By James M. Wall
A reader suggested a film for reflection as racial tensions rise in the present moment.
I had earlier written the following review.
The Best of Enemies
Based on a true series of events in Durham, North Carolina, “The Best of Enemies” centers around a 1971 two-week meeting of citizens on the subject of school integration.
The town set up a study meeting that brought together members of the black and white communities. Its two co-chairs were Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a local Civil Rights activist, and Claiborne Paul “C.P.” Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the head of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The reason the meeting — called a “charrette” — is organized is because a local judge knew he could not get away with issuing a ruling against integration, which had been the law of the land since 1954. Instead, the city invites Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), a black community organizer from Raleigh who has orchestrated “charrettes” in various places.
A “charrette” is not a legal proceeding. It is an example of “democracy in action,” a way for a city to take its own temperature on a hot-button issue. Henson and Rockwell are superb in their depiction of two angry leaders who have their own agendas.
The KKK involvement in local politics through intimidation and threats of violence, was strong in 1951. It is less prominent today. Be aware, however, that this film is a dramatic and at times tense look, at the American racist mind-set. It is a film that celebrates how “the best of enemies” can find common ground.
It also allows viewers of this 2019 release to look for signs of hope in our current political landscape.
By James M. Wall
In search of movies to recommend during this self-isolation period, I found a Wall Writings posting that discusses two movies. (Note: parential discretion essential)
The films are two of my favorites, Nashville and The Apostle.
It was posted January 12, 2011, and like any posting, it reflects the author’s mindset at the time.
In this case, I wanted to note our periodic violent events, our national religious differences, the popularity of Nashville-style music, and my personal involvement in the motion picture ratings system.
Here, below, is the 2011 posting mlnus two videos. The link to the original follows.
by James M. Wall
In Tony Judt’s final book, The Memory Chalet, he wrote as a historian looking back on his own life. Judt, who finished his final work a few months before his death, defined the task of the historian this way:
of all the cliches about “History,” the one that most appealed to me was the assertion that we are but philosophers teaching with examples.
If we take “examples” to be stories, parables, myths, art forms, or legends, the way is open to all of us to be philosophers who teach. As a confirmed cinephile, I am emboldened to take Judt’s lead and offer the occasional movie to convey what for me is important for others to consider.
Nashville is a film that became relevant this past week because of the mass killings in Arizona.
This 1975 film by Robert Altman has retained its position on the shelf of the memory because it is a cinematic work of art that evokes an American period of tumult when political conflict exploded into violence.
The film deals with many interacting lonely souls, a characteristic Altman story. In the film Altman follows a group of individuals who for a variety of reasons, have arrived together in the city of Nashville, Tennessee. They gather in the “country music capital” at a significant moment in American political history.
The film places these lonely souls on a stage, or in the audience, during a performance at Nashville’s Parthenon. They are there to hear a presidential candidate speak.
More importantly, they are there to see and hear several prominent country music singers, one of whom, a young woman, is shot by a gunman in the audience.
The closing moments of Nashville captures the confusion, the horror and the grief, of such an event. This is not a film “about” country music. It is a film “of” America.
A review by New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, appeared on June 12, 1975.
Nashville . . . . is a panoramic film with dozens of characters, set against the country-and-western music industry in Nashville. It’s a satire, a comedy, a melodrama, a musical. Its music is terrifically important—funny, moving, and almost nonstop. . . .
There are so many story lines in Nashville that one is more or less coerced into dealing in abstractions. Nashville is about the quality of a segment of Middle American life. It’s about ambition, sentimentality, politics, emotional confusion, empty goals, and very big business in a society whose citizens are firmly convinced that the use of deodorants is next to godliness.
Nashville doesn’t make easy fun of these people. It doesn’t patronize them. Along with their foolishness, it sees their gallantry. . . .
At the end of the film Barbara Harris, as a perpetually disheveled, very unlikely aspirant to country-and-western stardom, almost tears the screen to bits with a gospel version of a song heard earlier (“It Don’t Worry Me”) that concludes the narrative in a manner that is almost magical.
A second film which fulfills Tony Judt’s call for history teaching by example, is The Apostle. In a crucial moment in this film, a traveling Pentecostal evangelist and a local citizen confront one another in the dusty church yard of a small southern Louisiana town.
Before The Apostle was released in September, 1997, I arranged a theatrical screening for a national church conference in Florida. Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association (MPAA), helped line up the theater for us.
