The Common Good

Culture Watch

Reclaiming 'Angry' Feminism and Other Lessons from 'She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry'

Bras weren’t the only things the second-wave feminists burned in the ‘60s. But that’s all I learned about the movement in school and casual conversation (on the rare occasions when feminist movements were brought up). The documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, fills in what our education system and historical imaginations leave out.

Second-wave feminists also burned oppressive patriarchy, definitions of feminine beauty, and, most poignant to me, their hard-earned diplomas. They literally set fire to bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and PhD certificates. An activist in the film explained, "We had graduated and learned nothing about women."

This documentary shows us what the textbooks didn’t and still don’t show often enough — the early, angry, undoubtedly beautiful grassroots radicals.

Of course, not all anger is beautiful. Some anger is abusive, relentless, and uncontrollable. I noticed three types of anger in the documentary — one beautiful, and two problematic.

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Christian Alternative to 'Fifty Shades' Makes the Same Mistakes, Just Without the Sex

This Valentine’s Day, two films will battle for the hearts and minds of the American public. One of them is Fifty Shades of Grey, the popular culture juggernaut that has earned millions of dollars worldwide. The other is a Christian-produced independent film, Old Fashioned, which bills itself as the scrubbed-up, evangelical alternative.

Having faith-based responses to secular media (and saying Fifty Shades of Grey is secular is a little like saying the Grand Canyon is big) is more than appropriate. It’s necessary. Otherwise we risk ignoring the vital words of Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Christians and non-believers alike should be regularly exposed to art that causes them to question the world around them.

Sadly, Old Fashioned is not the movie to fit that bill. Both it and Fifty Shades of Grey present dangerously unrealistic portraits of relationships — one just does it without the sex.

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How to 'Defy the World:' An Interview with 'Wanted' Author Chris Hoke

Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders is non-fiction, but I read it like it was one of the latest blockbuster novels, this time with gorgeous writing. I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t want the journey to end, following Chris Hoke through jails and streams and farms of Washington’s Skagit Valley as he grew from a young man interested in faith outside the walls of the church to a pastor to the “homies” of the area, as they called themselves—men whose criminal past or undocumented status have caused them to be among the most marginalized in our society. This book is imbued with dignity, prayer, and an understanding that relationships require forgiveness, on both sides. Wanted is a beautiful reflection on what the life of faith looks like in action.

Hoke grew up in southern California but was drawn to the dimmer corners of the Christian faith. He made his way to northwest Washington state to work with Tierra Nueva, a ministry that “seeks to share the good news of God’s freedom in Jesus Christ with people on the margins (immigrant, inmates, ex-offenders, the homeless).” We recently chatted about his work with Tierra Nueva, the value of a good metaphor, and how reading the Scriptures in prison can make them new.

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For the Love of ‘Paddington:’ A Movie Review

I loved Paddington, the new movie based on the Michael Bonds books about an immigrant bear who arrives in London from darkest Peru. Paddington has no resources other than his faith that he will be welcomed with open arms. Sadly, his experience begins like that of most undocumented immigrants to the European or American shores – he is rejected and ignored. But this is a playful movie with a happy ending that celebrates what wonderful things happen to the Brown family when they allow Paddington into their hearts and home.

Admittedly, Paddington is a handful – a wild animal unfamiliar with modern conveniences, whose commitment to being polite does not prevent unfortunate accidents that fulfill the nervous Mr. Brown’s worst fears. As the family learns to love this accident-prone bear, however, their love for each other is renewed. The villain (yes, of course, there’s a villain!) is defeated, Paddington finds a home, and the Brown’s problems are cured by loving the alien in their midst.

Does this fictional account of immigration with a happy ending have any bearing (pun intended!) on our real world immigration crisis? This movie invites us to wonder whether our fears of the changes that immigration brings are unfounded. After all, many European and American citizens fear the waves of legal and illegal immigration in Europe and the United States. We know all too well that these uninvited guests are radically changing racial, religious, and cultural demographics. Immigrants disrupt labor patterns, burden welfare systems, and tax the criminal justice system. And unlike the movie’s cartoon explosions, floods, and fires, the violence in our world that seems fomented in and among immigrant communities is all too real a threat.

Or so the story goes that stokes our fears. But is the story true?

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'Leviathan' a Grimly Familiar Beast

When we meet Kolya, the film’s protagonist, he’s in the midst of a long legal battle. He’s about to lose the house he built to the town’s mayor, a paranoid man obsessed with his own job security. Kolya’s already lost in court, but enlists the help of former army buddy Dimitri, a high-powered lawyer, to help him with an appeal. After the appeal’s failure, and some nasty bullying from local officials, Kolya is hit with a seemingly endless avalanche of humiliation and personal catastrophes.

The fishing village depicted in the film is a run-down hamlet characterized by an impressive amount of skeletal remains — and not just the kind that live in the closet. It’s strewn with ruined buildings, wrecked boats, and massive whale skeletons. In our world, the best architecture serves as a testament to man’s accomplishments, but the buildings and bones of Leviathan do exactly the opposite. They’re a constant reminder of decay and the temporary nature of what we mere mortals spend so much energy building and fighting over. Leviathan’s target is corruption in Russia, but its themes of pride, personal struggle, and frustration are universal.

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‘Selma:' We Are, Because They Were

In the first moments of SelmaI feel butterflies rise in my stomach as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) practices his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech while trying to tie his ascot. Butterflies rumble in my soul. I am almost fearful as we step into the world of Selma, because I am a student of the Civil Rights era. The movement’s lessons have shaped my life. I feel like I am about to meet my heroes.

