The moralistic approach to filmmaking

From 42 | Christianity Today:

Almost every shot in 42, the biopic of Jackie Robinson (the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues) feels like something out of a dream. Everything is soft-lit and gentle, no quick cuts or jarring effects. Each scene ends exactly when writer/director Brian Helgeland knows the scene has achieved its purpose.

And every scene in 42 has a clear purpose. Whether it’s to show the baseball great (played by Chadwick Boseman) being a good father and husband, or to show the moral failure of every racist in the movie, or to illustrate the changing reactions of Jackie’s teammates, every scene continues until it has delivered the full payload of whatever message Helgeland wants to convey.

What’s problematic about this is that each scene is so transparently “meaningful” as to render the individual characters meaningless. They are cutouts trotted onstage to act in not a biopic, but an overarching fable of Racism Is Bad, Y’All. Jackie can’t be fully human. To be fully human is to embody weaknesses as well as strengths, and Helgeland seems terrified of complicating matters.Every racist who isn’t just a featured extra is a racist because of individual moral failure, or because of his or her own indoctrination by society. (In one notable scene, a young white child sits in the bleachers and, hearing his parent hurl epithets at Robinson, proceeds to do the same, all the while looking very sad and guilty.) Every upright character in the movie eventually comes around to Jackie’s side. And within the context of the film, there’s no other possible justification for not wanting baseball to integrate besides “I hate black people.”

The meta-narrative presented is that the individual moral evil of racism can be annihilated by the enlightened ideals of tolerance and ethics. And this means that 42 fails in ways that could damage its viewer. In depicting racism as an exclusively moral (rather than systemic) issue, the film alleges that we’ve beat it.

In this world, racism is only perpetrated by capital-R-Racists, people who chew tobacco, and wear overalls and pinky rings, and say things like “You better learn your place, boy.” The problem is that in teaching the audience “These people are racist,” the film accidentally reinforces the conception that “Only these people are racist.” As long as you don’t say things like “I hate black people,” you’re not racist. Either you are for racism or against racism. But the threshold of “against racism” is very, very low, where pretty much as long as you’re not actively not throwing rocks at black people, you’re not racist.

Jackie Robinson’s story is inspiring and, to the contemporary audience, obviously a tale of good winning out over bigotry and ignorance. It doesn’t need to be propped up by ad hominem attacks on people who opposed him or by so strongly polarizing the issue. The film seems almost insecure. It’s afraid that if Robinson isn’t portrayed as a perfect paragon of restraint and class, if he ever once cracks, then the entire argument falls apart. This is disrespectful to both history and to Robinson himself. Making the story some race-themed fairy tale makes it seem like it isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.

The reviewer goes on to discuss another movie that he thinks is a more successful treatment of racism, as well as lots of other issues in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about a Pakistani immigrant after the 9-11 attacks.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Paul Reed

    Where did the idea come from that a film with Christian values has to be cheesy and “wholesome”? The dialogue is laughable bad.

  • Sam

    A couple of comments that maybe I’ll also leave at the original posting site:

    While I’m not an expert or baseball scholar, I’ve had a deep interest in the history of baseball, and have been an avid reader of historical accounts of the game’s past. The author makes some statements that arouse my curiosity, and make me wonder if he ever looked into the history behind this movie.

    “within the context of the film, there’s no other possible justification for not wanting baseball to integrate besides “I hate black people.” ” If someone has insight into any other reason for not wanting to integrate baseball (other than, “that’s that many more people who will be after my job”), I’d be happy to hear it. It would be a first, as far as I can tell.

    “every scene in 42 has a clear purpose”. I’m not a student of film, but is this not true of every scene in every movie? It appears to me that directors are soundly criticized when scenes DON’T seem to have a clear purpose. But I may have missed his point here.

    “or to illustrate the changing reactions of Jackie’s teammates” Being an important part of the story, what’s the problem with this?

    “It’s afraid that if Robinson isn’t portrayed as a perfect paragon of restraint and class, if he ever once cracks, then the entire argument falls apart. This is disrespectful to both history and to Robinson himself.” Well, that’s pretty much how it really was. Branch Rickey knew, and convinced Robinson, that one publicly bad reaction/response to the hatred and abuse could easily bring the whole thing down, because much of the baseball (and other) public would then say, “See, those Negroes – - that’s just how they are.” Robinson surely wasn’t a PERFECT paragon of restraint and class, but, publicly, he had to be very nearly so . . . and, by all accounts, WAS very nearly so, until it was established that the game worked just fine with black players involved.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I saw the movie and loved it. Critics…I guess they have to write about something.

