The Last Taboo in Hollywood, Take 2

The Last Taboo in Hollywood, Take 2 April 15, 2013

I didn’t plan on there being a second take when I sat down to write “The Last Taboo in Hollywood,” my recent post here at Good Letters that took issue with the gross lack of anything but lame portrayals of Christian characters in TV and film.

But after years of working in the business myself, I should have known better: only a fool ever expects to nail a scene—or in this case, a post—in one take.

Granted it was hard not to feel a certain ballast to my argument: here I was, a Christian screenwriter taking aim with secular critics at the History Channel’s massively popular and equally cheesy ten-part miniseries The Bible, which I only endured for the first twenty minutes.

The writing was on the wall, as James Poniewozik of Time so aptly put it: “So we may see more TV for religious believers as a result of The Bible. What I’d love to see—but am not so sure we will—is more TV about religious believers.”

Building upon his argument, the essence of my own could be summed up in two of its middle paragraphs:

He doesn’t mean specifically or only Christian believers, of course, but for my purposes here the C-word in Hollywood apparently stands for this faith tradition more than anything anatomical, Christian characters being perhaps the last taboo after all of the industry’s self-congratulatory progress in portraying women, minorities, and gays.

Quick: Name a memorable Christian character in recent TV or film—say the past thirty years—who wasn’t either a loser or a wing-nut, a despicable charlatan or a pathetic saint, but a likeable and, yes, flawed character, and one whose central flaw wasn’t his or her faith.

I was sure to mention a few exceptions to the rule that immediately came to mind, but still, the argument was inarguable—in my mind, at least.

And the first handful of comments from readers generally affirmed this, with mention made of certain other exceptions to the rule in their viewing experience.

Then one J.A.A. Purves weighed in, citing with off-handed quickness three characters in television from HBO shows alone: Reverend Smith on “Deadwood,” Richard Harrow on “Boardwalk Empire,” and Ben Hawkins on “Carnivale.”

Fair enough. But this was then followed promptly by a second comment pertaining to film, which kept its focus on the past ten (not thirty) years with a list that includes thirty-five characters in twenty-three movies.

I would copy the list here to give you a sense of my shoe-in-mouth meal that same day the post appeared, but it would eat up a solid quarter of my allotted word count.

To that end, however, the Image staff has helpfully “compiled a list of all the Good Letters readers’ recommendations for films and television shows that feature more nuanced portrayals of faith” in response to my question, which can be read here.

Purves let the list speak for itself, judiciously declining to take me more to task than she or he likely felt quite tempted to do.

In picking up the pieces of the supposed ballast to my argument, I posted the following reply:

Thank you for both comments, and for the long enlightening list. Some of the projects you mention I’ve seen but didn’t recall, and various others I’ve never seen. Originally my point was to name a handful, then I revised that to one for (arguably ill-advised) effect—glad I stand corrected to the extent that you can name a bunch of handfuls! And I probably should have weighted the argument more toward television.

But I think the overall point still stands: a major subject in the real world for the most part seems to suffer short shrift in the screen world. Even sympathetic characters don’t always mean the subject in question gets its narrative due.

A-ha! So that’s what I was talking about: characters, yes, but also stories that dramatically impinge upon matters of faith and belief. Or, to put it differently, characters whose being Christian has no real bearing upon the story in play.

Was that what I was talking about? What was I really talking about? What did I want to see more of in TV and film that I hadn’t seen enough of in my own admittedly limited viewing experience?

Certainly not the kind of fit-for-Christian-consumption projects that The Bible would inevitably spawn, but ones that explore the messy, complex, and personally apocalyptic side of faith. (As those from Purves’ list that I haven’t seen probably do.)

Yet as Susan Isaacs astutely pointed out in her reply that praised Lars and the Real Girl for its portrayal in the Christian vein:

Faith works in the movie because it’s not the central focus. The big question hanging over the movie is, “Will Lars get better?” Not, “Will Lars apply his Christian faith to getting better?” or “Can Christians save the sickest of people?”

Still, the theme of the movie shows up in the second scene. Lars is sitting in church, and the pastor says it. “We need not ask what Jesus would do. He said so: Love one another.” And it’s off-camera while Lars is playing with a children’s toy. Brilliant.

In other words, a story about faith is, as Emily Dickinson would prescribe, told aslant.

Interestingly, Susan Isaacs herself takes a very direct approach to the subject, and successfully so, in her brilliant memoir Angry Conversations with God, whose winning conceit places Isaacs and God on a collision course in couples therapy.

And lest I or anyone else forget, the slant approach is hardly just a human dictum prescribed by Dickinson: God employs the parabolic mode throughout the scriptures, Old Testament and New alike.

I have to cut here, but more is to come. Even at the outset of this second take, I didn’t think there would be a third. Once again, I should have known better.

Tomorrow, in Take 3 (I can assure you there won’t be a fourth!) I’ll touch on how the original post and its aftermath helped me reckon what my better intentions were at the outset.

The Image staff compiled a list of all the Good Letters readers’ recommendations for films and television shows that feature more nuanced portrayals of faith, in response to Bradford’s question. See the whole list here. For more on this topic, read our interview with writer Patton Dodd on Christian film villains. 

