Amistad Gives African Americans Their Due / Abolitionists fare less well.

It is a bitter irony, much noted by critics, that many films dealing with the civil-rights movement and its legacy — Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, and, most recently, Ghosts of Mississippi, to name three prominent examples — have minimized the role of black activists within their own movements while extolling the (at times fictitious) heroism of white people who came to their rescue. But what is equally true, and not so frequently noted, is how these films secularize their white heroes and, through them, the process of racial reconciliation. If religion is visible at all, it is typically found among racial minorities or on the lips of white villains.1

Ghosts of Mississippi is a classic case in point. The film tells the true story of Bobby DeLaughter, an attorney who successfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for murdering civil-rights activist Medgar Evers some 30 years before. In the film, the black activist and his family take a back seat to the white lawyer and his domestic troubles, while the film’s only clearly articulated reference to religious belief comes in a racist rant of De La Beckwith’s. But when I interviewed the real-life DeLaughter for a secular publication, he told several stories of the prayers that had been said by himself, by members of Evers’s family, and even by the foreman of the jury. These prayers, he believed, helped bring the killer to justice, but there is no trace of them in the film.

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Review: Fallen (dir. Gregory Hoblit, 1998)

fallen1998Angels and demons are hot stuff these days, but no one in Hollywood seems to know what to do with them. The Devil’s Advocate, Michael and A Life Less Ordinary were all tedious exercises in pointlessness, and that’s before one accounts for the fact that even the good angels in these films tended to be a rather sordid, scuzzy lot. Whether they’re paunchy, promiscuous layabouts or matchmaking assassins with a thing for bad poetry, these have been the sort of angels that you don’t want to be touched by.

So if Fallen, a modest and relatively unassuming thriller written by Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and directed by Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear), is one of the better films in this genre, it’s not because it faces a lot of competition.

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Artificial Life

Human beings, as C. S. Lewis once put it, are amphibious creatures. We are both creations and creators; we follow instincts and hungers we cannot control, one of which is the impulse to make things in our image just as God made us in his. And so we feel a kinship with nature, as well as a pride of sorts in the things we create, yet they fill us with anxiety too.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, in a small but impressive body of work, has spent the past two decades exploring these issues, and his latest film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, is perhaps his most intricate and stimulating yet. In the film, Morris considers the worlds of animals and robots and asks how different we are from either of them. Are we, as computer scientist Marvin Minsky has said, simply machines made of meat?

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Review: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (dir. Errol Morris, 1997)

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control proves, once again, that Errol Morris is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.

His newest documentary does not have the celebrity appeal of his Stephen Hawking bio A Brief History of Time, nor will it make headlines like The Thin Blue Line, which singlehandedly overturned an innocent man’s murder conviction. But it does represent a bold artistic step forward for Morris, and it explores crucial existential themes with a thoughtfulness and perceptiveness unlike anything Morris has done since his first film, Gates of Heaven.

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Review: FairyTale: A True Story (dir. Charles Sturridge, 1997); Anastasia (dir. Don Bluth & Gary Goldman, 1997)

IN ADDITION to the social and political havoc it caused, the First World War precipitated a sort of spiritual crisis. In a world rapidly giving in to industrialism and modernization, the war proved that science, far from saving the world, was just as likely to speed it along to its destruction. And with so many people killed or missing in the conflict, survivors were left to wonder if they would ever see their loved ones again, in this life or the next.

Two recent movies made for children, based on true stories set in this period, answer that question strongly in the affirmative. But in doing so, they play fast and loose with the known historical facts.

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Interview: Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, 1997)

Date: November 12, 1997
Place: Cambridge, MA (him) and Surrey, BC (me)

I conducted this phone interview as part of my research for an article I wrote for Books & Culture. I have liked the films of Errol Morris ever since I saw The Thin Blue Line in 1989, and the film which occasioned this article, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, was easily my favorite film of 1997. I had heard that Morris lets his interviewees ramble without interruption, the better to see what they reveal about themselves, so I tried a similar approach.

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