    I remember reading a review of Cars 2 from a Christian movie reviewer and he literally wrote the following…”If Mater had taken the time to understand the cultures of the other cars and what the social conventions that he ignored or was simply ignorant of, perhaps he would have been open to change”…Not to put too fine of point on it, but Mater is a cartoon tow truck in a movie who says funny stuff.

    Paralysis by analysis. It’s a movie, a pretty good one that tells an inspiring story. Does it have to be anything else? If it isn’t “Citizen Kane” meets Flannery O’Connor with a dash of Steven Spielberg topped by T.S. Eliot that doesn’t make it bad.

    Sometimes people just need to get over themselves.

  • Becca

    Re “Every racist who isn’t just a featured extra is a racist because of individual moral failure, or because of his or her own indoctrination by society,” I’m sorry, but what other reasons are there for being a racist? Is the critic complaining about the fact that a film about Robinson fails to make racism sympathetic? Was Schindler’s List a bad film because it depicted anti-Semitism as a Bad Thing? Also, scenes are ineffective because they all seem to have a “purpose”???? Isn’t that the very definition of a scene in a film?

  • tODD

    Sam (@2), the reviewer isn’t blaming the director for telling a story, as it were. He’s blaming him for doing it poorly — or, more to the point, ham-fistedly. Sure, scenes, characters, and dialogue all have their functions. But if they are essentially screaming what their function is (“This speech tells us he is evil”, “Here is where he sees the devastating results of his tragic character flaw!”), then they aren’t very compelling, and they don’t do a very good job.

    I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds like yet another example of treacly “Christian” fare that gets cranked out in abundance these days, and which bears little resemblance to reality. Of course, some people want simplistic morality fare, but usually we reserve that stuff for kids (and, frankly, I try to steer my kids more to classic fare that tends to be less ham-fisted and more ambiguous).

    Steve, you said (@3):

    Not to put too fine of point on it, but Mater is a cartoon tow truck in a movie who says funny stuff.

    Just because he’s animated and humorous doesn’t mean there aren’t messages in the film. Parents, of all people, should not turn a blind eye to such things, because they do affect all of us — particularly children who have not learned to think critically about what they see and hear. It’s our job as parents to “over-think” things for them. I’m pretty sure that many of the people making the movies are not as blase about the messages in them.

    But, you know, thinking is hard, and this movie funny.

  • Steve Billingsley

    tODD @ 5
    But, you know, thinking is hard, and this movie funny.

    No hint of self-importance there.

    But then again, you know the reviewer is correct even though you haven’t seen the movie.

  • tODD

    Steve (@6), hey, I’m just a guy on the Internet who says funny things. There’s no message in my comment. Don’t worry.

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  • JEH

    As a way to get people interested in Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, the film is great. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on Wikipedia after the movie looking up all sorts of baseball info. It’s a feel-good film.

    The story is essentially, “Hero saves baseball by being a good person and a talented athlete.” Is it weak? Sure, but are simple moral tales always bad?

    Ok, I guess the problem here is if one watched this expecting an “honest” story. Which, in terms of facts, I think it is pretty accurate. It all comes down to whether or not you understand what you’re watching. And that’s true for any film anyway, so what is being argued about again?

  • tODD

    JEH (@8), the question is whether we as Christians should be clamoring for hagiographies or instead demanding films that hew more to real life.

    The main problem with simple moral tales is that they are simple. They purport to teach us something, but by reducing everything to black-and-white, they reduce the usefulness of the lesson they would teach, since we all live in this murky, grey world. They also damage us by setting up impossibly high standards. Not a few people, when they realize they can’t meet such standards, tend to give up completely.

    Contrast that with, say, the Bible. Sure, it has heroes. Heroes who do great things. But other than Jesus, all those heroes are also depicted as people with significant flaws. Noah gets drunk right after God saves him. Moses kills a guy and also tries to convince God to find someone else. David commits adultery and effectively has the woman’s husband killed. The disciples continually misunderstand Jesus’ words and purpose, and even try to stop him from carrying out his mission. And so on.

    Hagiographies — literally, biographies of the saints (in the Catholic sense) — are popular with sects that stress Law over Gospel and try to convince people that you really can do something to get rid of your sinful nature. Speaking only for Lutherans, however, we prefer our heroes to be depicted as the sinners they necessarily must be, anyhow.

    It also helps if movies aren’t ham-fisted.