Jack had been working with the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Theater Owners, to build bridges between the film industry and the church community.
This particular relationship inside a small corner of the God-Mammon dialogue, had earlier played an important role in the creation of the MPAA’s film rating program. I heard Valenti say on several occasions that the system could not have survived in its early years, “without the involvement of the churches”.
The rating system was created in 1968 largely by the personal drive of Valenti, and with the support and participation of both the NCCC and the Catholic Office of Bishops. Now that 43 years have passed, the rating system is such an accepted part of the movie industry, that few people outside of those of us involved in the struggle to create and sustain the system, still connect the churches with the MPAA.
The documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, is a badly flawed work about the formation of the system. The documentary deals with what the film-makers want us to believe is the “uncovering” of the power of a rating system conducted in “secret”. The film’s creators claimed to be “shocked, shocked” by what their research discovered.
They had turned up the shocking news that there are “clergy on the movie ratings appeal panel”.
That shocking connection was true, but it was not new. The connection was established by Valenti when the system was created because he was convinced the system could not survive without public support. He reasoned, correctly, as it turned out, that one way to assure transparency for the system was to involve Protestant and Catholic leaders in the creation and ongoing monitoring of the system.
The monitoring continues until this day. I know this, because I serve as the NCCC Protestant representative on the appeals panel, along with a colleague from the Catholic Bishops’ film office.
For the definitive history of this era see William Romanowski’s book, Refotming Hollywood, click here
Which brings me to that Florida clergy screening. To put that event in context, those in attendance were all from “high steeple churches” within one of our national mainline denominations. Naturally, the film’s distributors thought the film would appeal to an audience of ministers. They were only half right.
It did not help that the film focused on a traveling pentecostal preacher with a dark past, a man who really believed that he had “the power of the Holy Ghost to bring others to Jesus”.
In an early scene, the preacher comes across a car crash. When he rushes up to the car, he finds the driver close to death. The preacher talks quietly to the young man, urging him to “accept Jesus” before he dies. A state trooper arrives. The preacher ignores him. When the trooper persists, Duvall kicks him away, looking like an aggravated mule.
This was a man on a mission; he will not move until he “knows” the dying man is with the angels.
Beyond the subject matter of Penecostalism, there was the usual problem with showing a secular film in the context of a religious gathering. In spite of the many efforts of some pastors, a few religious critics and professors and the Broadcasting and Film Commission of the NCCC, to the established religious communities, movies are for entertainment and escape.
The screening of The Apostle to this particular conference clergy audience, was less than an overwhelming success. I led the discussion that followed the showing of the film. While, there were some fellow cinephiles who accepted the power and wisdom of Robert Duvall’s performance as the traveling Pentecostal preacher, most did not.
The Apostle was produced, directed, and written by Robert Duvall, who also was the lead performer in the film. One clip of the film depicts a central encounter in the film which is as as relevant today as it was in 1997.
Since the encounter between Duvall and the character played by Billy Bob Thornton involved a bulldozer preparing to destroy a church, the encounter takes on a special significance for anyone who has been paying attention to the current and systematic destruction of Palestinian homes by Israeli army bulldozers.
Toward the end of The Apostle, Duvall is celebrating an anniversary of the little church he had established in southern Louisiana. Thornton drives up in a his bulldozer, bringing with him a backup group of rough-looking supporters.
They had come on a mission: They will tear down the church building. The racial tension is obvious. Most in the congregation behind Duvall are African Americans.
The role that Duvall plays is of a devout Pentecostal preacher from New Boston, Texas, Eulis “Sonny” Dewey. Some plot twists force Sonny to leave his family and travel to the predominantly black town of Bayou Boutte, La.
A reviewer for Variety wrote:
Beautifully detailed and deftly structured, every scene in “The Apostle” logically leads to the next one, each elaborating on the central theme of religious redemption. As a writer, Duvall never allows viewers to think that they know everything there is to know about E.F. Perhaps even more remarkably, he doesn’t violate the character by summing him up: Almost every scene discloses another dimension of the preacher’s complex personality. . . .
Nashville and The Apostle are films that demand contemporary reflection. One, though set in the American south, may also evoke awareness of the brutality of military occupation in Palestine. The other is pertinent to last weekend’s dark day in Arizona. Both are teaching moments in a time of unresolved conflict, confusion and public anguish.
by James M. WallThis posting intially came on line in 2017. I am reposting it now to introduce another audience to Gertrude Bell.
