Friday, August 28, 2015

War Room [2015]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)   Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CFDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review

War Room [2015] [IMDb] [CFDb] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Alex Kendrick [IMDb] [CFDb] along with Stephen Kendrick [IMDb] [CFDb]) is a Christian based family drama made by the same people who made Fireproof [2008] [IMDb] [CFDb] and Courageous [2011] [FrDatM] [IMDb] [CFDb].

To be honest, I found aspects of it quite disappointing.  I do understand a fair number of difficulties faced by contemporary Christian film makers, beginning with the reality that even today 83% of the population in the United States would self-identify themselves as Christians.  That would include a vast number of people (again, even in the United States alone) of a vast number of ages, races, ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences -- "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands." (Rev 7:9) -- So to make _any_ Christian film that would work for all / most of them would be a challenge (though not an impossible one, witness the general acclaim given to the History Channel's recent The Bible [2013] series / Son of God [2014] film, and to very nice / clever recent Christian films like The Song [2014] and even the current film makers' Courageous [2011])
Still I do believe that some of the particular choices made by the film-makers here needlessly pose obstacles (Acts 15:22ff) to a fair number otherwise Christians today.

The film is ostensibly about an African American couple, Tony (played by T.C. Stallings [IMDb] [CFDb]) and Elizabeth Jordan (played by Priscilla C. Shirer [IMDb] [CFDb]) who along with their cute as a button 10 y.o. daughter Danielle (played by Alena Pitts [IMDb] [CFDb]) are (at least on the surface) "living the [American] dream."  They they have a big house in the suburbs with lots of stuff paid for by two high paying jobs -- his as a pharmaceutical salesman still paying 4x as much as hers as a real estate agent, but hers no longer insignificant either.  They have all the things that they could ever want, but at the beginning of the story find themselves tired, distant and unhappy.

Great entre ... what could go wrong with the story?  Well, the two, Tony and Elizabeth find themselves fighting a lot.  Thus Elizabeth confesses to a new friend / client, an older woman, Miss Clara (played by Karen Abercrombie [IMDb] [CFDb]), also African American, that: "It's hard to submit to a man like that" (cf. Eph 5:21ff)  Say what?

Now let's understand Miss Clara is presented as an old-time Christian grandmotherly figure.  Perhaps even here _some_ may complain that her portrayal strays too close-for-comfort to the "Aunt Jemima" African American stereotype.  However, I _don't_ have issue with her character because I'VE KNOWN a fair number of Miss Clara-like parishioners over the course of my life / ministry / work, as probably MANY Readers here.

However, I simply find Elizabeth's line using the word "submit" as NEEDLESSLY crossing a significant line from credibility to right-wing ideology that puts the credibility of the whole film in jeopardy.  More than a few GOOD CHRISTIAN WOMEN will hear that line and say: "Ah huh," and KNOW EXACTLY THE INTENT OF THOSE WORDS (as an attempt to _re-impose_ a particular view of Christian marriage -- the Man on top, the Woman as his servant -- that has been roundly rejected and CERTAINLY QUALIFIED by Christian theologians of pretty much all stripes, let alone ROUNDLY REJECTED IN PRACTICE) and STOP LISTENING TO THE FILM RIGHT THEN AND THERE.  And that _would be a shame_ because there are some very good points made in the story.  BUT that's the NEEDLESSLY TENDENTIOUS / STUPID RISK taken by the film makers here.

Then there's an (initially) _odd_ focus on the mother, Elizabeth's, feet (!?) through much of the story:  As a real estate agent, presumably standing on her feet a lot, in the Southern U.S., where presumably it's very hot, she (and her daughter) complain about her (Elizabeth's) feet, that they hurt and THEY SMELL.  I can't imagine ANY WHITE ACTRESS OF ANY CALIBER FINDING IT ACCEPTABLE TO HAVE SO MUCH REFERENCE _TO HER FEET_ (and then HER FEET SMELLING (!!!)) as the African American actress playing Elizabeth's role had to accept in playing it.