  • Becca

    Todd, I used to be a Catholic, and Catholic saints are often (not always!) far from perfect. This is why Mother Teresa, who experienced what sounds like a life-long dark night of the soul, yet remained a believer, is such excellent saint material for the modern world.

    Re the film, I haven’t seen it, but I find the review bizarre. I can see why there would be a problem with hagiography, but what are we to make of “every racist who isn’t just a featured extra is a racist because of individual moral failure, or because of his or her own indoctrination by society”? Is it the film’s duty to represent racism as justified? I know that’s a nasty thing to say, but if we discard individual moral failure and social/familial indoctrination, we are left with racism as a result of life experience–ie, racism that can be justified in some cases. Also, what do we do with a sentence like “…within the context of the film, there’s no other possible justification for not wanting baseball to integrate besides ‘I hate black people.’” Was there another reason for not wanting baseball to integrate? After all of that, a remark like “the threshold of ‘against racism’ is very, very low, where pretty much as long as you’re not actively not throwing rocks at black people, you’re not racist,” is a non-sequitur, as it does not naturally follow from previous statements.

    This is simply not a good review.

  • Steve Billingsley

    “The main problem with simple moral tales is that they are simple. They purport to teach us something, but by reducing everything to black-and-white, they reduce the usefulness of the lesson they would teach, since we all live in this murky, grey world. They also damage us by setting up impossibly high standards. Not a few people, when they realize they can’t meet such standards, tend to give up completely.”

    So let’s throw Aesop’s Fables, the Biblical book of Proverbs and all literature (and art) of this type out the window. (BTW, the movie in question isn’t the 2-dimensional cardboard cutout that the reviewer depicts, but if it helps you to buy into that premise without actually seeing the movie, be my guest)

    Second – as to the quote above – wrong …. in so many ways.

    Morality tales serve a very important purpose – they serve to awaken and feed the moral imagination.

    “It is through hearing about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” – Alisair MacIntyre – “After Virtue”

    The Law does serve as a tutor. I frankly don’t look at society (or the church or children today) and see that the problem is they are not consuming enough nuanced, ambiguous fare that teaches them about the murky world we live in. I think that’s all most people (including Christians) tend to consume. It shouldn’t take a long look at the world to see that there is an incredible lack of moral imagination in our world. We could use more ham-fisted (sarc intended) – simple morality plays. It’s not an accident that much of the “classic fare” that has lasted through the centuries is exactly that kind of work. Simple does not equal shallow. And by the same token, ambiguous does not equal deep. Most of the ambiguity we see in today’s art isn’t because of depth, it is because of moral confusion. The ability to accept, enjoy and enter into seemingly straightforward stories on their own terms and absorb the lessons that are there is something that is clouded by our fallen nature and needs to be restored (hence the role of Law as tutor, not savior, but tutor) and thinkers as far back as Plato and Aristotle (much of his “Poetics” is about this very thing) understood that.

    The ironic pose of our contemporary culture isn’t a sign of moral seriousness or a rejection of the simplistic – it is self-referential, self-conscious shallowness – posing as complexity. The blog post below talks about this.

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/02/25/they-will-know-we-are-christians-by-our-lack-of-irony/

  • Becca

    @Steve Billingsley re “It’s not an accident that much of the “classic fare” that has lasted through the centuries is exactly that kind of work,” is not entirely true. Folk tales are not all we have left of past literature. Few Elizabethan and Jacobean plays are set in worlds where good and evil are clear, and where choices are absolute. Ditto for 18th century satire, Chaucer and the Pearl poet. The Christian myth of the passion also escapes the good-evil dichotomy of a fairy tale. In medieval cycles, Jews are the bad guys in that they crucify Jesus, but often, the audience is also implicated in that desire. Human penchant for cruelty, in turn, leads to salvation. What does that say about cruelty in a cruel age?

    Also, I disagree that modern fare has too much nuance. Shows like Lost, Bones, X-Files, various CSIs, Battlestar Galactica, or the Fringe offer clearer moral dichotomies than Gulliver’s Travels, Hamlet or the Duchess of Malfi.

    …and then, of course, we have Family Guy and South Park. lol.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Becca @ 12
    I don’t disagree with anything that you said. I did say “much” not “all”.

