Abby Olcese (@abbyolcese) has been many things — a campus ministry leader at the University of Kansas, an English teacher in Prague, and an advertising assistant at Sojourners. These days, she’s a freelance writer based in Kansas.
Raised on a diet of Narnia, Bob Dylan records and Terry Gilliam movies, Abby is drawn to the weird, the nerdy, and the profoundly artsy corners of popular culture. She loves sharing this knowledge with others by writing about interesting new releases as well as lesser-known gems.
Abby is also passionate about the intersection of faith, social responsibility, and culture. She believes in the power of art to spark important conversations, inspire social change, and help people to better understand life in the kingdom of God.
When she’s not watching movies or writing things down, you can usually find Abby reading comic books or perusing the selection at her local record store.
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The Sin of Shape-Shifting Supremacists
IN 2016, RAOUL PECK'S documentary I Am Not Your Negro used the life and work of James Baldwin to explore the underlying truths of racism in U.S. society. Peck said that after making that film, “Baldwin had firebombed every known field of bigotry I knew and annihilated any attempt at deniability of the racist monster that lurks in corners of our societies.”
Processing that experience led Peck to his new, ambitious HBO documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes. In it, Peck expands on the themes of ignorance and resistance in our modern-day understanding of racism and on how our flawed historical understanding feeds those attitudes. Exterminate All the Brutes is also an essay film, with Peck, a Haitian immigrant, reflecting on his identity as a Black man who has lived in a variety of cultures and how that’s influenced his own art.
The series weaves voiceover and scripted dramatic scenes with information from groundbreaking works on European colonialism, Indigenous peoples, and racism—including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, and Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes.
Hospitality Isn't Always About Sharing a Table
THE LAST CHAPTER of Hebrews in the New Testament begins with a reminder of how to serve God and build a healthy community: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). Biblical hospitality takes many forms, but it consistently involves selfless sharing of space, resources, and—perhaps most importantly—attention. To share part of your life with another person, and allow them to share in return, is to show that they matter.
Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s contemporary American road film, is full of biblical hospitality. By turning a documentary-style eye on a real community of nomads who otherwise slip through the cracks of society, writer and director Zhao’s film—which won 2021 Golden Globes for best motion picture and best director—provides its actors/subjects with space to be seen, heard, and known.
Like The Rider, Zhao’s previous film, Nomadland combines elements of narrative and documentary filmmaking by crafting a story around the lived experiences of real people. Our guide, Fern (Frances McDormand), leaves her home in Empire, Nev., to live on the road. Fern is part of a subculture of older adults who, left in dire financial straits by the 2008 recession, live in vans as modern-day nomads, picking up gig work across the country. As Fern travels, she makes friends with several fellow nomads (most of them real people playing themselves) who share their stories with her.
A Drummer Reckons With Silence
IN HIS BOOK Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, Rowan Williams writes, “We are easily persuaded that the problem of growing up in the life of the spirit can be located outside ourselves.” In other words, we like to think if only it weren’t for a health problem or professional situation, our lives would be better. If we put off becoming the person we are called to be because we’re waiting for the “right” circumstance, then we won’t learn and grow. Even when circumstances need to change, we must find joy in the present.
This same lesson powers Darius Marder’s drama Sound of Metal, about a drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), who’s suddenly affected with permanent hearing loss. Ruben’s journey underlines the importance of presence and its potential to foster spiritual growth. He must learn that the situation he is in presents an opportunity to embrace a new community and a more intentional life.
Alone Together: Watching the Films of 2020
FOR A YEAR defined by isolation, 2020 has been fascinatingly full of stories about relationship. It feels oddly appropriate that during a time when we’re constantly confronting our divisions—ideological and physical—we’ve been surrounded by cinematic reminders of the importance of community and the various ways we find it. Films of 2020 have come out largely through streaming platforms, and we’ve watched them in our homes, by ourselves. They’ve still managed, however, to inspire connection.
Kirsten Johnson’s documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead chronicled her father’s dementia by celebrating her dad’s life, while Natalie Erika James’ horror film Relic addressed the real-life existential terror of watching a loved one’s mind fade to the same disease. Other films such as Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks examined how adult children relate to their parents’ flaws. Of course, family doesn’t have to mean the people we share our genes with. Movies this year addressed found families too, from Crip Camp’s community of disability activists to The Old Guard’s fiercely devoted group of immortal warriors. Even popcorn fare such as Bill & Ted Face the Music celebrated the way long-standing bonds support us throughout our lives and help us in turn to love others.
A Spy Walks Into a Nursing Home
ONE OF THE MOST important things art—especially narrative art—can do is inspire us to show empathy for others by making us see the world through someone else’s eyes. Stories of kindness and compassion are stories of the gospel in action. Right now, in a time of extreme division, conflict, and isolation, we need stories that remind us what that looks and feels like, and the ways in which we can show it to others.
Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi’s documentary The Mole Agent is a heartwarming testament to this type of kindness. Alberdi’s film follows 83-year-old Sergio, hired by a private detective to go undercover at a nursing home and report on the treatment of its residents. Sergio’s loving interactions with everyone he meets and Alberdi’s observational filmmaking together provide an example of love through serving others.
‘Fury Road’ Reveals Our Potential for Good
WE OFTEN THINK the word “apocalypse” refers to an “end of days” scenario. While that is one usage, it’s incomplete. The Greek root, apokálypsis, is defined as revelation, or an unveiling. It’s often used in prophetic terms, as in the biblical book of Revelation. An apocalypse doesn’t mean destruction so much as laying bare humanity’s underlying truths.
This year, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the best post-apocalyptic films in a series that helped define the genre, turns 5. Miller’s Mad Max movies are fascinating not just because of their creativity and economical storytelling, but also for how they address the revelatory nature of apocalypse, both in humanity’s sinful nature and its capacity for selflessness.
The Mad Max films happen in a violent wasteland that Miller shows as the direct result of humanity’s greed and recklessness. Fury Road advances that revelation, altering the series’ attitude from cynicism to hope. Fury Road’s message of renewal, and prophetic undertones, makes it a perfect movie for uncertain times.
‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’...Well, Sort Of
THE HYMN “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” is one of my favorites in the Episcopal tradition, usually sung on All Saints Day. It concludes with the line, “For the saints of God are just folk like me / And I mean to be one, too.” It’s a reminder of the people in our lives—living and otherwise—who are everyday saints, not canonized but important in our formation.
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson celebrates her father, one such everyday saint. Dick isn’t actually dead, but he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. How much of his life remains isn’t certain, but Johnson is determined to show him just how well he’s loved by trying to rid him of some of his fear of death.
Johnson does this in a darkly funny way that’s true to her dad’s mischievous streak: She collaborates with him on a series of staged scenes depicting his death from a variety of accidents. Dick is crushed by an air conditioner, falls down stairs, is hit by a construction worker’s nail-filled board, and more. “Everyone dies,” Johnson reminds us, even the people we love the most.
Praying for the Earth in a 1991 Sci-Fi Odyssey
MIDWAY THROUGH THE second half of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, the movie’s narrator, Eugene (Sam Neill), plays music with a group of characters in an Australian village. Eugene is on piano, his friend David (David Gulpilil) plays the didgeridoo, a German private investigator (Rüdiger Vogler) wails on a harmonica, and a French bank robber (Chick Ortega) plays drums while they wait anxiously for news about the destruction of a nuclear satellite, which, we’re told, would bring about Armageddon.
Eugene reflects on the journey that’s led the group here and realizes this communal moment of joy in the face of fear is its apex. He calls it “a prayer for the wounded earth.” In many ways, this 1991 global sci-fi odyssey, recently released in a director’s cut by the Criterion Collection, feels like exactly that. It’s a prayer for not only its fictional future earth but the self-involved world we live in now, a world drunk on idealized images of ourselves.
‘Knives Out’ Offers a Merciless Skewering of White Privilege
RIAN JOHNSON'S FILM Knives Out wastes no time setting up the murder mystery that powers its plot. In the very first scene, famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in the library of his mansion, his throat cut. Harlan’s family is shocked. His Latina caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s closest confidant, is devastated. The police think it’s a suicide. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) thinks otherwise.
The mystery of Harlan’s death may be the plot of Knives Out, but as the story progresses, it’s clear that the film is actually about something else.
Bootstrapping—the idea that one can achieve success purely through hard work and determination—is touted in most areas of public life, from business to education to politics. White Americans particularly love to claim that we’ve risen from tough circumstances while making it harder for less-advantaged populations to do just that.
In Knives Out, the bootstrapping myth is everywhere. Harlan’s children are proud that their dad built a publishing empire. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells Blanc that she, too, created her own business from the ground up. But, of course, those stories aren’t the whole truth. Linda would be nowhere without the hefty loan she got from her father. Harlan himself may have worked hard for his success, but as a white man, there’s no doubt his path was easier than it would have been for others.
How to Be Christian in a Time of Bigotry
TERRENCE MALICK HAS long been associated with spirituality. The director’s philosophy background, poetic style, and love of nature results in art that urges viewers to engage deeply with the world: Ask difficult questions, doubt, and believe.
But A Hidden Life, Malick’s latest, may be the most faith-oriented film yet from the director of The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line. Through the story of World War II-era martyr Franz Jägerstätter, Malick explores what it means to wrestle with Christian conscience during rising xenophobia and violence. Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) was an Austrian farmer executed for refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler. For Malick’s purposes, he becomes an audience surrogate as he encounters his community’s reactions to the Third Reich, and later a Christ figure.
