Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Kindness Makes a Comeback?

Ted Lasso was the first Apple+ streaming series to have a “must-see” impact. The not quite Ned-Flanders-esque main character prompted the tagline “Kindness makes a comeback.” I have enjoyed the sweetly comic series, which has deepened its drama over its two seasons. That tagline, which only appeared midway through the first season, apparently after much internet chatter about the show providing a needed balm during the pandemic, reminded me of two other taglines.

Two movies came out a year apart, were about the same subject, had very similar titles, and even taglines. In 2018 and 2019, those taglines were “A little kindness makes a world of difference”, and “We could all use a little kindness,” respectively. Have you guessed they were both about Mister Rogers?

The first was a documentary titled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the second was a drama starring Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, which are both lines from the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song. I highly recommend both films, and to see them in this order. The 2018 documentary presents an unassuming Presbyterian minister whose puppetry, music, and compassion revolutionized children’s television. The 2019 drama shows him through his interaction with a jaded journalist. You will better appreciate Tom Hanks’ performance with the foundation of the documentary. The documentary gives a fuller picture of Fred Rogers’ background, motivation, and experience, including studying child psychology, most of which happens before the period in which the Hanks drama occurs.

Neither of these films, by the way, are targeted at Mister Rogers’ original audience. They are not aimed at small children, but at adults who are curious to understand what Fred Rogers was all about. The documentary is actually rated PG-13; while the drama is rated PG.

Both films acknowledge Fred Rogers as a Christian, though the documentary spends more time on it. He saw his ministry as connecting to children through television to help them deal with the world. In fact, I would say that he embodied, modeled, and taught many Christian values, such as love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, charity, and humility (Galatians 5:22-23), which are sadly missing from so many professed Christians today. Then, as now, some conservatives balk at his message.

A less obvious Christian aspect is the very concept of “neighbor”. The lead-up to the well-known “good Samaritan” parable is a discussion between a lawyer and Jesus. The conclusion is that to inherit eternal life, one must love the Lord -- and your neighbor as yourself. The lawyer then asks Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with a parable demonstrating that a stranger is your neighbor too (Luke 10:25-37).

I think the taglines underplay Rogers’ impact and, if you will, his gospel. After watching these films, I think you will feel that his message was more than “a little kindness.”

As for Ted Lasso, the show (mostly the protagonist) does display kindness, as well as forgiveness, second chances, and compassion, but sometimes seems to want to make a point that these are not due to any spiritual pursuit. Kindness and forgiveness are also supposed to be Christian values (Colossians 3:12-13). Likewise are compassion (1 John 3:17), and second chances (Luke 15:11-32, known as “the prodigal son” parable). 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq. © 2017 Sony Pictures

Awkward Gentleman, Spiritual Knight

“He’s on a spiritual journey, but he doesn’t know it,” says Denzel Washington about his character, Roman J. Israel, Esq. Many critics did not seem to know that either, judging from their reviews. Denzel Washington’s performance did get unanimous praise, including an Oscar nomination, but reviewers I respect said things about the movie like this: “mired in the predictable” (Peter Travers), “milquetoast… cop-out… unresolved” (Alyssa Rosenberg), and “appealing if ultimately frustrating” (Ann Hornaday). I suspect their reaction was due to the difference in tone from writer-director Dan Gilroy's previous film, Nightcrawler.

When my wife and I watched it, we did not have those reactions, so I wanted to figure out why. I think it’s because we were viewing it with a spiritual agenda. To be clear, we thought Washington was great, but we also enjoyed the arc of the story and its resolution. Underlying that story was a spiritual dimension of sin, confession, and redemption, and some Christian allegory. 

Denzel Washington portrays Roman J. Israel, a socially awkward (possibly on the autism spectrum) lawyer working behind the scenes with well-known civil rights lawyer William Henry Jackson. When Jackson has a heart attack, Israel is thrust out of his den of safety into challenges he does not seem equipped for. Roman is stalwart in his principles of merciful righteousness, even if they are awkwardly declared. He defends one client as affected by “a legion of forces beyond his control.” He says, “each one of us is better than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” These statements will have a different meaning for him later. 