NOW THERE'S A PURPOSE TO THE REFERENCES TO ELIZABETH'S ACHING (and unfortunately "smelly") FEET:  Near the end of the movie, when Elizabeth's and Tony's relationship has improved, TONY has Elizabeth sit down on the couch one day after work, gives her an ice cream sundae that he prepared for her and then PROCEEDS TO WASH HER FEET / GIVE HER A FOOT MASSAGE.  That scene's actually _a lovely interpretation_ of Jesus washing of the feet of his disciples in John's Gospel (John 13:1ff) something that we Catholic's remember each year on Holy Thursday (on the Feast of the Last Supper), the First Night of the Easter Triduum, the night before we commemorate Christ's Passion and Death on Good Friday.   However was there REALLY NEED to focus on Elizabeth's feet "smelling" and, once again WOULD THERE BE A WHITE ACTRESS ANYWHERE WHO WOULD ACCEPT HER FEET BEING PRESENTED AS "SMELLING BAD"?  I simply _can not_ imagine that ...

Finally (with regards to the negatives to the story) the WHOLE film is premised with the view of considering Prayer to be "combat."  Miss Clara has converted a closet in her house into a prayer room, which she calls a "war room" and invites Elizabeth to do so as well.  MY OBJECTION IS NOT IN CREATING A PRAYER SPACE LIKE THIS.  Indeed, decades ago, Catherine De Hueck Doherty a contemporary of Dorothy Day had written a lovely spiritual book called Poustinia [Amzn] which proposed to readers to create a similar space called in Russian Orthodox tradition a "Poustinia" (or "Desert Room") which would be simple, free of distractions, where one could pray.  EVEN CONCEDING (though NOT WITHOUT RESERVATIONS) the metaphor of "Prayer as Spiritual Combat" (cf. Psalm 149, Eph 6:10ff) a metaphor that let's face it IS VERY CLOSE to Islam's Jihad..., MY OBJECTION IS, WHY DID THIS SPACE _NEED TO BE_ "MILITARIZED"?  If the RUSSIAN ORTHODOX can call _the same space_ a Desert Space (ALSO an apt metaphor for a prayer space, free of distractions [Mt 4:1ff]) why can't we...? Then the military introduction (imagery from Vietnam) "may not sell particularly well outside the U.S." as _some_ of the civilians being napalmed by U.S. forces at the time would have actually been Catholic (Vietnam and especially the South having been, next to the Philippines, the most Catholic / Christian country in Asia at the time ... and most of us would have to admit that it _wouldn't_ exactly be "better" to napalm Buddhist or Communist civilians either ...).

ALL THIS SAID ... wow, how could one recommend the movie after all that? ... I AM DOING EXACTLY THAT... RECOMMENDING THE MOVIE TO READERS HERE ANYWAY.  I do call the Baptist film makers to task on the film's sexism, racism and militarism (I honestly do believe they can do better next time -- because I do believe that they are sincere and that they too would understand/appreciate that the Gospel is _not_ about male superiority, white superiority or American superiority ... it is about JESUS, something that the character of "Miss Clara" already points to and simply recalling in one's mind the image of a nice smiling Haitian or Jamaican Christian woman can drive home completely).  HOWEVER THERE ARE SOME TRULY EXCELLENT POINTS portrayed in the film as well:

First, the FUNDAMENTAL ADVICE THAT MISS CLARA GIVES ELIZABETH IS GOOD.  Now Readers do understand that there was no violence involved in Tony and Elizabeth's household.  The two just didn't see each other a lot / argued a lot.  Clara tells Elizabeth to not bother arguing with Tony anymore but JUST PRAY FOR HIM.  (THAT'S NOT BAD ADVICE because generally arguments _don't_ resolve much).  Then creating the prayer space (EMPTYING a CLOSET ... PREVIOUSLY "FULL OF STUFF") is actually AGAIN a very interesting and POWERFUL _resetting_ of priorities: One's "inner room" becomes a space for Jesus, and NOT for stuff (which become our idols ...).