The film, Queen of the Desert, begins with a distant image of a small group of travelers moving across a vast desert. Two sentences flash across the screen, setting the stage for what is to follow:
The onset of the First World War hastened the demise of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Middle East for five centuries. The colonial powers set their eyes on dividing the spoils.The film then moves to a small room in which British army officers gather around a table with a minister from the War office, the future British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
The officers and Churchill are looking at a map of the colonial “spoils”. Churchill asks: “How do we delineate the borders?. . . Who knows best about the tribes? . . .Who knows best about the Bedouin tribes?”The officers reluctantly agree among themselves, “That woman”.
The film is Queen of the Desert, based on the real-life story of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)(Nicole Kidman), a humanitarian among those human colonialist scorpions who were roaming the deserts in search of prey and profits.
To the indigenous people of the region, Bell is better known, and far more appreciated, than T. E. Lawrence, portrayed by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.
The difference between the two? Bell was a woman and a natural diplomat, while Lawrence was a male warrior, glamorized through David Lean’s film.
Lean’s film rescued Lawrence from oblivion, which Queen of the Desert should have done for Gertrude Bell. It has failed to do so, not because of its lack of merit, but because the film industry determines what it thinks will sell.
Our popular understanding of history is shaped through popular culture, where films, television and now, social media, play definitive roles.
Military exploits have a greater popular appeal than diplomacy, while a film depicting Arab history as it really was, colonial exploitation of indigenous populations, goes against the popular narrative.
What was it that kept the film Queen of the Desert from the public for two years and then only grudgingly granted it very limited distribution? No one is saying. The fact remains, however, that Hollywood knew the story of Gertrude Bell violated a narrative written and protected by Zionism.
Levant history before 1947 was of little consequence, a period best left unexamined.
Queen of the Desert was initially screened in 2015 at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. It was nominated for the festival’s highest award, the Golden Bear. Directed by noted German director Werner Herzog and beautifully photographed on locations in Jordan and Morocco, the film was a natural for American “art house” screenings.
With Nicole Kidman (above) as the film’s star, and a script by Herzog, which examined the role Gertrude Bell played in modern history, film companies should have battled for U.S. distribution.
They did not. Films that violate the conventional historical narrative do not sell, or so it is assumed by the historically ignorant decision-makers of Hollywood.
The film focuses on a Middle East before Israel entered the historical stage. Could that reality play a role in Hollywood’s reluctance to embrace Queen of the Desert?
I am reminded of a West Wing episode in which President Bartlett was given an authentic map of the Levant from 1709, the region which Gertrude Bell came to love centuries later.
President Bartlett’s staff members all had the same reaction to Bartlett’s plan to frame and post the map in the White House:
“You can’t do that, some people will be offended because Israel is not on the map”. Puzzled, Bartlett said Israel did not exist when the map was made. “Doesn’t matter, some people will be offended”, was the insistent response.
The Desert Queen covers history in the World War I era. Israel did not exist then. Israel did not exist until the United Nations yielded to Zionist pressure and declared Israel a state in 1947.
That could explain why after its 2015 festival showing, Queen of the Desert dropped from sight. A Nicole Kidman film was shelved for two years.
When Queen of the Desert had itslimited run earlier this year, it finally surfaced. There was still money to be made so the film now has DVD exposure. On October 3, Netflix and sites like Amazon, began renting or selling copies.
Gertrude Bell was there when the modern Middle East was formed. Because of her personal and caring knowledge of tribes and their leaders, she was used by the victorious nations after World War I to draw borders and choose leaders who became kings.
A sensitive film which examines the life of one of the most significant women of the 20th century, is ending its journey deep into the archives of film history, a journey noticed by only a few.
The picture above of Gertrude Bell between Winston Churchill (left) and T.E. Lawrence, was taken in Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1920s.
It is an unfortunate fact of history that this photograph is viewed as one of a future British Prime Minister, the real “Lawrence of Arabia”, and “that woman”.
The film industry missed its chance to give Queen of the Desert, the story of Gertrude Bell, the same prominence it gave Lawrence. Is there yet another perilous journey to be made that would jar Western culture and its leaders into the reality of the Levant?
The answer is yes, but not until Zionism loses its grip on its version of the region’s narrative. And not until humanitarians in the spirit of Gertrude Bell, reshape our understanding of history back to what really happened.
by James M Wall
An earlier Wall Writings posting, entitled, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, came to mind this rainy May afternoon as I pondered what to share with readers this week during our ongoing period of face masks and shared isolation.
