By Tony Rossi for The Christophers
Special to the Review
When I watch a movie or TV show, I want to be entertained by a good story, not pummeled by an overbearing message. At the same time, a story that’s well-told can seamlessly integrate a message that draws me in and leaves me thinking about real-life issues. At The Christophers, we’ve been recognizing books, television programs and movies that tell those kinds of stories since 1949 through our Christopher Awards program. And looking back at some of our recent film winners, social justice themes are often present.
Take racism, for example. “42” tells the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball when he was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers. There’s a scene in which Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) berates Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) with racial epithets during a game. For 21st-century viewers who don’t understand what African Americans endured in the 1940s, this scene doesn’t provide dry history; it immerses you in that particular time and makes you identify with Robinson.
The same can be said about “Selma,” a Christopher Award winner about African Americans peacefully protesting to secure their voting rights in 1965. Actor David Oyelowo, who played Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., relished his role because he knows movies have an impact on the wider culture. In fact, he once traveled to Africa and was surprised to find that even in poor villages, children sometimes have access to a computer screen and are influenced by American TV and movies.
That desire to bring a positive message to the world also motivated Patricia Heaton, an actress known for “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle,” to take on a producing role for the 2006 Christopher Award winner “Amazing Grace.” It told the story of William Wilberforce, who helped end the slave trade in England during the 1800s.
Not only was this a tale about social justice, but also about faith. Heaton told me, “Probably the only thing that was able to keep Wilberforce going was his faith because it literally took 40 years…He was shunned from society. He used to be a bon vivant, then was disinvited to be with the ‘cool’ people and had to hang out with all the Christian abolitionists…There’s a price to pay, and I think that is one of the messages: you have to be willing to sacrifice everything to follow God and what He’s called you to do.”
That relation between social justice and religious faith can’t be overlooked. Consider this exchange from “42.” Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who hired Robinson, confronts opposing player Herb Pennock, who doesn’t want to take the field with black players. Rickey asks Pennock if he thinks God likes baseball. Pennock is confused as to what the question means. Rickey responds, “It means someday you’re gonna meet God, and when He inquires as to why you didn’t take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it’s because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”
Martin Luther King Jr. was a reverend, of course, and attracted many religious believers of all faiths to the civil rights movement. And Wilberforce saw the truth that God created all human beings in His image as a motivating force behind the abolitionist movement.
None of these movies share their messages in a preachy way; they allow the story to speak for itself. In so doing, they plant seeds in our minds that can make us a more just people who create a more just world.
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