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Archive for December, 2012

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables.

One of the big holiday releases this year will no doubt be the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Les Misérables. Anyone out there planning to see it? I’m not sure if my wife and I will be able to squeeze in a couple of hours to check it out (with the kids usually in tow, we’re more likely to catch fare like Rise of the Guardians — which wasn’t that bad, by the way). But I’m sorta curious about the buzz of contradictions swirling about Les Miz — lots of early Oscar buzz for Anne Hathaway for instance, and it was directed by Tom Hooper who won an Oscar in 2011 for The King’s Speech, but the movie is also getting a lot of mixed reviews from critics. 

However, what really caught my attention was a recent piece in Time magazine about the film’s story line, which of course is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel about class struggle and redemption in 19th-century France. In the article, actors Hathaway and Hugh Jackman spend a couple of paragraphs contemplating the religious dimensions of the story. A couple of soundbites. First from Hathaway, who portrays the desperate mother Fantine:

The religious overtones of Les Miz … resonated with Hathaway, who was raised Catholic. Her close-knit family left the church in opposition to its anti-gay stance. “Where I’m at now is that I love all religions that don’t hurt anyone. The religion of this film is love.”

And then Jackman, who plays thief-turned-rescuer Jean Valjean, on how his father’s life was changed after hearing Billy Graham:

Jackman grew up watching faith in action too. His father, a single parent — “What he did was herculean, to bring up five kids with a full-time job” — was born again at age 30, inspired by Billy Graham’s crusade. “I remember asking him if he told people at work he was a Christian, and he said, ‘No. What you say is immaterial. It’s what you do that matters.’ If you think about it, that’s very Valjean,” he says.

I know that Hollywood figures typically try to personalize whatever the subject matter is of the films their currently promoting in order to have something to chatter about on talk shows and in magazine write-ups, and Hathaway’s and Jackman’s reflections on faith are no exception. But I’m not cynical enough yet to believe that these roles don’t at times have a deeper effect on the lives of actors. That’s why I found both Hathaway’s and Jackman’s comments refreshing in their honesty and insight about what real faith looks like to people who aren’t living within the protective (and often alienating) bubble of evangelical Christianity.

I’m not suggesting that Hathaway’s apparent perspectivism is without its problems, or that genuine faith is entirely about what we do and not also what we say (though I think a good argument could be made for why the way we treat others must always testify to the veracity of what we believe). Still, I don’t think it would hurt today’s Christians much at all to follow the examples of Jean Valjean and Hugh Jackman’s dad.

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WBEZ, the local public radio station here in Chicago, has been doing some noteworthy investigative reporting on the pathetic state of Illinois prisons — overcrowded facilities, broken windows, insect infestations. Worst of all, hundreds upon hundreds of men sitting in their cells, doing nothing productive (or rehabilitative) with their time.

The WBEZ coverage started in earnest earlier this year when Governor Pat Quinn refused to allow reporter Rob Wildeboer to view the conditions inside state prisons. After months of petitioning, Quinn finally relented, but only after WBEZ threatened him and the Department of Corrections with a lawsuit.

The resulting tour of the Vienna state prison in southern Illinois provides some insightful commentary and observations on the prison business in general. Though focused on Illinois, WBEZ’s coverage has shone a light on some of the systemic problems facing many prison systems around the nation: Are they simply holding bins for people we’ve given up on (at the cost of millions of dollars), or should prisons be working to transform and rehabilitate their occupants for more productive lives after incarceration?

One of the more compelling voices in the coverage came from Dean Harper, who retired from his job as a corrections officer at Vienna in 1991. He recalled things being quite different at the prison 25 years ago. Says WBEZ’s Wildeboer:

When Harper worked at the prison he would help the inmates get jobs around town: picking apples, bailing hay, doing construction and they were paid minimum wage.

“And they sent part of that home and then kept part and then people had a different look as far as what inmates really was,” Harper said. “They’re human too.”

…. In those days, Harper says the prison offered college classes and Vienna residents would also enroll and go to the prison and sit in classes next to inmates.

Today little is done at Vienna to actually improve its prisoners’ lives. Instead, they sit around in delapidated conditions at tax-payer expense, mostly doing nothing — unless watching television is considered a rehabilitative practice.

