drama

Small Screen, Great Drama

IT’S A TRUISM to say that television is outpacing cinema for entertainment quality and depth of exploration. Since The Wire appeared a decade ago, studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.

Recently I’ve been struck by the set-in-the-’80s espionage thriller The Americans, the deeply haunting police procedural True Detective, the hilarious pathos of Louie and Veep, and the sly, shocking Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs: All hugely entertaining, dramatically credible, and challenging both as works that require sustained attention and in terms of what they say about life. The Americans is really an exploration of marriage and cultural identity wrapped up in Cold War cloaks-and-daggers; True Detective is a lament for the broken parts of America, and an affirmation that friendship endures above almost everything else; and Hannibal is a postmodern delving into Dante’s Inferno, looking at the underbelly of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

What’s most exciting is that it’s now considered viable to make drama that actually asks real questions about life and is prepared not to answer them pat. Along with the vast amount of social media conversation about these works, what we have is more akin to ancient forms of public entertainment that required a kind of audience participation—theatrical catharsis meeting gathered conversation to produce a community hermeneutic. When we talk about TV and cinema, we’re talking about ourselves.

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Keeping it Real

EVEN IN AN age of ever-faster news cycles and shorter word counts, some journalists still find ways to dig deep into research and reporting to bring history to life and lift up voices that might otherwise be unheard. Here is an eclectic mix of nonfiction works on issues and people that matter.

Can those who commit violent crimes ever truly be rehabilitated? What happens to them once they’re out of prison? In Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption (PublicAffairs, 2012), Nancy Mullane follows her subjects from prison to welcome-home parties and beyond. While never minimizing the crimes her subjects have committed, she portrays their full, complicated humanity. Moving insights about the ongoing spiritual, emotional, and practical work of accepting responsibility for great wrongs and rebuilding a life after prison are framed by reporting on the convoluted, expensive prison and parole policies of California.

You might not expect gripping drama from a writer specializing in U.S. Supreme Court history, but that’s what Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (Harper, 2012) delivers. Long before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall was an NAACP lawyer who risked his life travelling to the Jim Crow South to defend African Americans accused of capital crimes. Devil in the Grove describes his efforts to save a black citrus picker from the electric chair in a Florida county where the Klan and law enforcement were brutally intertwined—and brings alive an era of domestic terrorism against people of color in the not-distant-enough past.

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Palmed, Passionate Drama

Palm Cross on Bible, Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock.com
Palm Cross on Bible, Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock.com

The Bible is steeped in drama.  Consider Jesus’ bold reading of Isaiah in the synagogue (Lk. 4:18-19), or Solomon’s liturgy climaxing in the LORD’s glory filling the temple (1 Ki. 8).  Paul may have directed a performance of Jesus’ death: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (Gal. 3:1c). Dramatic structure serves to sharpen our focus and draws us into narrative as imagined and experienced co-conspirators.

 
Within the Episcopal Church’s liturgical corpus no service may be more deeply involving than that of Palm Sunday.  To begin, the congregation gathers outside the church.  Palm fronds are distributed.  Then the priest reads the opening prayer: “Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality.”  But perhaps “upon the contemplation on” ought to be replaced with “by our participation in.”  We’ll soon see why.

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