The Judge — Seeking Justice and Clarity

Film:

The Judge Movie Poster

The Judge Movie Poster

The Judge, 2014

Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

My Thoughts:

This film had my attention from the first second and held it rapt until it ended 141 minutes later.  The phenomenal acting, cinematography and musical score added to the artistry of the entire work.  The story may seem like a simple one, a variation of the classic prodigal son, but the nuances in this film really portrayed the characters in a rich and layered way and transported you into their world to deal with their dilemmas.  What truly is justice?  How can we keep our integrity?  Can one truly get the ‘correct’ outcome if you use incorrect means to do so?

“O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.” ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Through out the film the director made excellent use of light to indicate points in which characters reached clarity or a higher level of understanding, as well as changes in focus to indicate confusion or the strong weight of stress that fully brought to life the thoughts and emotions of the characters in a way that helped the viewer really wrestle with the same issues.  Family relationships and dynamics are complex, and sometimes, try as we may, we are unable to practice the same levels of justice and compassion we strive for externally within our own family.  When we realize this it can take both effort and humility to repair the damage we have done to each other and the people we love most.

“O Lord! Have pity on these ignorant ones and look upon them with the eye of forgiveness and pardon. Extinguish this fire, so that these dense clouds which obscure the horizon may be scattered, the Sun of Reality shine forth with the rays of conciliation, this intense gloom be dispelled and the resplendent light of peace shed its radiance upon all…” ~‘Abdu’l‑Bahá

Watching this film made we want to go home and hug my Dad.  That being said, it wasn’t overly sentimental.  It just touched upon the inherent complexity within familial relationships in a beautiful, powerful yet subtle way.  If you have not seen this film I highly recommend you watch in and then think about how we each can treat the people around us more justly and more mercifully.

Your thoughts?

Precious — A Mine Rich in Gems

Film:Precious Movie Poster

Precious, 2009

Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey.

Synopsis (from Netflix):

Viciously abused by her mother (a riveting, Oscar-winning Mo’Nique) and pregnant by her father, Harlem teen Precious Jones (Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe) has an unexpected chance at a different life when she enrolls in an alternative school. Teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton) encourages her, but Precious must battle unimaginable barriers everywhere in her life.

My Thoughts:

First I would like to apologize for not writing sooner.  I had watched this film the first weekend in April and had meant to write a post for you all then.  I committed a blogger faux pas.

As for the film, this is one time I am glad it is not a true story as I would not wish anyone the amount of suffering Precious Jones had.  I just adore the message though, that through love and education she was able to see value in her life and work to overcome her obstacles, as insurmountable as they may seem.

Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.  – Bahá’u’lláh

Her teachers, both at her first school and at the new alternative school, saw something precious within Ms. Jones.  They could see that what appeared to be ugly rocks were actually uncut, unpolished gems and they worked hard with Precious to polish them until she was able to read and able to break free from her abusive home environment.

This is something we can all learn from.  We all have gems in the mine of ourselves, as does every other human being even illiterate pregnant teenagers.  The issue is that these gems have not been cut and polished yet so to the untrained eye they can seem like worthless rocks.  Blu Rain could see the end in the beginning, she could see those gems, and worked hard with Precious so that she could see them too and would want to polish them through perseverance.  We all have talents but sometimes we can’t see them.  A great teacher can, and can get you to see them too, and more importantly infect you with the enthusiasm to want to work to cultivate them.

Your thoughts?

What gems have you seen hidden in others?  What have you helped others achieve?  What have you achieved through someone’s encouragement?

Repost: The Book of Eli: A Review and Reflections

I read this review and would like to share it with you guys. Check out the original here.

The Book of Eli: A Review and Reflections

I believe it was the psychologist Heinz Kohut who introduced the world to the concept of “good enough parenting”. The Book of Eli could be considered an example of good enough film-making. It manages to get its various characters from point A to point B, provide some interesting images, execute fight scenes with relative skill and convey it’s underlying message(s) well enough. It’s not a great movie though.

