakers peacefully for years. Now we need to do more." Her methods include throwing stones through store windows, setting fires in public mailboxes, and bombing a secondary home of a prominent leader. Society dismisses and disdains them as public nuisances and the police brutalize and arrest them. One detective offers Maud leniency if she will spy for him, but she refuses.
Meanwhile, Maud's husband is so humiliated and ashamed by her behavior he kicks her out of the house. Later, he breaks her heart by giving up their young boy for adoption claiming he cannot raise him alone. Men had all rights regarding the children at this time in England.
Although the overall movie quality and the acting are superb--Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter are excellent--the cards seem so stacked against Maud it makes her situation almost unbearable to watch. To top it off, we learn later that Maud was also sexually abused by her employer.
Yet, this film is a powerful history lesson on the personal cost the pioneers of the women's rights' movement had to pay before achieving their goals. I question, however, their destructive and violent means to that end. Unfortunately, the weight of the movie almost completely obscures their ultimate victory and leaves you feeling as bludgeoned and beaten as the women. Perhaps, that was the director's intent. Worth watching but it definitely lacks scenes to lighten the load.
*Be aware that the movie seems to advocate violence against the government and there is a brief shot of rear female nudity when the arrested women are forced to change into prison clothes.
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
Free State of Jones
Free State of Jones (2016) R
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell
Director: Gary Ross
Writers: Leonard Hartman (story), Gary Ross
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Newton Knight is definitely an enigmatic character from the Civil War period and worthy of cinematic portrayal, especially since most Americans have never heard of him. Knight was a poor farmer from Jones County, Mississippi who was against his state seceding from the Union like the majority of people in his state. Yet, when the Mississippi rep buckled under pressure at the southern convention and voted like the others, Knight, like many others of eligible age, had a decision to make: join the army or be labeled a "traitor" and be executed.
Although Knight served briefly as a soldier, he eventually became an orderly tending to the wounded men in battle. He leaves this post, however, when his nephew is killed while Knight is taking him to safety (fictionalized scene, historically it was when he learned that Confederate soldiers had taken his horses). Arriving home he is appalled when he discovers that family homes in his county are being pillaged with the blessing of the Confederacy.
To avoid capture and certain death, Knight hides out in the swamps with other deserters and escaped slaves. It is here that he learns the horrors of slavery first-hand and where he forges a friendship with a lovely, mulatto slave named Rachel who brings the group vital information and supplies. Newton and Rachel apparently fall in love (despite the fact he is married) although there are no scenes or dialogue that really show that they were more than friends, except when Rachel is giving birth to their child.
It's also in the marshes that Newton's leadership rises to the fore as he builds an effective and strategic army (he says it was never more than 125 people...some Confederate leaders thought it was a 1000) and becomes a persistent thorn in the side of the Confederacy.
A powerful scene that shows Knight's outrage at soldiers preying on vulnerable, absentee husband/father homes is when he goes alone to defend one such homestead. He immediately gives everyone in the family some rifles (which includes only a mother and her young daughters) and instructs them to point them at the intruders coming on their land. When the four soldiers arrive, the leader laughs at what he sees, but Knight, cold and serious, says: "Last time I checked, a rifle never cared about who pulled the trigger."
Unfortunately, the filmmakers include a side story with several flash forward scenes where Newton and Rachel's great grandson is being prosecuted for marrying a white woman, which are totally irrelevant to the main narrative of Knight's life and disrupts the flow of the movie. Newton Knight's life is plenty for one film and he did many praiseworthy things, both during and after the war. He defended the poor; he supported and fought for equal rights for blacks; he undermined the Confederacy's war effort; and he served as a U.S. Marshall during Reconstruction to make sure slave children were returned to their parents.
Yet, despite all the good he accomplished, Newton Knight was clearly not a paragon of virtue (sorry somebody had to say it). He cohabited with two woman for years--with his first wife, Serena, with whom he had nine children, and Rachel, the common law wife and ex-slave, with whom he had five. And let's not forget, he also fathered two children with Rachel's daughter (an offspring that Rachel had conceived with another man). Victoria E. Bynum suggests in her book, The Free State of Jones, that it was the latter situation that finally pushed Serena out of the house.
