As regular readers are aware, film is a big part of my life and faith. Every year I lead a Lenten "Faith and Values" film series in a church in our presbytery - a seasonal practice I began in my last parish in 1998 and have continued almost every year since. (This year, I am offering my series at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Flint - films will be announced soon.) Most of my sermons contain references to films because their stories are the myths that describe our world; they are the stories that connect us in popular culture.
Film is perhaps our most important and powerful cultural medium. Movies not only entertain, they communicate meaning and shape our values. The narratives of film both reflect our society, but also shape our view of the world. (Classic Westerns, for example, reinforce our cultural myths about Manifest Destiny, colonial patterns of racial dominance, and moral values of "good" and "evil", "right" and "wrong." It wasn't until the cultural shifts of the late 1960s that Native society was depicted as anything other than "savage.") What we see on the screen teaches us about our place in society.
Which is why the films receiving Oscar nominations are so important. It wasn't so long ago that the most common Oscar night hashtag was #oscarsowhite, because the films being recognized by the Academy reflected an industry and a society that was overwhelmingly Caucasian (and male, too). But rules have changed and the voters are more diverse, which has resulted in a more diverse set of nominations. That, in turn, has created more opportunities for persons of color to star, write, and direct films, providing us with different stories to shape our own worldviews.
The result this year is one of the most diverse set of nominated films, directors, actors, and artists ever. Five of the eight Best Picture nominees feature stories and characters that not long ago would not have been made, much less celebrated:
the first blockbuster superhero adventure film, has an African-American director (Ryan Coogler) and features African and African-American characters. It subverts racist norms and assumptions about heroes and futuristic fantasies.
directly addresses white supremacy with the true story of how an African-American detective in Colorado infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. It also brought the first Best Director nomination to Spike Lee, who previously directed two of the greatest films ever made (
Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X)
without Oscar recognition.
tells the story of Freddy Mercury and the rock group Queen, emphasizing Mercury's South Asian ancestry (a social comment in the Brexit era). It depicts his struggle with his sexual identity and his heroic battle with AIDS.
is the true story of a road trip taken by famous African-American musician Don Shirley into the American South during the Jim Crow era. It focuses on the transformational relationship between Shirley and his white chauffeur/bodyguard, a racist Italian-American.
directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is set in Mexico City with a Spanish-language script. It addresses issues of social class and American colonialism by telling the story of a pregnant domestic servant for a wealthy Mexican family. Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar in 2014 for
In addition, though not nominated for Best Picture,
If Beale Street Could Talk
is a powerful adaptation of the James Baldwin novel about a young African-American couple in the early 1970s struggling to maintain hope and dignity in the face of systemic racism. Directed by Barry Jenkins (
) it was one of the best films of the year.
These movies are important for us as followers of Christ because they challenge our own assumptions about race, privilege, and inclusion in the church. Jesus surrendered his privilege to identify with us in our humanity and affirmed the dignity and inclusion of those on the margins of society. He formed a community of faith in which there "is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). If Hollywood can tell that story, how much more should we!