cinema

Shifting the Frame

“CINEMA IS a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” With this, Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest living U.S. directors, gives us a simple window to understand the power of cinema. What is in the frame is a choice by the filmmaker, and what is not highlighted is also a choice.

People of color, literally and metaphorically, have struggled to be included in the frame and fought to move from the background to the foreground of the cinematic imagination.

The U.S. cinema, historically, has been the vanguard of stereotypes and the enforcer of our racialized imagination. Our view of women, people of color, and ethnicities define and are expanded by the power of cinema.

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation was a revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction that defined the Ku Klux Klan as the hero of the story and used white actors in blackface to frame black people as a threat to white society. This film, while not seen by the majority of filmgoers, set into motion the racial constructs we now view as normative. Black men, for example, have often been viewed in cinematic history as ethically dubious, highly sexualized, violent, or childlike comic characters.

These stereotypes created by the filmmaker’s imagination became, in the minds of many in the U.S., a historical fact. Cinema helped reinforce myths and arbitrary prejudices not based on cultural differences but created to protect economic interests of white Southerners who feared black labor.

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Gareth Higgins on Peace, Politics, and Our Nation's 'Cinematic States'

Courtesy of Burnside Books
'Cinematic States' explores fifty films that help define something about each state. Courtesy of Burnside Books

Lots of people like movies; Gareth Higgins loves movies. But the founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and long-time peace activist engages popular culture with a different eye than most of us. And he’s used that keen eye for deeper meaning to create his latest book.

I asked Gareth about his new book on American film, his peace work, and what it’s like considering American culture both as an insider and as a non-native. Here’s what he had to say.

Complexities of Struggle and Love

LEE DANIELS’ The Butler, a century-spanning tale of race in the United States and service in the White House, is a dream of a film—by turns historically realistic and magically fable-like. It’s a perfect companion piece to last year’s Django Unchained, in that case a movie whose tastelessness wrapped up as fabulous entertainment forced audiences to engage with a deeper level of the shadow of U.S. history.

Based on the story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served multiple presidents in a White House that took its own time to desegregate its economic policies for domestic staff, The Butler begins with a rape and a murder of plantation workers by the son of the boss. The ethical quality of the film is immediately apparent. This horror is not played for sentiment, nor even spectacle, but to evoke the very ordinariness of monstrosity.

This makes The Butler a rare film: one more interested in confronting us with a kind of previously unspoken truth than in goading us to feel the catharsis of guilt-salving by association. (It’s the antithesis of films such as Mississippi Burning, which use white protagonists to tell black stories and appear to believe that we can somehow participate in the virtue of the civil rights movement just by watching a movie about it.) The makers of The Butler have told a kind of truth about the struggle for “beloved community” that has rarely been seen so clearly on multiplex screens. The film illustrates the serious and painful work of nonviolence and invites us to consider the political and cultural tensions within the black freedom struggle, while giving a more humane perspective on the presidency than is often the case. We can hope the door is now open to more reflective cinema about the unfinished business of the black civil rights movement, broken relationships, traumatic memory, and how we tell the story of who we are.

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Meditating on Memory

CINEMA IS poetry, not prose, and so looking for “realism” in movies is an ambiguous task. Perhaps the better comparison would be with memory, for the way we experience the past might feel a little bit like a film unspooling in a low-lit room, the images urging themselves onto a wall with frayed paper, red-hued, with the sound fading as I get older. Like the opening of the film of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact in reverse, in which all the radio signals that have ever been broadcast speak their way into deep space, the further away I get from a memory, the more like an old movie it seems.

The role that cinema plays in memorializing the past is unparalleled—for both the way we experience memory and the memories themselves are uniquely bound up in each other—Casablanca or There’s Something About Mary alike may remind us of past loves, and perhaps also of the time and place we saw those movies, and watching either of them again enables us to re-experience the very emotions we may have first experienced by watching it. When we experience movies like memories, we meditate rather than consume, and do what Pascal suggested was the antidote to all the problems in the world: sitting still for 10 minutes and thinking. At the cinema we take a walk in our minds and, through an art form that is usually less controllable than reading or listening, we are taken somewhere new.

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Beauty as Antidote

THE EXPERIMENTAL psychologist Steven Pinker writes that what we think we have seen will shape what we expect to occur. It doesn’t make the news when people die peacefully in their sleep, or make love, or go for a walk in the countryside, but these things happen far more often—are much more the substance of life—than the acts of terror that preoccupy the media. It was horrifying when a British soldier was killed on an English street in May. But given the ensuing ethnic tension and communal judgment, it might have been useful, not merely accurate, to report that on the same day, almost 3 million British Muslims didn’t kill anyone. Because violence is a pre-emptive act (I kill you because you might kill me), when we keep telling the story that the threat of massive violence is ever-present, we will behave more violently.

According to Richard Rohr, the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. So perhaps attention to beauty is the best alternative to our cultural obsession with blood. For me, cinema can do this better than any other art form, and is uniquely capable of transporting the imagination. Recently I’ve traveled to the minds of retired Israeli security service leaders agonizing over their achievements and failures in The Gatekeepers, gone to Louisiana for a trip around the soul of a man trying to redeem himself in Mud, empathized with the tragic story of a man making bad choices to get into a better state in The Place Beyond the Pines, wondered at the creative process and bathed in the French countryside in Renoir, been reminded of and elevated into an imagining of love and its challenges in To the Wonder, and been provoked in Room 237 to consider whether or not Stanley Kubrick intended The Shining to be a lament for the genocide that built America.

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