Eli is the name of the film’s protagonist (Denzel Washington), who we first meet as he preys upon an ill-fated feline in a forest as ash drifts down from the sky (a nod to 9/11). The cat in question is later shared with a mouse (talk about a role reversal!) as Eli enjoys some Al Green and a read of the Book from the movie title. It’s 30 years from now and some sort of man-made apocalypse, possibly brought about by religion, has had a really bad effect on personal hygiene, fashion sense, and civility. It has also contributed to a new diet fad (cannibalism). Eli strides through images of hell on earth: miles of rusting vehicles, grinning skeletons and empty dwellings. A voice has told him to head west in order to take his book to a place where it can do great good for the world.

When his Ipod runs out of juice, he heads into a little Wild-West looking town to get a recharge. This town, like most towns in these movies, is run by a strong man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Like Eli, Carnegie likes a good book (pun intended) and is looking for a particular title that he believes will increase his powers of social control and facilitate the expansion of his rule to other towns. Wouldn’t you know, the book Carnegie is looking for is the one Eli has. The problem is, Eli has no intention of sharing his book with the likes of Carnegie and has a knack with blades and bullets that makes him tough to persuade through sicking tough guys on him.

Carnegie next tries to seduce Eli through sending him Solara (Mila Kunis) who agrees to be used this way in order to protect her blind mother (Jennifer Biels). Solara is rejected sexually by Eli but does spend the night with him and is introduced to the power of prayer and the book in question. Eli decides to continue his westward journey killing anyone who tries to stop him on his way out of town with Solara tagging along as initially a damsel-in-distress and later a companion and willing student of the book’s content. The movie shifts into full-on Mad Max mode as the two are pursued by Carnegie and his thugs in big vehicles (guess carbon footprints are no longer a concern for people). There’s a humorous scene with a couple of fine old cannibals and a huge shoot-out complete with a giant machine gun and grenade launcher.

To make a long story short, Eli does manage to make it to his destination and delivers the book (though not in the way you’d imagine). Carnegie, at a moment of apparent triumph gets what’s coming to him in a twist that is sure to astonish. Like The Sixth Sense, it’s the kind of twist that makes you want to watch the movie again to see if you can notice any signs that it was coming that you might have missed.

Here’s a few reflections on themes, metaphors, and images that align with aspects of Baha’i teaching.

Religion as a Cause of a global calamity: Religion’s contribution to the end of the world is only hinted at in the film, but given current events it is not so far fetched. The Universal House of Justice acknowledges this:

“With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World’s Religious Leaders, p. 5)

Manipulation of Religion in the Pursuit of Power: Carnegie describes religion as “weapon” as he tries to explain to a henchmen that Eli’s book is more than just a book. Carnegie sees possession of the book as a means of controlling others, reminding us that “it’s happened before. It can happen again”. Baha’u’llah comments on the potential for religion to be manipulated in this way in strong terms:

“Leaders of religion, in every age, have hindered their people from attaining the shores of eternal salvation, inasmuch as they held the reins of authority in their mighty grasp. Some for the lust of leadership, others through want of knowledge and understanding, have been the cause of the deprivation of the people.”
(Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 14)

The Black Madonna/Black Messiah: I’ve discussed this phenomenon exemplified by several recent films in a previous post. Eli’s character definitely fits into this concept, embodying qualities attributed to people of African descent in the Baha’i Writings such as this selection:

“The qualities of heart so richly possessed by [African Americans] are much needed in the world today-their great capacity for faith, their loyalty and devotion to their religion when once they believe, their purity of heart. God has richly endowed them, and their great contribution…is much needed…” (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 532)

Steadfastness in the path of God: Watching Eli’s single-minded and resolute march towards his goal called to mind many selections from the Baha’i Writings. One of them was the following:

“Whoso hath recognized Me, will arise and serve Me with such determination that the powers of earth and heaven shall be unable to defeat his purpose.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 137)

The Oneness of Religion: The Book of Eli has been viewed by some as a “Christian” movie. However, there are aspects of the film that suggest it has a more universal message. Eli for instance could be seen as a more complex figure (his kaffiyeh and scimitar-like blade evoke an Islamic image, while his hand to hand combat has a Samurai feel to it). Also, an important scene near the end of the film includes Eli’s book among a diverse selection of books that have similar significance in other faith traditions and cultures. An interview with the directors of the movie on National Public Radio supports the notion of Eli embodying a broader concept of spirituality. In the words of the Universal House of Justice:

