1971. I remember it all too well. And I was only seven miles from where the action in this film took place, in Durham N.C. Though some schools, such as my high school in High Point N.C. had been integrated in the late 60s, Durham had managed to avoid that until 1971. Ann Atwater (who passed recent in 2016) and C.J. Ellis (who passed in 2005) were all over the TV news as well as the front page of the Durham Herald. And lest you think the Klan simply disappeared in the 70s, when I came back to N.C. in 1980, there was a cross burning not far down the road from one of my four churches in Randolph County. Indeed, eastern N.C. was still very much Klan territory, though their influence was waning. But racism never really dies because we are all fallen creatures, it’s simply a shape shifter. Remember what happened in Charlottesville Va. not many months ago? Now I wouldn’t be in the ministry if I didn’t believe people could change for the better, and in fact this movie is basically about the change that came in C.J. Ellis, the Grand Cyclops of the Klan in that region, by the grace of God, and the good witness of black Christians to him in Durham, particularly Ann Atwater.
The acting in this movie is superb, not a surprise since it involves Academy Award winning Sam Rockwell, and Tarji P. Henson (with an excellent supporting cast). It runs 132 minutes and as a morality tale, it is an excellent film for families to see and then have a conversation about racism, or if you prefer— ethnic prejudice. The movie chronicles a very short period of time in 1971 when because of the fire at the ‘black school’ the city was forced to figure out what to do with all the black students who went to that high school in east Durham. If you are scratching your head as to what this film has to do with the Gospel, then I will remind you of what John Wesley once said, namely that there can be no true spiritual holiness without social holiness. I will remind you that Wesley was a strong opponent of slavery, and its underlying causes including racism. And I will remind you that St. Paul himself said that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free. And he was right.Some have complained that this uplifting film is too predictable. I disagree. It is simply recounting what actually happened back in 1971, with very little poetic license taken. We would not expect those folks to act like white and black folks do almost fifty years later. But this film shows that change, even Gospel change can happen. And the crucial moment comes in this film when C.P. Ellis has to admit to himself, as well as many others– he no longer believes there is a real difference between blacks and whites in terms of their true humanity, their real abilities, their genuine Christianity. That is when ‘the other’ becomes ‘my brother’ and the walls come tumbling down.