Malick spends significant time establishing the beauty of Jägerstätter’s life before the war. We’re given glimpses of his village and farm, witness romantic moments with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and fall in love with them and their home.
'Just Mercy' Brings Criminal Justice Reform to the Big Screen
To Kill a Mockingbird and Just Mercy have notable parallels and important divergences: Like Atticus, Stevenson is defending a wrongfully accused black man from a racist community. But this time, there’s no white savior, and Stevenson isn’t going to lose the case.
'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Is a Parable on Love
The new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood thankfully avoids giving us a Fred Rogers biopic, one that hits rote beats that show us how Rogers grew into the saintly human we welcomed into our homes. Instead, it provides a kind of parable of the love and forgiveness and empathy that Rogers preached, one in which Rogers himself happens to feature significantly.
Horror is a Smarter, More Diverse Genre Than You Think
“I love the truth I find in dark films.”
In a 2003 speech titled “A Filmmaker’s Progress,” Sinister and Doctor Strange filmmaker Scott Derrickson, a Christian, made this statement in reference to spiritual and moral themes in his work. It’s an interesting idea to consider, not only because tales of terror get more popular this time of year, but also because Derrickson does most of his work in horror, a genre that doesn’t often get positive associations with faith.
Horror is typically considered exploitative, good for nothing more than the basest forms of gratuitousness that cinema can offer. But in fact horror is a smarter, more diverse genre than it’s given credit for. It is one of the best cinematic vehicles for social commentary.
'The Farewell' and the Moral Complexities of a 'Good Lie'
The film challenges Western beliefs about familial and individual responsibility, as well as the often-unrecognized personal sacrifices we make for the ones we love.
Thirty Years of “Doing the Right Thing”
“Always do the right thing.”
“I got it. I’m gone.”
DA MAYOR (Ossie Davis) and Mookie (Spike Lee) share this exchange in Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, which turns 30 this summer. Three decades on, Lee’s masterpiece on racism and community still stands out for its trailblazing voice. Lee, and the film that blasted him into broad public consciousness, continue to inspire powerful work by filmmakers of color, including Dear White People, Get Out, and The Hate U Give.
It’s undeniable that Do the Right Thing’s bold style and perspective are what helped it become iconic. Its depiction of the police killing of black men also remains powerful and, as it turned out, prescient. The film almost seems to have predicted events that unfolded 25 years later following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others.
Coming of Age in the Snake-Handling Church: Q&A with the Team Behind 'Them That Follow'
Co-directors and writers Dan Madison Savage and Britt Poulton made Them That Follow out of a shared interest in religious communities, their long-term effects on the people raised in them, and encouraging empathy toward misunderstood population groups. Sojourners spoke with the filmmakers and star Thomas Mann about how those motivations manifest in the film, and how movies can help build our capacity for empathy.
Comic Book Myths Have a Place in Spiritual Growth
Myth-making is something the creative forces at Cave Pictures Publishing, a new comics publisher, are fascinated by. The publisher aims to use the medium’s possibilities in ways that bring together faith-oriented audiences who may be new to comics, and long-time fans of the medium looking for thematic depth. Wylde, a western-themed horror comic, is currently available on ComiXology. The Light Princess, an adaptation of the George MacDonald fairy tale, arrives in February.
'The Hate U Give' Is Exhausting Because It Should Be
For these characters, and for many black people in America, this is the way life is. Thomas’ novel won a plethora of praise and awards after its 2017 release for combining the social realities of life as a young black woman in contemporary America with a heartfelt coming-of-age narrative that resonated with a diverse array of readers. George Tillman Jr.’s film adaptation of the book, out now, admirably walks that same line. From every aspect, the film shows great respect for its source material, with an excellent script and stunning cast who clearly care about the story they’re telling.
'The Front Runner' Dulls Its Own Message by Refusing to Commit to a Perspective
To his credit, Reitman tries to humanize the characters on all sides of the issue, in an attempt to cast some shades of gray. It’s an admirable idea, but the lack of commitment to a particular perspective sinks the film. It also goes pretty easy on Hart, and one gets the sense that Reitman and his co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson (themselves experienced both in running campaigns and political reporting) seem to think it’s a real shame that media scandal tanked a campaign that could have done some real good. That may be, but it’s impossible to ignore that if Hart had stuck closer to the morals he claimed, there wouldn’t have been a scandal to report. Whatever good qualities he may have had, he’s just as guilty as the people who brought him down
'Monsters and Men' Takes a Multifaceted Approach to Police Brutality
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film Monsters and Men is part of an interesting moment in popular culture. It’s one of four films this year to address the relationship between law enforcement and people of color. It’s also one of two movies playing at this years Toronto International Film Festival that deal directly with Black Lives Matter and the killing of black men by police officers.