“It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one. This recognition arises not through a resolution of theological disputes, but as an intuitive awareness born from the ever widening experience of others and from a dawning acceptance of the oneness of the human family itself. Out of the welter of religious doctrines, rituals and legal codes inherited from vanished worlds, there is emerging a sense that spiritual life, like the oneness manifest in diverse nationalities, races and cultures, constitutes one unbounded reality equally accessible to everyone” (The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World’s Religious Leaders, p. 4)

What’s your review and/or reflections on The Book of Eli?

The Blind Side — Love & Charity

Film:

The Blind Side, 2009

Starring Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, and Quinton Aaron.

Synopsis:

The story of Michael Oher, an homeless and traumatized boy who became an All American football player and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.

My Thoughts:

What makes this movie so amazing is that it is based on a true story.  It is a story of what happens when people actually choose to live out their religious beliefs, when they take action. So often we see news of religious conflict, but it is really comforting to see when religion can be a source of inspiration for people to commit amazing acts of kindness and love beyond expectations.

This story began when a Christian private school was counseled to live up to the name Christian and help the struggling, homeless Michael Oher to attend.

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead  ~ James 2:14-17

Leigh Ann Touhy and her family took it to the next level when they took Michael Oher in, fed him, clothed him, and helped him to succeed. And in doing so they learned to better appreciate the luxury they had taken for granted, as well as time with each other as a family, which prior to meeting Michael they had not.

O SON OF MY HANDMAID! Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds. Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones. Strive then with heart and soul to distinguish yourselves by your deeds. In this wise We counsel you in this holy and resplendent tablet. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

What Michael went through many more people in society go through then we would care to admit.  But unlike Michael often these people do not receive a helping hand.  Instead those in healthy, wealthy communities isolate themselves.  How can we as a society work to eradicate poverty, to provide opportunities for all?  How can we overcome our fears?  Especially when they are legitimate, like living in a place of violence.

Michael had developed a coping mechanism for dealing with living in an unsavory situation, full of drugs, addiction, violence, and crime.  He closed his eyes.  He closed his eyes and waited for the problem to dissipate so that when he opened them again the world would be bearable.

O MAN OF TWO VISIONS! Close one eye and open the other. Close one to the world and all that is therein, and open the other to the hallowed beauty of the Beloved. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

I think this is something we can all learn from.  All the bad things in life can be overwhelming, especially if we focus on them.  If instead we close our eyes to them, and instead open our eyes to the beauty in the world we can move from that darkness to light.  I am not saying we just ignore the bad, but instead try to transcend it and not let it bring us down.  Michael was able to do that.  He could have been to proud to accept the help of the Touhys but he wasn’t.  He opened his eyes to their love and chose it over the path he could have taken.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. ~ 1 Corinthians 13


Where the Wild Things Are — Tumult in our Hearts

Film:Where the Wild Things Are movie poster

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Starring Max Records and Catherine Keener.

Voiced by James Gandolfini, Catharine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose.

Synopsis (From official website):

Innovative director Spike Jonze collaborates with celebrated author Maurice Sendak to bring one of the most beloved books of all time to the big screen.

The film tells the story of Max, a rambunctious and sensitive boy who feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are.  Max lands on an island where he meets mysterious and strange creatures whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions.

My Thoughts:

This film is potent.  It is dark and raw, beautiful and sad.  This films goes beyond the purview of the children’s book and really delves into how divorce can effect a child.  Max is lonely and misunderstood and frustrated.  This film does not use much dialogue to express these emotions because Max himself does not have the words to express his struggles.  He is so young and yet going through so much pain.  He tries to connect with his mother and sister, but they too are struggling and so he feels disconnected, abandoned by his father, and powerless.  This is what leads to his acting out, and leads him to his imaginary world, a world just as disfunctional as the real one.  In this world each “Wild Thing” represents an aspect of himself, and members of his family.  One is angry, another feels overlooked.  This place of imagination helps him process what he is going through.  I so wanted to reach out to this fragile, hurting child.  I wanted to:

Be Thou their companion in their loneliness, their helper in a strange land, the remover of their sorrows, their comforter in calamity. Be Thou a refreshing draught for their thirst, a healing medicine for their ills and a balm for the burning ardor of their hearts. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I think this film is important for us as a society to watch.  It may not be light and fun and entertaining, in fact, while it was visually stunning and beautiful, it was painful to watch.  But pain is good, pain helps us grow.

Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit.—‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Often when we see children acting out we may be quick to judge their actions, their behavior, but the world is a difficult place.  Our actions as adults effect children.  Divorce is a difficult thing for all involved.  It leaves young children feeling insecure, confused, hurt, and lonely.  It rips families apart and can leave people aching.  There are times when it is necessary (in cases of abuse), but is it always?

Divorce has really changed the landscape of our society, the nature of our families, and is indicative of the pain and mistrust we have inside of ourselves.  Films like this give us opportunity to reflect upon our actions, their motives, and their consequences.  It also gives us time to reflect on the importance of love and compassion, and helping each other work through pain.

I have never been married, so I cannot speak to how easy or difficult it is.  What I can speak to is that there is a lot of confusion regarding marriage, and the nature of commitment.  People joke of starter marriages, and of “trading up” and I can’t help but hurt thinking about people like commodities.  I also can’t help but lament that the only discussions that seem to be happening regarding marriage in the news revolve around the rights for gays to marry.  We need to have more discussions regarding the nature of marriage itself, the nature of commitment, how a healthy marriage can help the children born of that marriage to flourish, and how the dissolution of marriages are costly emotionally, materially, and spiritually.  One thing that helps me when meditating on the meaning of marriage is to look to guidance, such as:

The friends of God must so live and conduct themselves, and evince such excellence of and conduct, as to make others astonished. The love between husband and wife should not be purely physical, nay, rather it must be spiritual and heavenly. These two souls should be considered as one soul. How difficult it would be to divide a single soul! Nay, great would be the difficulty! —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

So often we go to movies to escape, but this art can also be a mirror, a mirror that helps us to reflect on ourselves and our society.  It can uplift and empower us through emotion and help us cultivate understanding and empathy.

All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

One thing I am going to walk away from this film with is a greater desire to love and serve humanity.  Our society is going through a lot of pain now and love is its only countermeasure.  When the people I know, whether friends, family, members of the community, or strangers I meet on a train, are suffering, I want to be a balm.  I think part of what was so painful for me watching this film was that I could not reach out and comfort Max.  I couldn’t give him a hug.  I could listen to him, or let him heave and cry on my shoulder.  However, there are many real people that need comfort too and I want to be there.  I want to be present, unlike the people in Max’s life.  This may not be possible, but I can strive.  This film has inspired me to strive.

Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone. Let your heart burn with loving-kindness for all who may cross your path. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

 

Magnolia — Overcoming the Sins of the Father

Film:Magnolia Poster

Magnolia, 1999

Starring Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Felicity Huffman, Philip Baker Hall, and Alfred Molina.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

24 hours in L.A.; it’s raining cats and dogs. Two parallel and intercut stories dramatize men about to die: both are estranged from a grown child, both want to make contact, and neither child wants anything to do with dad. Earl Partridge’s son is a charismatic misogynist; Jimmy Gator’s daughter is a cokehead and waif. A mild and caring nurse intercedes for Earl, reaching the son; a prayerful and upright beat cop meets the daughter, is attracted to her, and leads her toward a new calm. Meanwhile, guilt consumes Earl’s young wife, while two whiz kids, one grown and a loser and the other young and pressured, face their situations. The weather, too, is quirky. Written by {jhailey@hotmail.com}

My Thoughts:

This film is dark, and sad, and clever.  Through out it one of the themes I picked up on was how “sins of the father” affect the children.  Various characters suffered abuse, abandonment, and molestation at the hands of their fathers leaving them angry, depressed, and struggling.  The film even quoted scripture regarding it.