To a teenage client, he says, “You're being overcharged to accept and plea to keep things moving. They want to punish you for asking for a day in court. It's a volume business.” This is the subject of Roman's magnum opus lawsuit that he works on in his spare time. 

Roman is frustrated in his attempts to deal directly with the justice system. His efforts anger a judge who finds him in contempt of court. Without Jackson, his law office is closed, and he is jobless. He is offered a job by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a fashionable, high-priced lawyer, nearly the polar opposite of Israel. He declines and insults Pierce in the process. He tries to get a job with a civil rights group, but it doesn’t pay. Ultimately, he fails to find gainful employment anywhere else, and ends up working at Pierce’s high-priced law firm. There, he has to defend their expensive rates to modest clients who have to deplete their savings or mortgage their home.  This leads to other compromises and his fall ensues. Roman says he is tired of “doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” yet others are inspired by his decades of fighting for civil rights and representing the needy. This contradiction leads to turmoil in Roman, bred by his hypocrisy. 

I recommend the movie not just for Denzel Washington’s performance, which is worthy by itself, but for the story by writer and director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), and supporting actors, especially Colin Farrell. Israel starts to bring out Pierce’s long-smothered ideals. Roman tells Pierce “we’re agents of change, every one of us,” and shows him his giant class-action lawsuit documents. In the same way, Israel inspires Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo, It Comes at Night), who he meets at the civil rights non-profit. 

Christians often say they are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-15 in the Bible), and Roman is clearly a model for that. At least, he is not of this time: sporting a flip-phone; an iPod with Walkman headphones; an Afro; rumpled, ill-fitting suits; bulky glasses. 

Spoilers follow. The movie begins with Israel typing up a petition for the court -- the Supreme Court of Absolute Universal Law. He is both the prosecutor and the defendant, and the charge is hypocrisy and “turning his back on everything he ever claimed to stand for.” Who would the judge at this court be? God?

A flashback to three weeks prior begins, and we see Roman struggle with the world, and succumb to disillusionment. First, his partner suffers a terminal heart attack, removing his buffer against the world, then his job goes away, and without severance. Unemployed, he finds nothing, and is humiliated twice at a civil rights non-profit group. His first compromise is going to work for Pierce, whom he had previously judged and insulted. He is chastised there for insulting a law partner in response to a tasteless joke. Then, going against Pierce’s wishes, he rejects a plea bargain for a client, insulting the prosecutor, and neglects to tell the client. Roman’s insults are not meant to be mean, but honest, blunt appraisals of people’s roles in a broken justice system. The client, who was hoping to cooperate and receive protective custody, is killed in jail. Roman is called to the carpet, but not fired. 

On his way home, a drug addict pleads with Roman for money. Roman tries to give him meal tickets for a mission. The man attacks him while Roman loudly protests, “you’ve got the wrong guy,” as if to say, I’m on your side, why are you attacking me? 

The last step in his downward slide is a visit to a comatose Jackson in the hospital. There, Roman tells Jackson’s wife he had thought the law practice was "built on solid ground,” but that “we filed the wrong brief in the wrong court to the wrong judge.” In Luke 6:48-9, Jesus says that his teaching is solid ground. Would Jesus then be the right judge? Roman leaves her hurt and confused, saying that he wants a maple-glazed turkey bacon donut that he had read about.  

When this series of encounters breaks something inside Roman, he compromises and falls into temptation to sin. (In fact, many of his previous outbursts can be seen as demonstrating the sin of pride.) He breaks attorney-client privilege for reward money. He begins to live for himself, then feels guilt as he is praised by Maya and Pierce for his selflessness. Roman tells Maya that “purity can’t survive in this world.” At Jackson’s funeral, he says “the real enemies aren’t outside, they’re within.” 