Harper believes the mentality of those running the prison system is backward today. In what might be the most prophetic comment of the report, Harper says, “When you take away a person’s ability to do good because they have done bad, what do you leave them?”

I believe that’s a question worth pondering, especially in light of God’s heart for the prisoner and the New Testament admonition to “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself” (Heb. 13:3). A good place to start might be to read a book such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which examines the mass incarceration of people of color in America and the root causes for this phenomenon. Or you might want to get involved with a prison ministry such as Prison Fellowship, or the Philadelphia-based Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project, which is led by my friend Dr. Harold Dean Trulear.

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Hello friends. It’s been almost two years since I last posted here. Inexcusable, I know. But now that my gig as the editor of UrbanFaith.com is winding down, I hope to have more time to share some thoughts here. And in the coming months, I’ll have a lot more to say about my new book project. So please stay tuned.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share briefly about a 1940 film that’s become one of my favorites for the holidays since I first discovered it three years ago. It’s called Remember the Night, and stars Fred MacMurray and the lovely Barbara Stanwyck. Written by playwright and screenwriter Preston Sturges, here’s how IMDB.com summarizes the film’s storyline:

Just before Christmas, Lee Leander (Stanwyck) is caught shoplifting. It is her third offense. She is prosecuted by assistant distric attorney John Sargent (MacMurray). He postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. But he feels sorry for her and arranges for her bail, and ends up taking her home to his mother for Christmas. Surrounded by a loving family (in stark contrast to Lee’s own family background) they fall in love. This creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial?

I’m not sure what it is about this film that has caused me to look forward to it every Christmas season. The film isn’t as inspiring or humorous as a popular classic like It’s a Wonderful Life. And at times the pacing feels much too slow. Yet there’s something about the interaction of the two main characters and their respective transformations from self-centered individuals into giving, selfless people. It has that familiar Dickensian sort of moral arc that informs most great Christmas stories — from A Christmas Carol to Miracle on 34th Street to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Then, of course, there’s the classic love story of an odd couple falling for each other and becoming better people for it.

But I think there’s also something sadly disturbing about the film that draws me to it each year. It has to do with the relationship between MacMurray’s character John Sargent and his African American valet Rufus (portrayed by actor Fred “Snowflake” Toones). Toones was a charactrer actor who made a career out of playing comedic supporting roles in dozens of films during the 1930s and ’40s. According to his IMDB page, Toones’s “standard characterization was that of a middle-aged ‘colored’ man with a high-pitched voice and childlike demeanor.” Some have referred to this type of character as the “loyal Tom,” others as a “Sambo.” Whatever the label, it’s clear that the filmmakers of Remember the Night viewed Rufus’s servile status as both comic relief and a natural fact of life in the world of the main characters. (It’s interesting that, again according to IMDB, Toones actually ran the shoeshine stand at Republic Pictures, where he was under contract from 1936-1947.) In fact, some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film are not the climatic moments showing the emotional evolution of Lee and John but the demeaning and truly racist manner in which John addresses Rufus. Yet it is not something that is dwelled upon in the film. As I said, it’s mostly taken for granted as the natural backdrop of the story.

This got me to thinking about both this movie and other pieces of pop culture that I’ve liked in the past that also feature questionable racial elements. Should I view these things as being offensive and reject them outright, throwing out the good with the bad? Or should I simply view them as a historical statement about the times in which they were made? In the case of Remember the Night, I’ve chosen the latter course. I confess that the film fascinates me in odd ways. I wonder about the interaction of the actors on the set in real life: Did Mr. Toones face actual racism from the cast and crew in addition to the insults that were piled upon his character in the movie? Did director Mitchell Leisen and Mr. MacMurray understand that John Sargent’s condescending tone toward Rufus was wrong, and were they hoping to demonstrate this injustice by their film’s portrayal of the white man-black man relationship in 1940? Or was this just the way it was, both in art and life, for this group of people?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I still plan to watch Remember the Night again this year and study the actors’ faces for clues. The movie will air tonight at 9:45 ET on Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM). If you have a chance, please watch it (or DVR it to watch later) and let me know what you think.

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