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

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Vantage Point — An Exploration of Truth vs. Perception

Film:

Vantage Point, 2008
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and William Hurt.

Synopsis (From IMDB):

President Ashton (William Hurt) is attending a global war on terror summit in Spain. Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) are two of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect him. This is the first action that Agent Barnes has been in since he took a bullet for President Ashton six-month earlier. We really dont know if Agent Barnes is up to the challenge of protecting the President. Shortly after President Ashton is escorted to the stage in the plaza by the Secret Service, he is shot twice by a rifle from a window and falls to the floor. The crowd is in shock and chaos breaks out all over, especially when bombs begin to explode. Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) is an American video-taping the event to show to his children that he was actually there at this historic event. He believes that he has the picture of the man who shot the President. Agent Barnes sees the tape and has a clue to that person. Several different people witness the event, and only through their eyes do we see the truth behind the assassination attempt.

My Thoughts:

This film takes a unique narrative format in that it shows the same event through the perception of 8 different characters and through each new viewing of the incident the spectator comes closer to omniscience.  The first portrayal was from the GNN production truck in which we watched the producer keep track of the several cameras throughout the square.  I bring this up because it is the most distant of the views in that we are seeing the event transpire through a television screen (which it can be argued we are doing already so make it two television screens) and the people watching it have no control over what is happening.  From our limited perspective we can only see chaos.

With each retelling we are forced to re-evaluate what we saw in the previous vision, or what we (and the character) thought we saw.  From one perspective a swaying curtain looks like it could be a gunman, from another it’s just a fan blowing.  One character looks psychotic from the initial perspective but from another they are just trying to sound an alarm and warn of the oncoming violence.

We could walk away from this film thinking it was a good, fast-paced thriller, with a few unanswered plot points, but instead I think that this film is more than that.  It calls us to question what truth truly is.  We cannot believe our own eyes because our perception is limited by our “vantage point”.  We also only have the information of that moment, not always the information of what led to that moment.  It also shows that we are dependent on our perceptions and that when we are called to act fast we have to trust the only faculties we have.  We can’t just sit blindly and depend on others for our sight.

In our own lives how frequently have we seen something “fishy” and judged people because of it?  While people do make mistakes and sometimes have negative motivations (this film was about terrorism after all) I think that our perception isn’t just hindered or limited in those times of crisis, but every day.  God (whether or not you believe) is the only one capable of omniscience, and it is important to realize that if only to remind us to be humble when dealing with our perceptions.

We must investigate truth from more than just our own limited view of reality, and if we confuse what we see, or our own perception for “Truth” then we are bound to compound our mistakes.  We also need to forgive others for actions they take which we do not understand, and remind ourselves that they too our acting on incomplete information from their limited perspectives.

“There have issued, from His mighty Pen, various teachings for the prevention of war, and these have been scattered far and wide.
The first is the independent investigation of truth; for blind imitation of the past will stunt the mind. But once every soul inquireth into truth, society will be freed from the darkness of continually repeating the past.”
~‘Abdu’l-Bahá

If anything this film reminds us to take pause and to realize that truth is greater than our own bubble, our own incomplete slice of reality.  Even these words I am using can only adequately but not exactly describe the concepts I am trying to convey because concepts our so much more complex than we can ever explain.  Instead we have to make do with what we have- our narrow point of view, our incomplete command of language, our lack of precision- and remind ourselves to collect as much information as we can before judging a situation lest our judgments be misinformed and wrong.  And regarding the ideas of judgment and justice I leave you with two quotes from the Hidden Words which address both sides of this issues- the importance of Justice and yet our limitations when trying to pass judgment:

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.


O SON OF BEING! How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.

~Bahá’u’lláh

Your thoughts?

National Treasure: Book of Secrets — The Great Search

Film:

National Treasure: Book of Secrets, 2007

Starring Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Dianne Kruger, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, and Helen Mirren.

Synopsis (From NetFlix):

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) and Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) — who found riches and romance at the end of their first hunt for national treasure — reteam with their wisecracking partner in crime, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), for another romp through U.S. history. Now, armed with a stack of long-lost pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, Ben is obsessed with finding the truth behind President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

My Thoughts (There be spoilers this way):

While this film is what you would expect from a big budget sequel to a knock-off of the Davinci code, because the main characters are heroes with a sense of mission and purpose there is actually a lot one can analyze about their choices and the virtues they exhibit, as well as the vices held by the ‘bad guys’.  I am going to ignore all the historical inconsistencies and anachronisms because this is a work of fiction after all, and focus on the metaphor and motivation behind the characters actions.

First off, Ben Gates is motivated to investigate the truth.  He wants to clear his great-great-grandfather’s name from being alleged a Lincoln Assassignation Co-conspiritor with John Wilkes Booth.  Even though in the end of the film a great cultural treasure is found that is not the motivation of Gates’ search.