The earlier posting was published August 5, 2013 with this link: https://wallwritings.me/2013/08/05/god-of-our-weary-years-god-of-our-silent-tears-james-weldon-johnson/ Read the link last. It is the oldest
This rememberance, however. is s not about political campaigns,;it is about a song and two authors.
What follows below are segments lifted from the 2013 Wall Writings posting.
“After Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States, he delivered a stirring inaugural address that called on Americans to join with him in addressing the problems facing the nation.
“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily nor in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.”
Further along in the 2009 posting, I added this about the inauguration:
“Obama’s speech was followed by a benediction from 87-year-old [The Reverend] Joseph Lowery, from Atlanta, Georgia, whose opening words must have sounded familiar to the millions of African Americans in the crowd and around the nation.
Lowery’s prayer began with the third verse of James Weldon Johnson’s hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which, since it was written in 1920, has emerged as the “national anthem” of the African American community.
he third verse of “Lift Every Voice” appears even more relevant today than it was in 2009. Here are the words that begin the third verse:
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.”
James Weldon Johnson’s words are significant today because pessimism surrounds the peace talks. [between Palestine andIsrael].
Until we hear further from the negotiations participants, we must wait to see how the occupier and the occupied resolve, for the time being at least, how they will live together.
It is in this time of waiting that I decided to set out on a journey that begins with Johnson’s hymn. On the internet journey I followed a path that led to another eloquent African-American author, Alice Walker. Novelist and poet, Walker has more than thirty books, the best known of which is her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple.
In one of the speeches she delivered to a Palestinian audience during a visit to Ramallah, Walker described her encounter with Israeli border guards when she traveled from Amman to the West Bank by way of the Allenby Bridge.
As the hours of interrogation dragged by at the Allenby Bridge, Walker finally asked one of the young Israeli soldiers peppering her with the usual irrelevant questions, have you ever heard of the novel, The Color Purple.
The soldier had not heard of the novel nor the film based on the novel, even though the film was directed by Steven Spielberg, an Israeli favorite.
After that visit, which was organized by TEDxRamallah, Walker tried to enter Gaza on a different mission.
In June, 2011, Walker was among 38 people aboard the ship, Audacity of Hope, one of the ships which tried, and failed, to sail from Greece to Gaza to break the Israeli maritime siege of Gaza. Israel prevailed on Greece to prevent the ships from sailing.
In a 2011 conversation with Ali Abunimah, Walker (right) pointed to the parallels “between the [planned] Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the Freedom Rides during the US Civil Rights movement when black and white Americans boarded interstate buses together to break the laws requiring racial segregation.” . . . . . .
My journey following the path of Alice Walker turned up many examples of the gentle manner in which this remarkable woman stands for justice for the Palestinian people. For example, she is an avid supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. . . . . . .
Finally, in following the path of Alice Walker through the internet, our journey brought me home to Georgia, to my own alma mater, Emory University.
Alice Walker placed the archive of her work in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library of Emory University in 2008. The Walker Archive was opened in 2009.
One video from the evening honoring Walker features historian-activist Howard Zinn who initially met Alice Walker at Spelman College in Atlanta where he was her teacher during the 1960’s. To view that video, click here.
The Emory event honoring Alice Walker closed with the singing of James Weldon Johnson’s “Life Every Voice and Sing,” the African-American “national anthem” with which we began this journey. In this way, the circle closes, from James Weldon Johnson, to the Rev. James Lowrey, to President Barack Obama, and finally to Alice Walker.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRWaLkl7auA&feature=emb_logo
The young man who leads the singing that closes the evening is an Emory graduate, class of 2011. His name is Garrett M. Turner. He is currently pursing further graduate work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
The circle grows, regardless of the outcome of the current “peace talks” negotiations.
by James M. Wall
A few years back, Phillip Lee. editor of Media Development, a World Council of Curches publication, interviewed me. During this time of self-isolation, I thought it was appropriate to share it.
Phillip Lee: My last question has to do with your passion for cinema. If you were to pick one film that has born the test of repeated viewing and still has “something to say”, what would the film be and why?
James M.Wall: Emily Dickinson left us a quote that I have always cherished. She was something of a recluse, surrounded, as she put it, by her “Kinsmen of the Shelf”, the books that were crucial to her. Our topic here is films, and since DVDs perch on shelves around me, I consider them my kinsmen on the shelf.