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  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Certainly there have been exceptions to the general rule in Hollywood of a positive portrayal of Christians …. especially those of a Protestant bent . Heck I even brought one up in the first discussion . But ….. the sad simple fact is …. overall … especially pertaining to Protestant portrayals in Film as well as TV the majority of religious characters are at best rather negative .

    So no Foot in Mouth Disease for you …. your ‘ overall ‘ assessment is dead on …. with the rest as previously mentioned being the occasional ‘ exception ‘ and far from the ‘ rule ‘

    95% of the time if there’s a Protestant character in a Film – TV show he she is portrayed as a xenophobe at best … legalist and closed minded on average …. and most times as a stark raving fool . Or worse …. as some hard core left wing extreme liberalist who’s opinions and theology is based on anything but the Bible

    • Brad Winters

      I do find myself on a bit of a see-saw with this subject, especially in light of Susan’s disheartening comment below regarding the new Jackie Robinson film, “42.”

  • Christine

    I would love to know an example of a hard core left wing extreme liberalist Christian on TV or in the movies! I certainly don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

    Someone could do an interesting blog on the religious faiths in Game of Thrones. I’m not up to it, but just saying. . .

  • Interesting timing. Eric Metaxas wrote an op-ed on the new Jackie Robinson film, “42,” which HuffPo picked up. The new Jackie Robinson film, “42,” omits mention of the Christian faith held by both Robinson and Dodger manager, Branch Ricky. Their faith was integral to the men’s drives. Ricky’s faith drove him to end segregation on his team, and Robinson’s faith helped him stay classy in the midst of the abuse he got. (Insert eye-rolling-emoticon here)

    • Eye rolling at the fact Hollywood left out the faith component. Insert chagrined emoticon at lack of proper emoticon grammar

    • Brad Winters

      Like I said in response to T. Martin above, this news only adds to the see-saw effect that I’ve experienced in considering the subject across my three-part post. As is the case when editing in TV or film, the finished product in any given scene is most often a composite of multiple takes — the same holds true here, as Take 1 does have its value.

    • Metaxas is wrong about that — enough so that I wonder if he’s even seen the film.

  • Bob D.

    The linked-to-list list was certainly appreciated and serves as exceptions that prove the rule. However, especially for the movies, I was struck by how many were either small, indie releases, foreign in origin or films that were situated in a different historical/geographical context. I was surprised that Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) in The Blind Side was not mentioned.

    Brad, I think your original point still holds up well even if slight evidence to the contrary exists. What I find most regrettable is that the few quality films where a character’s Christian faith is portrayed as having depth and complexity are too often ignored by Christian movie-goers, or worse, condemned by the Christian press as lacking the expected tone of propaganda. I recall how Robert Duvall was vilified from many pulpits when he released The Apostle. But that’s another Good Letters post (or two.)

    • Brad Winters

      I made a similar point in the first post of this three-parter about culpability in the Church for often sanctioning only simplistic, sanitized portrayals of Christians, and it bears repeating here. In a reply to a comment I also lamented Duvall’s loss to Jack Nicholson that year for Best Actor; but what an equal loss to those in the Church who only saw fit to villify him. That is certainly another post or two or three!

  • Peggy Harris

    Regarding the faith expressed in the 42 biopic: I won’t be able to see it till later this week, but I read a review April 11 in “The United Methodist Reporter” by Bill Fentum, a section of which I’ve copied here. According to Fentum, faith was at least part of the script:
    “The script also puts a few new words in Rickey’s mouth, about why he wants Jackie Robinson for the job. Learning the 27-year-old star athlete risked a military court martial by refusing to sit in the back of a bus, Rickey says, “If he were white, we’d call that spirit. Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist! We can’t go wrong. That’s the only mention in the movie of the Methodist heritage the two men shared. But Christian faith is expressed often in Rickey’s dialogue, and implied in the courage of Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) as they face the challenges ahead.”

  • Caught this (and read the first part from the link here) on the front page… so, new reader. First character I thought of was Firefly’s Book.

    If you were ever interested in portrayls beyond Hollywood, as in, international media, rare sights in the media of other countries… I’m an anime fan (Japanese animation) and my very favorite anime series is Trigun, which features the likes of one Nicholas D. Wolfwood – a hard-bitten gunslinger with a collar. He’s sort of… I don’t know, space-Christian like Book is, having some trappings of a Catholic priest mixed with Protestant reverend (he’s called by the “Protestant” honorific in the Japanese). His actual religion doesn’t come up much, but he’s kind of blatantly there, with his collar and the giant cross he lugs around (that’s an apparatus full of guns). His “character flaws” might actually make him too flawed for this list (the hard-bitten gunslinger thing), but he is actually a good guy (double agent, but firmly good in the end). He’s definitely the kind of character that would annoy/appall very strict American Christians (the same who complain about The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders), but for the open-minded sci-fi geek, he’s pretty cool.

    Let’s just say that in the fandom, I’ve gotten into arguments with hardcore anti-theist types who love the character despite his being religious.

  • Joshua

    I saw “42”, and aspects of Christianity were used in their lines pretty often. Not in a heavy way, but it seemed fine to me.