There are many people throughout their lives who exhibit this quality of ‘seeking’ which the Gates family portrays.  We seek enlightenment, we seek belonging, we seek knowledge, we seek happiness.  Some people are more easily contented than others, and perhaps are not driven by this need to ‘find’ whatever it is they are driven to search for.  In Persia there is actually a famous story of Majnun (the name means crazy) who searches everywhere for his Beloved Layli.  Bahá’u’lláh counsels that:

” One must judge of search by the standard of the Majnún of Love. It is related that one day they came upon Majnún sifting the dust, and his tears flowing down. They said, “What doest thou?” He said, “I seek for Laylí.” They cried, “Alas for thee! Laylí is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the dust!” He said, “I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her.” Yea, although to the wise it be shameful to seek the Lord of Lords in the dust, yet this betokeneth intense ardor in searching. “Whoso seeketh out a thing with zeal shall find it.” ”

I think the Gates’ purity of motive (to validate the truth) and follow wherever it leads (to Paris, London, The Library of Congress, or Mount Rushmore) is what enables them to find what they are looking for in the end.  The writers and producers may not have consciously intended the film to exhibit spiritual consequences, but in order to make a hero act like a hero he has to have those virtues praised for in the religious and philosophical texts that have shaped our world.  When Gates’ and crew actually find the City of Gold in the underground caves of the Black Hills of South Dakota, there are many tests of this purity.

At first there does not seem to be any gold, but just stone carvings in a large cavern.  Gates’, and his mother & father, are curiously trying to investigate, while Riley, Abigail, and Wilkinson (the ‘bad guy’ played by Ed Harris) are distracted by the only gold idol in the whole place.  As they approach it the floor shifts and they are propelled through a trap door into a potential pit of death.

“He is My true follower who, if he come to a valley of pure gold, will pass straight through it aloof as a cloud, and will neither turn back, nor pause.” ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Because the Gates’ Family had purity of motive they hadn’t fallen for the trap, whereas Wilkinson did not, and both Riley and Abigail were temporarily seduced by potential fame and fortune.  Luckily for them Ben Gates’ jumped into the trap with them in order to be of service.  He was willing to endure hardship in order to protect his friends and even his rival.

At this point they all land on a giant square slab.  They soon discover that this slab is balanced on a pinacle and that they must cooperate to balance otherwise they could all fall to their deaths.  Again another moral lesson. Cooperation is necessary in order to survive.

They soon find a ladder that is out of reach, and in order to reach it, they must manipulate the slab to tilt like a see-saw, at great risk to whomever is on the bottom end.  Wilkinson, realizing he is outnumbered and fearful of retribution, threatens everyones life by messing up the balance, insisting he must go first.  They heroes let him, and Ben, realizing that the math works out that somebody has to stay behind, offers to sacrifice himself so that the others will live.

Abigail won’t accept this, and instead finds a giant gold pillar and throws it onto the slab to counterbalance Ben’s weight so that he too can reach the ladder.  This gold pillar was probably worth millions, but Abigail didn’t give it a second thought learning her lesson about value.  By practicing the virtue of detachment she is able to reciprocate and save Ben’s life.

Detachment comes back later when the heroes, the bad guy, and the parents reunite in a drained, underwater palace.  There is no way out except by following where the water drains.  Ben’s father Patrick, without missing a beat, throws some dollar bills into the water to watch where the current takes them.  Sure, you may argue that to save your life you would be detached from riches too, but I think the lack of hesitation is admirable in both the case of the pillar and the money.  The heroes didn’t even pause long enough for the audience to realize what they were throwing away, indicating how purely they were driven by doing right by each other.

In the end, Ben again wants to sacrifice himself to save the others, but through freak circumstances Wilkinson is left in the position to make the sacrifice.  He laments that after all this he will not be able to get the recognition of discovering this massive archeological wonder and treasure city.  Ben assures him that he will tell the world, and does, despite the fact that Wilkinson tried to sully his great-great-grandfathers name.  Again, this shows Ben’s commitment to the truth.  Without Wilkinson’s help they would not have been able to find this place, and though Wilkinson was misguided (he could have just asked Gates to help him instead of motivating him by slandering his family name) he too made the right choice in the end.

Our hero had his flaws, and learned from his partners that his confidence was bordering on arrogance, and that he left others behind when he was mentally steps ahead of them in solving puzzles, but in the end he exhibited a pure commitment to the truth, and a realization of the downfalls of the ego, as well as the importance of cooperation, trust, persistence.

This may have seemed like a popcorn flick on the outside, but with open eyes I think it is not a stretch to see the moral choices and struggles these characters had to go through as well as to think about how we all can exhibit these qualities we revere in our heroes.