Review

Marvel's Female Representation: Taking 'Ant-Man'-Sized Steps

Screenshot via 'Ant-Man' trailer/YouTube

Screenshot via 'Ant-Man' trailer/YouTube

In many ways, Ant-Man — Marvel’s latest addition to its cinematic superhero pantheon — feels like a response to criticisms leveled at the studio lately. Namely: the films’ lack of any female superheroes; and their penchant for rampant destruction with little regard for the consequences. Ant-Man handles the latter with a gonzo sense of creativity and clever humor. Marvel’s response to female representation issues, however, doesn’t quite stick the landing. 

Hope is an excellent fighter and extremely smart. With her knowledge of her father Hank’s work and her role within Pym Industries, she’s the natural choice to lead the mission for which Scott Lang is recruited. But she gets stuck on the sidelines. While the film addresses this through Hank’s concern for her well-being, as well as his experience losing Hope’s mother Janet in action — a choice that certainly makes sense for Hank’s character — Ant-Man chooses to let the matter lie there, instead of further addressing it. A post-credits scene shows Hope getting her own costume, though as of yet, she won’t be getting her own film.

Projecting Possibility

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THE FIRST-EVER Movies and Meaning festival recently took place in New Mexico, bringing 250 people together to experience the possibilities of the most dream-like art form for making the world better. I was privileged to host the festival, which featured a huge screen, a contemplative audience, around a dozen films, and magnificent assistance from the voices of Richard Rohr and slam poet Jessica Helen Lopez. It was a dream come true after a lifetime of loving cinema and being compelled by the idea that art can create change.

Movies and Meaning wants to challenge how movies rarely get the chance to breathe in multiplexes or be engaged with rather than merely noticed, and to promote and facilitate better conversations about, and responses to, cinema—and all art, really. It was a happy surprise that the key word that emerged from the festival was “empathy,” a concept that Rohr told us didn’t even have a name until just about 100 years ago. There’s an intriguing irony there, because cinema itself isn’t much older, and one of cinema’s most important innovations is the experience of observing stories about strangers told in a way that maximized the possibilities of actually seeing them.

What we empathized with at Movies and Meaning was what happens when we reframe our stories as ones in which human beings are capable of cooperating to heal wounds and make life better.

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New & Noteworthy

A Good Neighbor
Children’s television host (and Presbyterian minister) Fred Rogers was known for his gentle, soft-spoken manner. Michael G. Long argues in Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers that Rogers was also a radical, imbuing his show with nonviolence and care for creation. Westminster John Knox Press

Be a Man
The creators of Miss Representation bring us The Mask You Live In, a portrait of masculinity in the U.S. through the eyes of young boys, educators, and social scientists. The documentary argues that hyper-masculine cultural messages manifest in violent, isolating, emotionally stunting ways. The Representation Project

All in the Family
For 10 years Patricia Raybon and her daughter Alana didn’t talk about faith—because Alana had become a practicing Muslim. In Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, they tell about their search together for healing and understanding. W Publishing Group

Americana Moses
In Leave Some Things Behind, the Steel Wheels use mandolin, fiddle, and bass to bolster a lyrical theme of “Exodus.” The foursome reflects on the joy and consequences of leaving home for an abstract promised land, singing, “It makes a difference where you go. It makes you different where you go.” thesteelwheels.com

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New & Noteworthy

Calling to the Deep

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New and Noteworthy

Paternal Insights
Father Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faith offers diverse perspectives from men under 40 who are rooted in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Edited by R. Anderson Campbell, this is the fifth volume in the I Speak for Myself series. White Cloud Press

Sing Freedom
In Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Volume I, Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, gospel music scholar Robert F. Darden explores the sustaining and revolutionary power of sacred song in African-American history. Penn State Press

In Between
The documentary Life on the Line follows 11-year-old Kimberly Torrez as her family await the visa that will allow them to return to the U.S. after circumstances trap them in Nogales, Mexico. An accompanying online project shares the stories of other young people affected by immigration issues. finelinefilms.org/lifeontheline

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Cooking Up Meaning

CHEF IS A small-budget film with an all-star cast and artful storytelling. Jon Favreau, who also directed Iron Man, stars in his own film as a head chef named Carl Casper at an acclaimed restaurant in Los Angeles. Casper is left in a vocational tailspin after a scathing review and a public meltdown. He loses his inspiration and finds himself in an existential crisis.

In Chef Casper’s quest to recover his culinary mojo, he takes a trip to Miami and buys a used food truck. The film plays on the power of relationships in a messy, winding, but authentic path. Chef Casper’s community—his ex-wife, his son, and his best friend—are invited into the one thing Casper loves to do, demonstrating how community, at its best, can propel us on the way we should go.

Each truck stop on the journey back to California fills Chef Casper with new vision and adds distinctive ingredients. He makes his way to once again bring beauty and flourishing back to his street corner of the world.

My small group at church watched Chef together and bonded over it. We explored themes of vocation—how we can contribute to flourishing through the distinctive things “we’re good at.” And how activism isn’t just about waving the proverbial picket sign; it also can be about loving what we do with great friends.

Highlighting these conversations and convergences with Hollywood and life are vital for my own work. The congregation I serve in East Harlem consists mainly of nonprofit professionals, educators, and human service workers—convincing these folks about shalom and justice is not usually a challenge. What they hunger for is guidance in cultivating meaning through the crises and mundaneness of life and work.

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Life After A Death

IN 1998, AWARD-WINNING writer Linda Lawrence Hunt and her husband, Jim, were forced to consider a question no parent wants to ask: How do you find meaning in life after losing your child?