Then Elizabeth and Tony's 10-y.o. daughter Danielle and her BFF Jennifer (played by Jadin Harris [IMDb] [CFDb]), white, were joys.  One of the nastier things that Danielle's father, Tony, does in the film is to initially make fun of Danielle still wanting to be part of a "jump roping squad."  He tells her that she's getting "too old for that sort of thing" and that she should really take basketball (a real sport) more seriously.  BUT ... Danielle and Jennifer just loved "jumping rope" ;-).  And later in the movie, as Tony does progressively change, HE discovers that he, an athlete still capable of doing backflips, etc, "kinda likes it too" ;-).  THIS IS A GREAT COUNTER-ACTION to the PRESSURE that parents often put on kids to "perform" in "real sports." But what is sport FUNDAMENTALLY FOR?  To HAVE FUN.  ANYTHING MORE begins to become a kind of idolatry again.

SOOO ... despite the critical reservations I give above -- I consider them serious, I don't want to see them again -- I do think that there are some very nice things in this film that need to be underlined as well.  And I do think that many / most adult Christians in the U.S. will understand.

So basically good job folks.  Just lets keep the focus on JESUS and keep away from ideology that can pose needless obstacles to the sensibilities of our time.  If the Apostles could learn to not put "unnecessary burdens" on the Greek converts of their time (Acts 15:22ff), so can we in ours.

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  1. Any intelligent woman who knows her Bible and Her God is not offended by the word submit. Are men offended by the word submit? You know God asks them to submit, too

    1. There are quite a few (dare one say vast majority ...) of intelligent women who are offended by the phrase "submit to your husband", I don't think ANY Christian has a problem submitting TO GOD. It's just when humans asked to submit to OTHER HUMAN BEINGS (not GOD) where the problems arise.

  2. Racist? Really? That's the stupidest thing I've read in a while. I guess the African-American actors in the movie just decided to ignore the racism. It's ridiculous how people like you see racism where there is none, and by doing so, you actually perpetuate it.

    1. Ricky, I simply can not believe that ANY WHITE ACTRESS would ever put up with the role that the African American actress was asked to take. One could even suggest that the main reason why the couple was cast as African American was because no white actress would take the role.

    2. That's ridiculous. One could suggest anything, if they're racially paranoid. She's not even an actress by trade. She's an author, speaker and bible teacher. There's no way she, or the other African-American actors would have allowed that to stay in the script if they had any problem with it. The Christian audience this movie is aimed at understands the reference to her husband's change in attitude as he later serves her by washing her feet. And the Christian audience also understands that the same passage that talks about wives submitting to their husbands also says "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her". And, of course , Christ washed his disciple's feet.

    3. Hi Ricky, you may think it ridiculous, but that does not make it so. The fact of the matter is that an African American was asked to play a role that no white woman would touch. The same plot point (change in the husbands attitude toward his wife) could have been made far more tactfully and even _could have included_ a foot-washing (in our day a foot-massaging) scene at the end (though yes, I do understand the Biblical reference as we wash parishioners' feet in Church every Holy Thursday as well, as we commemorate Jesus' Last Supper).

      Instead the film makers chose to make _repeated_ reference to the poor woman's smelly feet, not exactly a common problem in the United States today.


      And the tragic part of this error is that to MILLIONS of WHITE VIEWERS now (many, many already conditioned into thinking not exactly "the best" of non-whites or even non-WASPs), BLACK PEOPLE will now be associated with "smelly feet."

      And all this for a plot point that could have been expressed in any number of ways (almost infinite really) that would not put-down (arguably even _slander_) an entire race of people:

      Again, how many people in the U.S. _today_ of ANY RACE -- Black, White or Blue -- ACTUALLY have a problem with "smelly feet"??