    I am not against nuance or ambiguity in art, but the idea that simple = ham-fisted is just plain wrong. What gets under my skin isn’t that some people don’t like movies like “42″ or what is dismissively referred to as “moralistic and preachy” openly Christian films. Like what you want. It is the implication that anyone who does like them is somehow ignorant or “damaging themselves” by their viewing. In recent years I have seen this kind of art explicitly compared to pornography or portrayed as “damaging” by well-meaning Christians who seem to think they know what people should be watching. A bit thick, if you ask me.

    Put the shoe on the other foot – say a Christian says they watch a show with jarring or edgy content and comment on the spiritual implications of said show. Then up pops comments from other Christians who immediately pontificate about how any Christian watching such content is “damaging themselves”. Wouldn’t such commentary seem more than a bit “Pharisaical”? Wouldn’t it seem a bit much for the finger-wagging contingent to presume to tell others what they should and shouldn’t be watching (To be clear, I’m not referring to something like hardcore pornography or terrorist beheading videos – but something like shows produced for HBO like “The Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones”)? So when did the shoe get put on the other foot? When did “The Hallmark Channel”-style programming become the new forbidden art? It just seems to overreacting and rejecting out of hand a lot of programming that isn’t worthy of that kind of dismissal.

    More than a bit ridiculous IMO.

  • Becca

    @Steve Billingsley, I agree. My favorite author is Charles Dickens, and his work is “moralistic and preachy.” It is annoying to hear people claim that George RR Martin (Game of Thrones) is a better writer than Tolkien because Martin refuses to draw the ethical lines that Tolkien did. However, not all morality tales are equal. Schindler’s List is a morality tale. It’s superb. I’m not familiar with Hallmark, as we don’t have cable, but I watched one show at a friend’s house, and the production values and the script left me cold.

    There really is stuff out there which offers a moral universe. We’re watching Fringe right now and it’s exactly that kind of a show, though its morality evolves over time. It’s also gruesome and picks up only in its second season, so it’s probably an acquired taste.

  • Stephen

    There are great morality tales from many cultures. Like Steve B. alludes to, Luther encouraged using them (Aesop) to teach children moral lessons. His arguments for morality tales seem sound to me and I would agree. I love reading books to my kids that are morally coherent and think it is much better than servings of moral ambiguity to no end. A dash of each is where the best writing is in my view.

    But to follow that Law/Gospel line properly is to know that morality (or the Law writ as large as possible) in itself does not make something Christian. Neither does characters who are merciful or forgiving or self-sacrificing (Les Miserables). What makes something Christian is one thing – Christ and him crucified and faith in the same. If it tells that particular story then perhaps we could call it a Christian movie.

    On that score, there are other films that have an allegorical content that could be considered to reflect the Christian Gospel. Cool Hand Luke comes to mind, as does One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those make for better “tellings” of the Gospel such as they are IMO. They’d make way better confirmation discussions I think.

    Perhaps what is bothersome is labeling something that is overtly moralistic to be therefore “Christian” when it really does little to advance the telling of the Gospel itself. It may even hinder it because it points away from Christ to the one who does moral things. Maybe that makes sense. If people come to the moralistic movie thinking “ah yes, this is Christianity – being a good, humble persevering person” then they aren’t getting the real story about what this Jesus stuff is all about. Those qualities are certainly to be taught, but they are as far from the earth is to the sky from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • tODD

    Steve (@11), since it seems to be an issue for you, it’s true that I haven’t seen 42. Unfortunately (for me), I have seen many other creations in the vein that Veith described: “explicitly Christian”, as well as “moralistic and preachy”. I used to watch TBN, where they show fare like that in both long (e.g. Fireproof) and short form. Blech.

    So let’s throw Aesop’s Fables, the Biblical book of Proverbs and all literature (and art) of this type out the window.

    The book of Proverbs is almost entirely a collection of, well, proverbs. It’s not a “tale”, much less attempting to show reality. It’s a set of ideals to aim for (but in reality, we fall short).

    As for Aesop’s fables, they are equally as didactic, but with just enough of a story to flesh out the idea. They do contain useful wisdom (usually), but I wouldn’t call them good literature. Have you read them lately? I suppose it depends on the edition you have, but most of those I’ve read are pretty preachy. Regardless, it’s worth noting that, by their nature, they do not present themselves as reflective of reality. The tip-off here is the talking animals.

    Contrast that with most of the aforementioned “Christian” fare, which does seem to want to tell us a story about humans and how they are. But they so often hand us an Aesop’s fable stretched to 90 minutes, with characters that are only slightly more realistic than talking grasshoppers.