If I must select one film to be my companion isolated alone, after considerable pondering, with apologies to John Ford and the Coen brothers, I choose The Straight Story.
I have a personal history with that film’s director, David Lynch. I was in Hollywood for a meeting when a religious Los Angeles Film Critics group gave an award to Lynch for The Straight Story in 1999. I ended up sitting next to Lynch at lunch, and told him how much I liked the film. I also told him something I assumed he did not know.
I had written a film column in The Christian Century, in which I praised Blue Velvet, an earlier 1986 Lynch film. I called the film outstanding for its unvarnished portrait of sheer evil rooted in a small Middle Western community, a vision that was the polar opposite of The Straight Story. A Chicago columnist had one comment for that reading from a religious writer, “O Lordy”. Lynch told me he had heard the strange news that a religious publication had praised Blue Velvet. He was glad to meet me.
I believe Lynch and I agree on one point: Evil and good coexist in human existence. In these two contrasting works of film art, Blue Velvet and The Straight Story, Lynch covered the extremes. It is The Straight Story side of Lynch that I choose for my single movie companion. Here is why.
The Straight Story is based on a true story which first surfaced in a news report about a 73-year-old man, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who attempts to drive a motorized lawn mower from Iowa to the Wisconsin home of his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). As the film opens, Alvin lives quietly with his adult daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Laurens, Iowa. Life is slow there. One night a telephone caller tells Rose that Alvin’s brother has had a stroke. As a storm rages outside, the look on Alvin’s face as he hears Rose in the next room, announces that his life will no longer be quiet. There is a past to confront.
Lynch’s close-up shot of Alvin, his face lit by lightning, captured my admiration early in the film. So also did the performance of Richard Farnsworth, as he interacted with his small-town retired buddies. Or when his daughter Rose takes Alvin to see a doctor. Alvin is a stubborn man, rejecting the doctor’s advice at every turn.
After the visit to the doctor, where Alvin refuses to change his habits, Alvin tells his daughter he will travel to see his brother. Rose reminds him that his obstacles are great. He does not own a car and Rose does not drive. Still, Alvin prepares to begin his journey. This is a trip he must make alone. He and his brother are estranged. Now is the time to address that estrangement.
Lynch’s script-writers withhold details. The nature of the brothers’ disagreement has deep consequences, but nothing earth-shattering, just some vague conflict which led to ugly words with- in the family.
Alvin builds a trailer and attaches it to his motorized lawn mower. The smile that crosses his face as he leaves town on what he hopes will be a successful 370-mile trip, is the quiet smile of a man making up for lost time. He sleeps in his trailer and cooks simple meals close to the highway. One stop requires Alvin to camp for a few days while his mower is repaired by two bickering brothers. He sees them as mirror images of his own younger self and his brother.
Director Lynch filmed Alvin’s journey along the same route the real Alvin Straight travelled in 1994. The Chicago Tribune said of The Straight Story, “this is the most compassionate movie Lynch has ever made”. It is also that rare film, a serious adult story with touches of humour, rated G. Imagine that, a G-rated film in 1999 which is not just for children. That is one reason I want this side of Lynch and his mower-driving Alvin to stay with me.
As Blue Velvet attests, Lynch does have a sure grip on portraying evil. In contrast, with his cinematic palette, Lynch gives us Alvin Straight in a story which celebrates family, perseverance and love. The farmland and small town scenes, shot on location, undergirded by a solemn musical score, plus the love Alvin demonstrates for his daughter and, in a moment of reconciliation, for his journey to see his brother, all contribute to one of the finest works of cinematic art from the 20th century.
This is a film that is as steady as a rain storm in an Iowa night, or as uplifting as an early morning sunrise in Wisconsin. It sustains the viewer as it calls for whatever steps are needed to make amends for decisions made, or not made.
This is a film with moments that are to be cherished and embraced, like, for example, Alvin talking his way to buying a “grabber” device he likes in a store, or the scene where Alvin’s neighbour lady rushes into his kitchen to find he has fallen to the floor. She grabs the telephone and shouts, “What’s the number for 911?” That is a line I reach for when I need a lift.
I hereby officially take Rose and Alvin as my companions in isolation. We will, together, enjoy the sunset and long for the rain. For companions, I prefer those friends who speak a G-rated language, while we converse together on a stage of middle-American farmland.
Lee, Phillip (2017). “A Road Movie from Georgia to Palestine and Home Again: Interview with James M. Wall”. Media Development. LXIV (3): 21–27