    4. Just because you think "NO WHITE WOMAN WOULD EVER PLAY THAT ROLE AS WRITTEN" doesn't make it true, and just because YOU think white people will associate black people with smelly feet because of this does not make that true either. That's in your mind. I guess you've never known anyone with smelly feet. They're out there.

    5. But true enough, true enough.

      Then there exactly been an huge outcry (or really any outcry) for movies about "smelly feet"

      Then the film makers could have made criticism like mine mute by casting a white woman in the "smelly feet" role. They didn't. Why? In good part because they wouldn't be able to find one.

      Honesty write a casting call: Needed woman to play lead in Christian family drama. Note that it is essential that you accept that a truly unnerving amount of the drama will center on your feet smelling (whether they do in reality or not). Note that this is a NON-NEGOTIABLE CONDITION TO YOUR BEING ACCEPTED TO TAKE THE ROLE. How many women would take such a role? Very very few. How many white women would take that role? Exactly none.

  3. I'm another one! :) I still believe that the bible transcends those pc stereotypes you bring (women's perfect equality, perfectly equal races, etc.). For me you are merely saying pride must be preached!?. . And we must stand up in anger if we are to be valued?! And that's too bad, because submission is the very thing we need today. . and if we are grateful for our todays, then we can do things in power that no amount of pride in one's self will bring. And those things we choose to do will bring us so much more love and respect than "self esteem" ever did.
    Making a point about smelly feet is just about the daily things Jesus levelled with us about. I really don't understand why these stories get such a bad pounding from critics after all we are expected to accept ( submit to?) in films today. disappointed in this . .

    1. RC you're setting up straw arguments. This is not about "perfect equality" but a recognition that will be women who are more capable than their male counterparts and people of color who are more capable than their Caucasian counter parts. Yet, in the film, it is portrayed that the woman should submit to her man.

      Then the smelly feet subplot was strange on multiple levels. First it's a largely invented problem. I for one can't think of anyone I know who has a problem with smelly feet. Then this invented problem is pasted on an African American woman. Why her?

      I would submit that a good reason why is that NO WHITE WOMAN would play a role that would require her to pretend that she had smelly feet... If NO WHITE WOMAN would _submit_ to playing such a role, why should an African American do so?

  4. I loved the movie (have seen it twice) and never thought once to associate smelly feet with being black. That seems like a strange idea for the reviewer to come up with.

    1. Funny, because almost immediately I saw obvious problems with the strange plot point.

      To ask ANY actress to take a role in which there would be ODD and INSISTENT FOCUS on "personal hygiene issues" would be a tough sell to said actress. Then to make the character BLACK (as opposed to the default white) is to ABSOLUTELY INVITE viewers to make the association between "Black people and personal hygiene issues (smelly feet)."

      How many white actresses have you ever seen playing a role where a primary focus was on her "smelly feet"? EXACTLY ZERO.

      How many black actresses have you seen play a leading role at all? Almost certainly VERY FEW.

      Now how many black actresses have you seen playing a lead role where a primary focus of that role was on her character's "smelly feet." DEFINITELY ONE.

      And it certainly invites the association.

      An average American viewer could legitimately say: "While ZERO PERCENT of white women playing lead roles EVER PLAYED a ROLE involving focus on their having personal hygiene issues, smelly feet, 10%, 20% or even 50% of all black women [that I've ever seen playing a lead role] played a role where a primary focus was on that BLACK character's having personal hygiene issues, smelly feet."

      At minimum it is a stupid, and profoundly unfortunate distraction. And if the plot point needed to be made at all, the character should have been the "default race" that is WHITE.

      But then, there is simply NO WAY that a white actress (ANY WHITE ACTRESS) would have played a role that would have focused on her character having personal hygiene issues like that. NONE.

  5. I think Fr. Dennis is correct about several assertions, here, but is perhaps not making the point clear. I'm a woman, know what it is like to get stinking feet as an athlete, and am no stranger to the South and African-American culture - people from all age groups. I don't consider Fr. Dennis' comments PC.