So, King fiddles with his ascot in Oslo, Norway, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) comes close to comfort him, and little girls descend into the bowels of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and butterflies rise and my soul sits at attention. I know what is coming: hell … and glory.

The film still haunts me. Every performance is nuanced, textured, and humanizing. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is breathtaking. Her eye translates words into feelings into images — moving images that never leave you. Brutality and reverence occupy single frames. At once, the audience is horrified and awe-struck. I have no doubt Selma should win Oscars.

It is an amazing film, but it doesn’t haunt me because of its excellence. As I sat in the dark watching the movement unfold before my eyes, it was not the past that haunted me. It was the present.

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Why Jews Skipped Hanukkah and Wrote the Most Beloved Christmas Songs

Christians don’t seem to mind that so many beloved Christmas songs were written by Jews — and Jews tend to reel off the list with pride.

"White Christmas." "Let It Snow." "Santa Baby." "I’ll Be Home for Christmas." "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." "Silver Bells." "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Those not mentioned here could fill an album.

But why didn’t the Jews write any similarly iconic songs for their holiday that falls around Christmastime — Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights?

“I Have a Little Dreidl"? Great song … if you’re 4.

There are reasons that Jews are good at Christmas songs and why so many of these songs became so popular. And there are reasons why Jews didn’t write similarly catchy tunes for Hanukkah — or any other Jewish holiday.

But first, a little music history.

 
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A Tame Kind of 'Wild'

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) attempt valiantly to solve this problem, and achieve some moments of real beauty in the process. However, they never quite find a way to effectively connect Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) in her lowest moments, which include heroin addiction, the termination of a pregnancy, and divorce, with the woman we’re watching hike from Mexico to Canada — a woman who, while troubled, seems to have it considerably more together.

It also doesn’t help that the conversations Strayed does have on the trail tend towards the kind of dialogue that feels less like natural conversation and more like a talk between archetypes spouting bumper-sticker wisdom. The conversations that come up, about choices, regrets, and mistakes made, are all valuable. But the way they happen feels sanitized.

Ultimately, Wild does manage to present some solid thoughts on the process of grief and redemption. Strayed’s observation that everything in her life, both good and bad, led her to becoming a stronger, better person is important. Just as important is the film’s point that our relationships with others are vital to our survival and growth.

There’s no doubt that Strayed’s own experience was powerful and tough. But in its translation to film, particularly a film with a plot and performance tailor-made for awards season, Wild is a movie that’s afraid to upset people. It acknowledges the hard stuff, but barely hints at the true emotional complexities of its story and of its main character. Where it ought to challenge, it merely suggests. And while that’s okay, it’s disappointing that it isn’t more.

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Why Does Hollywood Keep Barring Minorities From Biblical Blockbusters?

This post originally appeared in The Week. Read the full post here.

Ridley Scott's Exodus has almost every ingredient necessary to make a holiday blockbuster: a timeless tale, killer cast, massive budget, pre-release media buzz, stunning special effects, and an impressive director. But if moviegoers look deeper, they'll notice one ingredient is painfully missing: melanin.

Scott's big-budget film takes place in North Africa thousands of years ago. In real life, everyone would have had dark skin. But the movie is populated by an almost completely Caucasian cast. Welsh-born Christian Bale stars as the Hebrew liberator, Moses. Australian Joel Edgerton plays Pharaoh, and American Sigourney Weaver was almost laughably cast as an African queen.

Vanity Fair notes that most of the actors of color who have been cast were relegated to nameless roles. (Exceptions may include smaller roles for Ben Kingsley, a Brit with an Indian father, and John Turturro, an Italian-American.) The Independent adds that black and ethnic minorities do appear in the cast as "Ramses servant," "Egyptian thief," and "Egyptian Lower Class Civilian."

We can't claim that Scott's casting decisions were pernicious. They are, however, historically inaccurate and, frankly, inexcusable for a film in 2014.

Sadly, Ridley Scott is hardly alone. Whitewashing Bible films is something of a Hollywood tradition spanning decades, and it won't change until audiences demand better.

The last time a live-action Moses appeared on the silver screen was in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments." It starred a fake-baked Charlton Heston. But okay, that was 1956. Surely Hollywood's sensitivity to ethnicity has changed in the last half-century, right?

Wrong.

Read more here.

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Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow: 50 Years of Song in 'Love of Community'

The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary had almost 50 years together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey continue as musicians and activists, and have reflected on their experiences in a new a photo-filled book Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Life and Song (Imagine/Charlesbridge). A just-released album, DISCOVERED: Live in Concert, includes 12 live songs never before heard on their albums. And on Dec. 1 (check local listings), PBS will air 50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary — a new documentary with rare and previously unseen television footage and many of the trio’s best performances and most popular songs.

I spoke with Yarrow and Stookey this week about music, movements, and the spiritual aspects of both. (Stookey had what he describes as a “deep reborn experience” as a Christian around 1969 or 1970; Yarrow doesn’t affiliate with a specific religious institution, but describes much of what motivates him in spiritual terms.)

Stookey describes how all three of them were drawn to carrying on the precedent of folk forebears such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to make music “in the interest of, and love of, community.” Their appearance at the 1963 March on Washington was, he says, “the galvanizing moment” for their activism, the beginning of a trajectory that would engage them in the civil rights, peace, anti-nuclear, environment, and immigration movements, and “less media-covered causes and events — a rainbow of concerns that we were inevitably and naturally drawn into.”

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