Hollywood may be unfair, but look at big picture

“I think all minority audiences watch movies with hope. They hope they will see what they want to see. That’s why nobody really sees the same movie.” — screenwriter Arthur Laurents

As a Christian and a film critic, I am often frustrated by the misunderstanding that exists between filmmakers and Christian watchdog organizations such as Movieguide. Yes, it is true that Christians often don’t get a fair shake in the mass media. But Christians have not done a particularly good job of assessing the situation and suggesting ways to improve things.

Michael Medved, co-host of Sneak Previews and a practising Jew who sometimes appears on Focus on the Family, is perhaps the best-informed voice the Christian community has, but his video Hollywood vs. Religion suffers from a tendency to oversimplify.

Perhaps we should take a look at how another invisible minority — the gay community — has responded to misrepresentation on the big screen. The Celluloid Closet, a recent documentary based on Vito Russo’s book, offers some intriguing points of contact.

The concerns of both sides sound awfully similar. Hollywood purged Cat on a Hot Tin Roof of its gay subtext; City of Joy deleted the original novel’s Christian themes. Fame and A Chorus Line portrayed dance troupes in which gays are conspicuously absent; Doc Hollywood showcased life in a South Carolina town but never showed the local church. Cruising and Basic Instinct made gays out to be psychotic killers; Misery and Cape Fear made Christians out to be psychotic killers.

And, in an amusing overlap, both sides cite the 1959 version of Ben-Hur as a milestone for their respective causes. Medved notes that its box-office success and record 11 Academy Awards marked a time when Christian content could make a splash in the mainstream. Yet in The Celluloid Closet, Gore Vidal reveals that Ben-Hur was one of several in that period which contained deliberate, if subtle, homoerotic elements.

So, what might we learn from such a comparison?

Be aware of the bigger picture. Arthur Laurents acknowledges that censors were not always concerned with homosexuality per se, but with the portrayal of people who were “sexually free.” Similarly, not all negative trends in film target Christianity specifically.

Medved cites Cardinal Richelieu’s lechery in Disney’s updated Three Musketeers as evidence of an anti-Christian bias, but what of the atheistic rapist thrown into The Scarlet Letter or the rape and witchcraft attributed to the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? These interpolations are not evidence of anti-atheistic or anti-witchcraft biases, but reflections of an increasing reliance on rape for its dramatic shock value.

Medved also says that Hollywood caters to gays, Moslems and Buddhists while blithely ignoring Christians, but that’s not quite true. The Celluloid Closet demonstrates that any favoritism gays might have in Hollywood is recent and sporadic; Braveheart, for one, offended many by portraying Edward II as a weak sissy. For every positive treatment of Islam a la Malcolm X, there’s a dozen Arab terrorists like the Koran-thumping skyjacker in Executive Decision. On the other hand, Christians have been welcomed as consultants on such films as The Mission and Shadowlands.

Recognize the complexity within our own community. Medved narrates his video by himself; once in a while, he cites an anonymous quote to back up his arguments. To see Hollywood vs. Religion, you might think all practising Jews and Christians agree with him.

The Celluloid Closet, on the other hand, allows for internal disagreements. Thus Laurents finds the “sissy” an offensive stereotype, while Harvey Fierstein argues for “visibility at any cost”; thus Ron Nyswaner has to defend Philadelphia against Jan Oxenberg’s charge that his script offered just another “gay hero who dies.”

Medved misses that internal diversity. He harps on The Godfather Part III for linking the Vatican with the Mob, but he never mentions the positive light it shone on Pope John Paul I. Medved cites The Last Temptation of Christ as evidence of Hollywood’s spiteful treatment of Christians, but he neglects the fact that some Christians valued the film for exploring Christ’s humanity.

Work within the independent circuit. Many of the films that Medved cites for their anti-religious biases were actually produced outside of “Hollywood” by independent filmmakers who are more interested in making personal statements than huge gobs of cash. And, as it happens, this milieu has been conducive to some of the most noteworthy pro-Christian films, from Chariots of Fire to Romero to Dead Man Walking.

Indeed, almost every marginalized community in North American society has had an independently-produced hit in recent years. The production values are often quite amateurish, but each in its own way has lent mainstream prominence to the community that created it. Some are made just for fun; others have addressed the complex issues faced by their communities with honesty and candor.

Too often Christians try to recycle the epic on a shoestring, or we dwell on hokey conspiracy theories that would make Oliver Stone blush. What we need are less Judas Projects and more films relevant to Christian life in the here-and-now; less final-reel altar calls and melodramatic images of the nasty world outside, and more honest recognition of the dilemmas faced within the Church itself; less milk and more meat.

Pray and work for change in the mainstream. Change the word “heterosexual” to “secular”, and most Christians would probably agree with film historian Richard Dyer when he says, “You know you’re watching a heterosexual movie. You know that’s the deal when you pay to see a Hollywood movie. But somehow, you’re still not quite ready to be insulted.”

On this score, Medved is, sadly, accurate. Since Hollywood vs. Religion hit the shelves, Christians have been held up for scorn in popular films such as Seven and The Shawshank Redemption. The Great White Hype included a single shot of a minister so he could be a gratuitous object of ridicule. For the moment, Christians are easy targets.

Fortunately, critics have begun to register their disapproval: in their reviews of Just Cause, Entertainment Weekly scoffed at the cliched nature of Ed Harris’s Bible-quoting serial killer, while The Georgia Straight found the film hateful. But such criticisms are few and far between. Medved is the only critic who watches for this sort of thing regularly, but his simplified approach, coupled with a weakness for sarcasm and a tendency to romanticize the days of the Hays Code, have hurt his reputation.

James Dobson and Chuck Colson have thrown their support behind Medved in the name of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, but perhaps we need to look beyond our immediate borders. A throwback to the days when artificial piety and bland, white, conservative, middle-class values ruled the big screen is not the answer. Instead, we should listen to the concerns of others who have been left out of the mainstream loop. If we take them seriously, they may respond in kind.

– A version of this article first appeared in BC Christian News.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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