In my opinion, this was a good film (Matthew McConaughey is great) but it would have been much better if they had focused only on Knight's life, developed the relationship between Rachel and Newton with dialogue and scenes, showed what happened to Knight's relationship with his first wife, and had more Civil War action scenes.
"Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor" (Proverbs 28:8).
* Some scenes to be aware of: graphic war violence, and several hangings which include children. A man is strangled with a belt. No sex scenes.
Some of the online sources used were: Historyvshollywood, Mississippi Historical Society (mshistorynow), The Smithsonian article on the movie, among others.
Race (2016) PG-13
Starring: Stephen James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton
Writers: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Distributor: Focus Features
Race is an excellent title for this film since it is about racism during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games--Hitler wanting to ban Jews and blacks from participating and to prove the "Aryan" variety superior to all others--and also about the track events that American Jesse Owens wants to win.
It is bewildering why a feature-length film about Owens has not been made until now (a TV mini-series was done in 1984) because he was an exceptional athlete who broke three world records and tied one within a mere 45 minutes at an intercollegiate trackmeet in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1935, and singlehandedly showed Hitler the fallacy of his belief in a "master" race at the Olympics a year later.
The film begins with Owens' as a young man before going to Ohio State University. He already has a reputation as a top athlete and he's also the father of a daughter out of wedlock. He is shown, however, as a loving and responsible man who is planning to marry the mother, Ruth Solomon.
Unfortunately, at college, his commitment wanes as he meets an elegant and seductive woman at a dance club. It doesn't help that his friends are pushing him to pick her up. Ruth, of course, is devastated when she finds out about his infidelity and wants nothing to do with him, famous or not. Finally, Jesse comes to his senses and makes a concerted effort to win her back.
One of the most powerful scenes is when Owens competes against the German Karl ('Luz') Long in the long jump. Long shows himself as a noble and gracious host when he tells Jesse to jump a few inches before the line (after Owens fouls twice) and then humbly puts his arm around Owens and takes him on a victory lap around the track, amidst the thundering applause in the stadium, when Jesse breaks the world record. Owens later said of the incident: "It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment (quote found at historyvshollywood.com)."
Although this is a quality film in terms of its cinematography, acting, etc. with a praiseworthy character in many ways, there were a few things that bothered me about it. One. I thought there was an excess of hard language (quite a few GDs). Two. There was no thanks given to God for his extraordinary achievements (maybe he was not a Christian). Three. Owens' says some things in Luz's room that I thought were totally out of character. Here Luz tells Owens sadly that a woman was sent to his room by German leaders so she could get pregnant (implying that it was to produce top athletes). But, instead of seeing the anguish Luz is expressing at the sick actions of his countrymen, Owens responds flippantly and says, "I got a telegram from the governor and a case of Coca-Cola. Maybe I should emigrate." Though meant to be funny, I don't think a man who almost lost his wife because of his unfaithfulness would have said that, nor someone who knew how the leaders of the country viewed his race.
Still, despite its flaws, this is a film worth watching about one of America's greatest athletes.
"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (1Corinthians 9:25).
Saints and Soldiers
Saints and Soldiers (2003) PG-13
Starring: Corbin Allred, Alexander Niver, Kirby Heyborne, Larry Baghy, Peter Asle Holden
Writers: Geoffrey Panas, Matt Whitaker
Director: Ryan Little
Distributor: Excel Entertainment Group
In terms of the writing, characterization, acting, war action, humor, and the integration of faith into a WW II story, this movie is without rival. The film, based on true events, begins just before the infamous massacre of seventy captured U.S. soldiers at Malmedy, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. Four soldiers are fortunate enough to escape the carnage. At first, they are seeking only to survive in the freezing, winter weather and elude recapture, but their mission changes when they meet a downed British pilot who has vital information about a major German offensive that needs to get to Allied command.
The four characters, and then five, cannot be more different. Corporal Nathan Green or “Deak” short for Deacon is a religious man who is the only one in the group with a gun. What troubles the medic, Steven Gould, is the fact Deak hasn’t had much sleep and seems to be hallucinating. He tries to convince Sergeant Gunderson to give the weapon to someone else, but Gunderson refuses. “He’s saved me more times than I can count. And he’s the best shot I’ve ever seen.” Shirl Hendrick is the southern boy obsessing over cigarettes who offers to do a card trick for the Brit, Oberon Winley, for one of his "fags."