He begins to fear for his life once his betrayal is found out – by a jailed client who says “You broke your own law! Privileged information!” He considers running but decides that was a bad decision. Finally, in a version of praying and fasting, he delves ever deeper into law books, to develop the aforementioned petition. He tells a colleague that “I believe I’ll be unavailable for the foreseeable future.” He tells Maya “I’m going away… where they send me. Something has occurred.” 

Roman then calls money “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” (See Genesis 2:17 and 1 Timothy 6:10 in the Bible.) Unknown to viewers until later, he has already returned the unspent portion of the reward money. In an accompanying note, he writes “taking it was wrong. We are all formed of frailty and error. Let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly. That is the first law of nature.” (See Matthew 6:15 and 7:12 in the Bible.) We should recognize this as a William Henry Jackson quote, which Pierce also quotes. 

Pierce confronts Roman about the money and Roman tells him about his petition. Pierce thinks Roman is crazy, or at least should plead that he is. But Roman says he has “never been clearer,” and is turning himself in. He says he has had a “revelation,” will convict himself, and grant forgiveness to himself. He says his entire defense is the “unequivocal recitation of the truth.” This all sounds like confession. He has already initiated restitution by returning the bulk of the money.  

At the end, Roman leaves his lawsuit, whose intent is to get justice for the mercilessly accused. Pierce follows through to file it. In the Bible, Jesus reads aloud Isaiah 61:1, which says, said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me... to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Luke 4:18) In the same passage, he says “the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” And this is the effect Roman has on Maya. 

One inspirational, allegorical event that inspired Maya was when she and Roman found a dead man on the sidewalk. Two white police officers stop to see what’s going on and order Roman not to touch the body as he puts his business card in the corpse’s pocket. Israel defies them in the deceased man’s interest, saying that he wants to be called so he can take care of the man’s body. Then the man gets up and walks away, ending the stand-off. The police leave, and Maya is impressed at Israel’s defiance, saying “That was unbelievable,” and “no one does that.” But it also seems as if Israel has just resurrected the dead, and her words could also mean that. Putting his business card on the man to take care of him after death also seems symbolic: as if claiming him, as Jesus in Revelation 2:17 gives a new name to overcomers. 

Speaking of names, Roman and Israel are opposed in the Bible, with Rome occupying Israel. Israel was the oppressed and Rome the military state oppressor. Could J stand for Jesus? Pierce is Israel’s foil. Jesus was pierced on the cross, as Psalm 22:16 prophesied. Jesus was prosecutor, defendant, and sacrificial lamb all in one. 

Roman is once asked what "esquire" means, and he says, "It’s a designation in the legal arena; a title of dignity, slightly above gentleman, and below knight." Christianity Today magazine asked, “Do We Need another Denzel Washington Christ figure?” I don’t know that I agree with the tone of the question. I, for one, am happy that we got this movie. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Come Sunday, Will You Recant?

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Come Sunday. Photo by Tina Rowden © Netflix
Chiwetel Ejiofor in Come Sunday. Photo by Tina Rowden © Netflix

Ejiofor Impresses as Conscience-Driven Christian “Heretic”

“There are so few movies where you actually see people in this country who have faith portrayed in a way that is sympathetic and in their world.” So says Ira Glass (This American Life), the producer of Come Sunday, a new movie debuting on Netflix this Friday. Come Sunday is successful in the true-to-life portrayal of that world. In fact, the movie is based on the true story of Carlton Pearson as explored on the This American Life radio program in 2005. 

Bishop Carlton Pearson, portrayed convincingly by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), was a graduate of Oral Roberts University, and Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen) was his mentor. Pearson and a white classmate (Jason Segel) founded the integrated Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had grown to 5,000 in its first 20 years. 

Pearson and his associate pastors successfully preached the evangelical gospel of the past 1,500 years, attracting many to faith in Christ. Then, at the peak of his popularity, Pearson is stopped in his tracks, while watching TV news coverage of starving African children in 1998. He asks how a sovereign God can allow this suffering and death, then “just suck them down into hell” for eternal conscious torment. It was then, he says, that God spoke to him, telling him that those children would not go to hell, but into God’s presence. This divine revelation frees him from his self-imposed burden, borne of firmly held Christian tradition and many evidences in the Bible, of getting everyone saved from damnation to hell. But it brings a new burden of now standing opposed to centuries of tradition, and those that uphold it. Nearly all his friends, family, congregation, mentors, and religious hierarchy reject him for his new understanding.  