“And he walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God”  1 Kings 15:3

I remember watching this film when it first came out and really hating it.  I realize now that what I disliked was the tragedy caused by the actions of the fathers in this film.  The film reveals how much pain and suffering there is, and how so much of it we put onto each other.  Frank T.J. Mackey, abandoned by his father, and left to take care of his dying mother, rewrote his own history.  Ironically, he became a misogynist and used women just as badly if not worse than his father did.  Jimmy Gator left his daughter a neurotic, self-loathing, drug abuser by the worst sin of a father, sexual molestation.

“If love and agreement are manifest in a single family, that family will advance, become illumined and spiritual; but if enmity and hatred exist within it destruction and dispersal are inevitable” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

We see evidence in this film of family disunity and how destructive it can be.  Often the rift starts between the married party and then effect the children.  Several characters had committed infidelity.  In one scene Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) broke down in tears lamenting how she did not love her husband when she married him, and just wanted his money, and so she had constantly been unfaithful.  Now that they had been together for a while, and he was dying she realized she truly did love him and because of that could not possibly take a cent from the will.  The lawyer told her that adultery was not illegal.  That did not comfort her because either way it was wrong.

“Every other word of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings is a preachment on moral and ethical conduct; all else is the form, the chalice, into which the pure spirit must be poured; without the spirit and the action which must demonstrate it, it is a lifeless form.  When we realize that Bahá’u’lláh says adultery retards the progress of the soul in the after life – so grievous is it – and that drinking destroys the mind, and not to so much as approach it, we see how clear are our teachings on these subjects.” ~ From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi.

I think this scene was an incredibly potent one and points to how often the people who suffer most by committing a wrong against someone is not the victim but the perpetrator.  God has given us spiritual guidance, whether it be the 10 commandments, or the Laws of Bahá’u’lláh, or the Middle Path of Buddhism, that is meant to protect us from ourselves.  These laws actually free us from the pain we would suffer by not following them.  This film shows that pain, whether it is through drug use, sexual impropriety, or not being a good parent.

It also shows how important honesty and truthfulness are.  Many characters were both not honest with themselves or with others, but despite trying they could not hide from the truth for long.  While most of the film was dark and forlorn, there was a glimmer of hope in two story lines, one of which touched upon the importance of kindness and the other of truth.

Stanley, a quiz kid genius has had a lot of pressure to deal with.  While it is not explicitly stated, he lives in a single parent household with his father.  His father is often on his case, and picks him up from school late.  He brings him to the game show and is more excited about the prospect of Stanley winning a lot of money, than for his actual wellbeing.  Stanley is a good kid.  He is under a lot of pressure, and because he arrived late to the studio was not able to go to the bathroom before the show started.  He is on a role answering every question, until his bladder fails him.  Mortified he sits like a statue and no longer participates.  He realized that everyone was really just using him.  The show for ratings, his father for the potential payout, and he is left forlorn.  It is hard to see a child experience disillusionment, but in the end Stanley stands up for himself telling his father that he has to be nicer to him.  Stanley has the potential not to fall in the same trap Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) did, and for this there is hope.

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”  ~Mark Twain

The other hopeful story consists of an unlikely match.  Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and Claudia Partridge (Melora Walters) met through a disturbance call.  He was a cop and she a drug-addled victim of abuse.  She spent the beginning trying to hide the fact of her drug use from him.  However, the cop liked her anyway and asked her on a date.  He was a Christian and prayed to God regarding meeting this woman.  In fact, they showed him in prayer more than once, and he was the only character in the film portrayed with any faith.

As they went on their date the woman asked if he ever lied on dates, because he was afraid the other person would not like the truth.  Or even if he hadn’t lied, maybe left important things out.  He said that was natural, and tried to waylay her fears.  She then said they shouldn’t do that.  They should be honest and tell their secrets.

“Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

She clearly was trying to get up the courage to admit her addictions and seek help.  She told him she thought he would hate her, because he was so together, and such a good person, and she was not.  He then comforted her by admitting that he had lost his gun that day and was now the laughing stock of the entire police force.  He too made mistakes.  She then kissed him and ran off, chickening out.  At the end of the film though, there is another scene with them together, and the cop is talking about how people have great capacity to forgive and to help each other through times of trouble, and she smiles.