Winley brings a comic element to the group. When the four first discover him caught in a tree dangling from his parachute, he grabs Shirl and points a pistol at them when he is cut down and says: “Ok. If you’re Americans, who was the third president? The fourth?” He stumps them when he asks: “What is the capital of Vermont?” Later, he asks everybody to share a “deep, dark secret” to create an “esprit du corp” which brings out some revealing answers. The dialogue is well spread out among the main characters and each one was well cast.
Despite his mental torments, Deak shares his faith with the atheist Gould. Deak was a missionary to Germany before the war and tells Gould, "It was the best experience of my life." Gould, on the other hand, equates all the Nazis with Hitler and hates them all indiscriminately. Some dramatic points in the film include a scene where Gould sees a Nazi soldier differently and one where he is obviously rethinking his own presuppositions.
To me, this independent film was flawless--perfectly blending all the essential elements of superior movie-making with a profound portrayal of faith from an authentic, though imperfect, American soldier.
"For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him" (2 Chronicles 16:9).
Dunkirk (2017) PG-13
Starring: Aneurin Barnard, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance,
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Director: Christopher Nolan
Distributor: Warner's Bros.
Despite glowing reviews from the New York Times, a 50 million domestic opening weekend, and all the hype for the last couple of months, I found this movie underwhelming. One. I did not really bond with the main characters. There just wasn’t enough back story or dialogue to really get to know them. For example, we are introduced to the first main character running through Dunkirk with several other British soldiers. They are shot at by unseen assailants. He (Tommy) makes it to the beach and sees thousands of other British soldiers waiting to be evacuated. He sees that the wounded are being carried on stretchers to a Red Cross ship so he and another soldier find a wounded man, put him on a stretcher, and run to the ship—the act of a quick-thinking, self-centered opportunist, not a compassionate man wanting to save someone’s life. Hardly a hero in my book.
The real heroes of this “miracle at Dunkirk” were the civilians who dared to take their boats across the English Channel at the risk of their lives. Yet, there is very little focus on them—except for one man and his two sons who answer the call. But where did they hear about it? Radio? Word of mouth? If it was the radio, why not have Winston Churchill, or whoever it was, give the call on the radio with people all around England listening to it in their homes, and then running to their fishing vessel, yacht, or motor boat to courageously help rescue their countrymen—with hundreds of boats showing up at the end. Didn't happen. Anti-climatic.
Another thing I found strange was the absence of the enemy. Apart from the fluttering propaganda leaflets with a crude map showing where the allied forces were surrounded; a few Nazi planes attacking the British forces on the beach and sky; and a few Nazis at the end capturing a downed pilot; you do not really see the face of the enemy. To me, this omission weakened the conflict. A couple of shots of superior Nazi forces with Panzers, for example, at key junctures, with arrogant German generals discussing their plans to crush their enemy, could have increased the dramatic tension significantly.
On the spiritual level, I do not recall anything whatsoever, which is sad given the fact that England's leaders proclaimed a national day of prayer on the evening before the operation, with King George VI attending a special service in Westminster Abbey (from the online article, "The Miracle of Dunkirk: 40 Facts about the Famous Evacuation").
Though not a bad movie I expected more. To be succinct, I was “shocked and ahhed.” Ahh…it could have been better.
"Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord" (Psalm 33:12).
Darkest Hour (PG-13) 2017
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kirstin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Director: Joe Wright
Distributor: Focus Features
Watching Gary Oldman portraying Winston Churchill is worth the price of admission and my bet for Best Actor of 2017. Oldman captures beautifully Churchill's well-known eccentricities, bad habits, mumblings, bull-headedness, and lionesque leadership qualities.
The movie basically shows WWII from a country leader's point of view with war room strategies, rival politicians plotting against him, hard decisions, and understanding the pulse of the nation. Kirstin Scott Thomas also perfectly plays his loving wife, Clemmie, who wants others "to see you as I do" with dignity and candor befitting a great man's companion.
The best scene is when Churchill bolts out of his limousine to take the metro for the first time in his life. Why? So he can get vital input from ordinary Brits about what he should do. After their initial shock of seeing the Prime Minister in flesh and blood, the people respond honestly with passion and resolve.