I think the makers of this movie hope that viewers can see beyond the doctrinal debate  and see it as a character study on standing up for what you believe, and the consequences of doing so, and how that looks in a faith community. Indeed, the movie succeeds there, as Ejiofor beautifully renders Pearson’s dark night of the soul, as his flock shrinks, his influence wanes, and he leaves preaching for a time. The depiction of loss and the reaction of his people defy stereotypes commonly portrayed in media. Some viewers might complain that the movie slows down here, but that underscores the life change, from jet-setting charismatic speaking and a large church, to considering starting over in an empty warehouse. We are given a virtual walk with a man who resists multiple offers to repent of his epiphany. Instead of accepting to make things all right again, thereby pleasing men, rather than God, he chooses to bear this cross.

Meanwhile, questions about his emerging “gospel of inclusion” are unresolved. What happens to the Biblical commandments, sin, confession, repentance, being born again? Does taking hell out of the equation defang Christianity, and make it more appealing, or less necessary? Interestingly, the beginning of Pearson’s formulation of his new theology is based on “rereading” rather than “rewriting” scripture. He cites 1 Timothy 4:10, 2 John 2:1-2, and 1 Cor 15:22 to support Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for all people. Serendipitously for this movie, Pope Francis is in the middle of a related controversy, supposedly saying that there is no hell, but instead annihilation, then denying that he said that. 

Regardless of the incomplete theology, I enjoyed Come Sunday immensely. But I might be part of a small niche market that feels comfortable with thorny religious questions. 

I recommend this movie, regardless of a viewer’s position on hell, if only to see the performances of Ejiofor, and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts. Sheen doesn’t play Roberts as the bad guy, but as a more complex character with sorrows, hopes, regrets, and a sincere love for Pearson. He refers to Pearson as his “black son” and wants him back in the fold. Jason Segel portrays Pearson’s right-hand man with vulnerability and affection. The comic actor might seem an odd choice, unless you’ve seen The Discovery or Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Condola Rashad (Money Monster), as Pearson’s wife, shines when she steps out of the shadows to defend and support him. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out) as the church’s gay music director, and Danny Glover as Pearson’s convict uncle, provide depth by giving Pearson real-world consequences for his beliefs.

Director Joshua Marston (The Forgiveness of Blood) and screenwriter Marcus Hinchey (All Good Things), neither household names, do an excellent job of playing this story even-handedly and without Hollywood melodrama. Glass is correct that this is a sympathetic portrayal of the faithful. Even though Pearson is clearly our protagonist, both sides of the theological divide are treated with respect. And that is something worth applauding. ★★★★☆

Come Sunday is available on Netflix beginning April 13.
Watch the trailer: 
The movie is based in part on Episode 304 of This American Life: Heretics
Ira Glass is quoted from The IMDb Studio at Sundance Film Festival ‘18.  

Introducing Kier & Cathleen

Welcome to Crossover Cinema. I'm your host, Kier. I'm a late-blooming Christian. I consider myself born again, but not necessarily conservative. My mission in this blog is to promote thoughtful films and critique them from a faith perspective. I focus on movies that might attract nonbelievers and reward Christians too. 

I'm also a late-blooming movie reviewer. That is, at least in the sense of writing them down. In high school and college, I did review music, and a few movies. Last year, I was unexpectedly sent an invitation to screen a new movie before its release. Here, I thought, with much encouragement from my wife Cathleen, is my invitation to be a critic. That the movie was faith-related served as confirmation.

Cathleen is my in-house expert advisor on Christian life, from its history to its frontier. She has personal in-depth experience with many denominations and parachurch groups. Along with me, she has been a student of a wide range of Christian and other religion writers and speakers.