Their 25-year-old daughter, Krista Hunt Ausland, had just died in a bus accident in Bolivia while volunteering with the Mennonite Central Committee.

“Your joys become more intense,” consoled a friend whose family had also lost a child.

This resonated with Linda, especially since Krista was known for her energy and enthusiasm. Linda and her husband, now retired professors of English and history at Whitworth University, had always encouraged Krista to travel and take part in community service, but even they were amazed by the intense joy Krista exuded serving as a school teacher in inner-city Tacoma, Wash., or volunteering in poor communities in Latin America. Writing about that joy might help to recover some of it in Linda’s own life, she thought.

Fifteen years later, Linda’s newest book is more than just an ode to a remarkably happy daughter. Pilgrimage through Loss: Pathways to Strength and Renewal after the Death of a Child is a collection of ideas and insight from more than 30 parents who decide in their darkest hours to “face grief in creative and intentional ways.” The book, which contains study questions at the end of each chapter and references new research on grief, is intended as a resource for grieving parents, as well as for those hoping to support them in the right ways and at the right times.“Closure is an illusion,” explains Linda, but she describes multiple examples of parents finding strength and even joy in sacred spaces and rituals, as well as in giving and receiving symbolic acts of kindness.

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Boomtown Stories

HIGHBROW FILM criticism and fanboy comment pages alike often manifest as if their purpose is to make snarky points about who knows how much about what. Whether in an academic journal or on Reddit, film criticism can either get the point or be the point. We can either convince ourselves that we exist to show the world how smart we (think we) are—or to facilitate a conversation about the purpose of art that’s spacious enough to stimulate both the heart and the mind.

The lack of clarity about such purpose means that it has to be continually reasserted, so here goes: The purpose of art is to help us live better. I contend that this is the primary evaluative lens through which we should watch. Of course aesthetics, craft, and content matter, but how I watch films depends at least as much on the notion that art emerges from a human creative impulse that is at its best directed at the common good.

The protagonist of the new documentary The Overnighters has made a similar shift in consciousness regarding his own vocation. North Dakota pastor Jay Reinke understands that the purpose of church isn’t far different from that of art, and he opens his building to economically disenfranchised folk trying to find a job in the oil boom, letting them stay overnight despite local suspicions. It’s a manifestation of Christian vocation mingled with lightly ringing alarm bells—the pastor appears to be a Lone Ranger, not collaborating with supportive church leaders or members; the jobs are in an environmentally degrading industry—and a picture of community service that seems at once miraculous and exhausting.

Pastor Reinke is a theologically conservative figure with a heart of gold and an inner life subject to the repression of the very tradition whose ministry credentials he stewards. Once revealed, it’s not hard to imagine why he feels so much compassion for people who find themselves otherwise marginalized.

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The Christ of Compton

JESUS RETURNED this past August. Or at least a new depiction of him appeared on late-night cable television, in the comedy Black Jesus, created by Aaron McGruder (of The Boondocks). There was no rapture, and no subsequent tribulation, beyond what passes for normal these days. Instead Jesus appeared, as he did in Palestine, in a manner both obscure and mysterious. And, again, his incarnation became a scandal among some of the powerful and pious.

In Black Jesus, on the Adult Swim network, the second person of the Trinity turns up one day on the streets of Compton, a very poor and heavily African-American community in southern Los Angeles County. Played by a tall and beefy Gerald “Slink” Johnson, Jesus walks the streets in his first century robe and sandals, but with his hair in a Tina Turner perm. Aside from the eccentric get-up, this Jesus fits right into his surroundings. He has no cash, and no place to lay his head. But that goes for plenty of Comptonites. He enjoys malt liquor and marijuana, just as much as he did good wine back in the day at Cana. He’s still preaching and practicing unconditional love, forgiveness, nonviolence, and service to all, but his street talk averages about 1.5 bleeps per sentence.

There’s plenty that’s problematic about Slink Johnson’s character. For one thing, I can’t imagine the Jesus I know using the disrespectful canine term for women so freely or being quite so nonjudgmental about the marijuana trade. But neither does this depiction approach “blasphemy,” which is what the American Family Association called it. The Catholic League, which often leads the charge against perceived offenses to the faith, got it about right when it said, “The Jesus character in this show is a mixed bag: He is irreverent and can be downright crude, but he also has many redeeming qualities.”

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Computing the Future

“THE COMPUTER’S not the thing. It’s the thing that will get us to the thing,” intones Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the enigmatic visionary at the heart of AMC’s new techno-drama Halt and Catch Fire. Set in the early 1980s in Texas’ “Silicon Prairie,” the series chronicles a small, fictional software company that enters the personal computing fray. This is the age of IBM dominance and the improbability of an underdog company taking down the computer Goliath is the premise of the show.

HCF is a kind of origin myth: a drama that tries to capture the spirit and personalities that drove the personal computing revolution that reshaped the world we now inhabit. Across the cable universe, HBO offers another riff on the same theme set in the present day. Silicon Valley is a satirical send-up of startup culture and the boy-men who rule the northern California empire to which we are all in thrall. In tone and style it is the antithesis of the self-consciously serious HCF. But the two shows share a similar preoccupation with exploring the humans who make technology even more than the technology itself.

This is partially a necessity of good storytelling. Nothing slows down a story like having to explain technical expertise. At best you can get a few gags out of the science geek spewing unintelligible jargon to the bewildered “everyperson” (think Sheldon’s whole persona on The Big Bang Theory). But this narrative limitation also hints at the enigma both shows are trying to explore: Who are the people who understand the jargon and create the technology that defines our new digital age? What is the nature of this kind of power?

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