    As for your MacIntyre quote, it, too misses the point here. I’m not arguing for “depriving children of stories”. I’m arguing for depriving them of bad stories. I have a lovely edition of Grimm’s fairy tales that I hope to read to my children some day (I tried a few when they were younger, but the text is from the original tales, and it was a bit gruesome for them at that age). Still, those original Grimm tales are a lot more, well, grim than your average “Christian” fare these days.

    We could use more ham-fisted (sarc intended) – simple morality plays. It’s not an accident that much of the “classic fare” that has lasted through the centuries is exactly that kind of work.

    I’m curious what “classic fare” you’re thinking of that is “ham-fisted”. Certainly not Shakespeare. Or the Greek tragedies. What then?

  • Becca

    Steve, I should first confess that I’m agnostic, not religious.

    There are different ways of conveying a message. One would be the straightforward Passion story–Gibson’s version is excellent, even if Gibson is not. The other is Christian allegory–Narnia. You don’t need to be limited to these, however. LOTR and Harry Potter are rife with religious themes, but they’re not Christian allegories. Atheists have been known to come up with shows that are full of religious themes–see John Whedon’s Buffy, complete with vampires seeking their souls, atoning for past sins, and one sacrificial death at the end, or the agnostic Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, practically bursting at the seams with religious themes.

  • Steve Billingsley

    OK, toDD @ 16 – one more time and then I’ll let this rest……
    I don’t care that you don’t like “Fireproof” or that kind of movie – I certainly don’t claim that they are great movies or anything close to great. If you happen to watch 42 – you would likely agree that the production values and acting within that movie are far superior to the TBN-style fare that you refer to (which isn’t a high bar to clear). If you watch it and think it is a poor movie (ham-fisted even) – it won’t bother me in the slightest. You are certainly entitled to your own opinion.

    But to take it to the next level and to claim that those movies are “damaging” or to crib a comparison from a thread last year based upon a Christian writer’s review of something (I forget, I think maybe it was the Thomas Kinkade style painting) who threw out the “sentimentality, like pornography” line of idiocy is a bridge way too far. It puts one into the position, not of making judgments for oneself or even what is appropriate for one’s children, but of prescribing in authoritative fashion what everyone else should be watching. As if anyone appointed you the Czar of artistic criticism for appropriate Christian viewing in a bizarre sort of photo negative Donald Wildmon way. But in this alternative universe – a few curse words or excess cleavage don’t render stories damaging to the tender Christian psyche – but instead it is – gasp – simple stories that try to present heroism and virtue that are running rampant over “the children” (the horror).

    I referenced the Chesterton essay, “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls” in past threads in which he makes the point that even bad stories that present the heroic or virtuous in wooden (or dare I say – ham-fisted) ways play a needed role in providing even an imperfect vision of what is True, Good and Beautiful. C.S. Lewis’ book “An Experiment in Criticism” makes many of the same points. So trying to protect your children from bad stories with “good” content is not only unnecessary – but possibly counter-productive. I take very seriously what I allow my children to watch and read – and I certainly want to steer to the best there is. But if they should happen to watch “Facing the Giants” I don’t think that is a bad thing. And if (oh the humanity) they actually like it – a stern lecture on the damaging effects of wooden, two-dimensional, overly sentimental storytelling is certainly not forthcoming.

    As to the “classic fare” – I am referring to stories like Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit or even old morality plays like “Everyman” which have stayed with us – books like “The Wind in the Willows”, “The Snow Queen” etc. which are not full of ambiguity. They are certainly of much higher quality than the TBN-fare (or even a movie like 42 – which although I loved the movie – I certainly grant it isn’t a great movie – merely a good one) they are actually more akin to the simple morality tale than other works of similar quality but horrible moral content. These works lasted because they were of high quality – but also because they touch on the simple themes that are eternal in value (friendship, heroism, love, loyalty, courage etc.)

    Sophisticated and gritty can be great – but they are not a substitute for genuine virtue.

    I frankly think that the type of review referenced in this post is nothing more than over-analytical, self-referential faux-sophisticated posing. As a lark – I went and read about 15 of the secular press reviews of “42″ and the consensus was that it was a good, not great movie that played it safe in some ways, but still captured much of the grit and emotional struggle that Robinson lived through and overall was an inspiring movie about an important story. So this review is an outlier and I would submit – an overreaching attempt to appear thoughtful – to be “relevant” and “deep”. And in the end it is the review that is – wait for it – ham-fisted and preachy, not the movie itself. I will end with what I ended my first comment on this thread –

    Some people just need to get over themselves.


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