    First, the director and production company are mostly white. Nothing wrong with that at all. The humidity in the South definitely causes all kinds of maladies, including fungus and stinking feet. However, the production team overlooked very important cultural and professional cues that probably incited Fr. Dennis discomfort.

    No person in their right mind would portray a SUCCESSFUL REAL ESTATE agent as someone who couldn't pour a little Dr. Scholl's, or even baking soda, in their shoes. Real Estate agents drive luxury cars they sometimes cannot even afford so that their clients can know they are successful agents. If a client got into the car with an agent with stinking feet, especially selling higher end houses, it would be the end of the game.

    The wife lives in an immaculate house. Her children are impecably groomed. And Southern culture, Black or White? If their parents were poor, they are very conscious how bad breath or smelly feet comes across, and pay particular attention to those things when they become professional adults. If someone complains about any problem, every friend and relative in the world starts out with, "Honey, you don't need to walk around like that. I'll make these little sachets for you. A little baking soda or Dr. Scholl's, and some fine perfumes, and you'll be fine!" Yes, there are probably white actresses who will portray a woman with smelly feet, but probably not someone from the upper class Southern culture.

    Second, submission...

    In the Catholic culture, the whole Bible teaching matters, and not just the phrase. Ephesians 5 is a lesson for husbands and wives which lays out the conduct God expects. A wife cannot serve God by submitting to conduct that is heinous to God. Both must live as instructed, and in that way, submission to the husband makes the wife more holy. There is a parallel to submission to husband and submission to God - it is not equating the husband to God, it is equating the Godliness of one's motives and actions. Jesus submits to the cross because he submits to God the Father, who is 100% good, is Love, and the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Submission in the Catholic sense is submission to all that is good and holy. It is not blind.

    Sadly, our society has a large number of men like Josh Duggar. He made wedding vows to serve God, yet he admittedly has embraced so much that is unholy, wicked, and heinous. In this case blind and total submission to the husband is not good and holy. If a husband is asking for what is impure, against God, and self-serving, I don't believe God wants a wife to submit to the husband, but to God. Submission is holy, and must be holy.

    Even if the husband is basically a good man, non-violent, and professes his faith, friends and family know better of other men who are false. They have no way to know what is in this man's heart. There is so much more under the surface of life that we must navigate to affirm our love and submission first to God.

    1. Thanks "Blue Ravioli" for your thoughtful comments.

      I think that you do hit on part of the problem. It's hard to believe that anyone, black or white who would clearly be a successful upper middle class real estate agent to not have the know-how / capacity to deal with "smelly shoes."

      I still do maintain that no actress in her right mind would want a ridiculously large portion of a role (and this was a leading role) taken up / obscured by a HYGIENIC ISSUE that SHE HERSELF would not have. I continue to believe that NO WHITE ACTRESS would EVER take a role would require so attention to be given to "HER" "smelly feet" (NO ONE would want to be "type cast" afterwards like that ...). So IMHO it was _very unfortunate_ that a BLACK ACTRESS had to play that role.

      Now to "submission" ...

      Biblical literalism is a Protestant hangup and then even specifically an Anglo-Protestant one. German or Scandinavian Lutherans would not have the same problem of interpreting the Bible as literally (world really created in 6-7 days ... flood really occurring ... etc) as SOME Anglo-Protestants would.

      Catholics who always respected "lived reality" (experience / "works") as an integral part of interpreting Scripture, would at minimum understand that "submission" must be mutual in marriage. And NO CATHOLIC parent EVER would accept that their daughter "submit" to a husband who's crazy. Yes, the Catholic Church still does not recognize divorce but plenty Catholic women over the ages have moved back (with their children) to their parents or other relatives rather than continue to live with a husband who's a nut job. Again "lived reality" matters in Catholicism not simply "the letter"