As Esther in the Bible, Churchill was indeed positioned for "such a time as this" to rally the nation against a tyrant and an evil empire.
As seen in the film, Churchill was loved by many and despised by others--such is the fate of those who take a strong stand for what is right.
"In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2Timothy 2: 12).
Waco (2018) PG-13
Starring: Michael Shannon, Taylor Kitsch, Rory Culkin, Julia Garner
Writers: Drew Dowdle, John Erick Dowdle, Gary W. Noesner, David Thibodeau, Leon Whiteson, Salvatore Stabile, Sara Nicole Jones
Directors: John Erick Dowdle and Dennie Gordon
Distributor: Parmount Network (originally appeared here in 2018), now available for streaming on Netflix
This Netflix TV series could easily have been entitled “Wackos” as opposed to “Waco” but then again the stated reasons for the project was to "humanize" the Branch Davidians, according to Waco survivor, David Thibodeau.* Though the producers of the series made the characters real, however, they are far from normal. Not only was David Karesh profoundly deluded, espousing his own weird interpretations of the Bible, but his followers were just as crazy for believing him. How else can you explain why married men allowed their wives to have exclusive sex with this cult leader while they remained abstinent? Not to mention the wives who were complicit? You mean to tell me there were no red flags, ladies and gentlemen, going up at this unholy “revelation”?
I watched the mini-series out of curiosity because I did not know the details of this historic event from 1993. Each episode kept me riveted to the screen to see if any of the characters would come to their senses and finally break with this maniac and save themselves and their children. What also helped the series move along were the superb performances by four outstanding actors—Taylor Kitsch playing David Koresh, Michael Shannon playing Gary Noesner, Rory Culkin playing David Thibodeau, and Julia Garner playing Michelle Jones. The credit for the storyline is given to two books—Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner and Waco: A Survivor’s Story by David Thibodeau, both sympathetic to the Branch Davidians and critical of the methods employed by the Federal agencies. If the actions portrayed in the series are correct, the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms) and the FBI made crucial decisions that effectively led to a massacre that could have been avoided.
Karesh comes across as a very charismatic personality who shows both sensitive compassion and a deranged sense of messianic grandeur. You see an empathetic Karesh, for example, coming along side a lost young man at a bar, baring his soul, and then offering the man shelter and a chance to discover true meaning in life. Other scenes show him declaring himself to be the “Lamb of God” and the progenitor of the 24 elders spoken about in Revelation. What is hard for an objective viewer is: How could people be so deceived by such a man? I mean, "C’mon, Thibodeau, you marry a young woman to cover for Karesh in case an investigation takes place that is looking into his sexual misconduct with minors!" And dear Perry Jones, "Dad, did you seriously have no problem letting your daughters marry the same man--and one at 12 years old?"
In terms of Christian values, not much here. The only spiritual parts are when Koresh pontificates on his strange brew (view) of Scripture and when he is reaching out to non-believers, which includes a FBI agent sent to live next door and spy on the compound. Although Karesh's heart to help people is laudatory, he was a obviously a false prophet who led many to their deaths. Yet, in this series, sad to say, he is pretty much the only one who ever talks about God. When Karesh boldly asks Nosener on the phone, for example, if he believes in God, Nosener hems and haws and is non-committal.
Fortunately, the filmmakers made the right decision not to focus on Karesh's overactive sex life. In fact, in all the episodes, there is only one brief sex scene depicted with Koresh in bed under the covers with his wife. She is seen in a bra at the end when he pulls the top of the blanket away from her as he stops having sex because he says, “I’m enjoying this too much."
You also wonder why the government did not just arrest Karesh when he went out of the compound to do errands instead of employing tanks, snipers, and hundreds of agents to force a violent confrontation.
Generally, the production values were high. I was intrigued and pulled into the story, but I can’t say I took much away on the spiritual level except…don’t be deceived by charismatic leaders who deviate from the Scriptures and proclaim “new” revelations that contradict clear teachings from the Bible.
It would have balanced out the worldviews portrayed in the series if there had been, at least, one stable character who had an authentic faith based on the truth.
*SmithsonianMag.com, The True Story of 'Waco' is Still One of Contention by Roger Catlin, Jan. 31, 2018).
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God's curse!" (Galations 1:6-8)