She was onto something about honesty and he was onto something about help and forgiveness, and trying not to be judgmental.  It is through these two characters, and the healing power of faith and listening to divine guidance that this film has a sliver of hope to it.

Amistad — Discovering Truth

Film:

Amistad, 1997Amistad DVD Cover

Starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Anthony Hopkins.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the U.S. in 1839. It is carrying a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba, taken on board, and chained in the cargo hold of the ship. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the U.S., Cinque, who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. They continue to sail, hoping to find help when they land. Instead, when they reach the United States, they are imprisoned as runaway slaves. They don’t speak a word of English, and it seems like they are doomed to die for killing their captors when an abolitionist lawyer decides to take their case, arguing that they were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. The case finally gets to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release.

My Thoughts:

This film touches upon many different ethical and spiritual themes. The film centers upon a slave revolt on the Spanish ship “La Amistad” and the subsequent court cases in the United States as the justice system tries to unweave the various crimes from their victims and perpetrators. As for spiritual themes, there is the obvious issue of slavery itself, and the injustice it represents, but there are some other more subtle themes interwoven into this larger one.  The Abolitionists, who serve as advocates for the slaves, are ardent Christians and see slavery as opposed to their faith.  Other Christians come and pray at the prison in which the West Africans are being held.  The faith of the West Africans themselves is in question, though they could be Muslim due to a few shots of them on the boat praying all together in one direction, potentially Mecca.
Throughout the film, each side begins to better understand the other.  At first the West Africans seem wild and violent to the Americans, and even their advocates are at time confused, frustrated, or fearful of their behavior.  The Americans are just as strange to the Africans who cannot understand their language, or customs, and are also confused to see freed American blacks dressed just like those of European heritage.  Throughout the film, the advocates strive to learn the language and to find a translator, and to better understand the West Africans so that they can better serve them.  The West Africans also learn more of the ways of the white people when they are given a Bible.  Through the pictures they see the suffering these people went through as well, and how they revere Christ as in every picture “the sun follows him”.

“When a man turns his face to God he finds sunshine everywhere.  All men are his brothers.  Let not conventionality cause you to seem cold and unsympathetic when you meet strange people from other countries… Let it be seen that you are filled with universal love.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

While this may seem over simplified or contrived, I think it is important to think about how people of different cultures learn about one another.  In this age of the Internet, and global tele-communications, it is much easier and more common to interact with people from different places, cultures, and backgrounds.  Two hundred years ago, while there was still cultural interaction for sure, mixing took effort and was not on equal footing.  It took months for ships to cross the ocean, and people were brought over under duress.  The effort of the abolitionists to truly understand the West Africans cannot be taken lightly.  It really was a sign of changing times.
Another interesting dilemma throughout the film was the issue of what was a “win” to the Abolitionists.  The property lawyer argued that he could get the West Africans acquitted for murder of the crew by claiming they were unlawfully acquired property, since in 1839 slaves were no longer supposed to be taken, but had to be born into slavery.  To the Abolitionists this was repugnant since the West Africans were just as human as they were and to use the language of property would be backward.  But what is most important? Noble ideas or action?  If this could save the West Africans from the death penalty, and could allow them to return to Africa is it ok?

“Some men and women glorify in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In the end, after taking the case to the Supreme Court and getting a favorable verdict, one of the Christian Abolitionists argued that perhaps it would have been better for the greater Abolitionist cause had the West Africans been put to death, since martyrdom tended to motivate individuals to action and to fight for change.  He pointed to the example of Christ.  While this may be true, it disgusted the other Abolitionist, a freed slave himself, since life itself is sacred and it should be the goal to free these innocent people who were defending themselves, and not to seek the martyrdom of other people.
This film really caused me to grapple with our cultural heritage, as well as how far we’ve come.  The most progressive people in the 1839 case would probably seem pretty backwards now.  It was 5 years that the Báb came heralding in the new age and calling people to unity, and 11 years later that He Himself was martyred.  I can see how humanity so very much needed the message of love and unity He and Bahá’u’lláh after Him, championed.

“Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.  Deal ye one another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.” ~ Bahá’u’lláh