“In the Heights” Answers the Immigrant Question in Arts-Friendly Westport Connecticut

On Mothers’ Day, the immigrant invasion that Donald Trump has warned us about, finally reached my new hometown of Westport, Connecticut. It came in the form of Lin Manuel Miranda’s sparkling musical, “In the Heights.”  My daughter and son-in-law generously took us to see the play.

At first glance, a performance in Westport might seem literally out-of-place. After all, it’s is one of the most affluent cities in the country. By contrast, Miranda’s play is set in a poor barrio located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. However, “In the Heights” succeeded in bringing two disparate communities together in a mutual appreciation that should characterize all interactions between “Americans” from the north and those from the south.

Let me explain.

Westport is the home of Wall Street investors, lawyers and insurance brokers.  But the town of 26,000 clearly has a social conscience. At least in part, that’s because in the 1930s it was an artist colony animated by the horizon-widening presence of its venerable “Country Playhouse.”

A converted barn right out of a Rooney and Garland movie, the Playhouse was later adopted by local residents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who inspired its renovation. Over the years, many famous authors, television personalities and actors from Hollywood and Broadway have been drawn to Westport by the playhouse and its theatrical sprites. The best-known personalities include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Ann Hathaway, Keith Richards, Martha Stewart, Jim Nantz, Phil Donahue, and Christopher Walken.

Miranda brought together Westporters proud of such lineage on the one hand and immigrants far from such pedigree on the other. And guess what: there was not even one of President Trump’s frightening rapists or gang members among the latter. Instead, they included a street graffiti artist, a snow-cone vender, a bodega proprietor, the owner of a small taxi service, his dispatcher, a sassy beautician and her staff of three, and a college student from Stanford University. Over a period of 90 minutes we came to know and care about each one of them.

The characters came from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Yet all of them had lived in New York for years hardly even noticed as somehow out-of-place. Like many of their real-life counterparts, those the Trumpists call “invaders” were marvelous singers and dancers. Each had a story of family idiosyncrasy, love, economic struggle and high aspiration.

Countering Trump’s cheap clap-trap, “In the Heights” underlined the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens. They are hard workers with lofty aspirations, and rich cultures with enviable family values, joy, music, dance, colorful language, resourcefulness, patience and faith. They love their children and grandparents. They scrimp and scrape and help each other with their meager resources. With patience and faith, they endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, without diminishing their indominable carnival spirits.

Capturing all of that, and following the triumph of “Hamilton,” this earlier musical by Lin Manuel Miranda once again displays the author’s unmistakable genius. (Its first draft was written when he was only 19 years of age.) Its main storyline belongs to Nina Rosario, the first in her family to attend college. Her whole barrio is proud of her and her scholarship to Stanford. However, she disappoints herself and her parents when she secretly drops out in March of her first year, because the work necessary just to pay for her books cut so deeply into her study time. (By the way, her bio reminded me of the students I taught over my 40 years of teaching in Appalachia’s Berea College in Kentucky. Its familiarity brought tears to my eyes.)  

Returning home for summer vacation, Nina causes a family crisis, when she finally informs her parents that she has lost her scholarship. Initial parental chagrin and anger soon turns into resolve to sell the family taxi cab business in order to finance their daughter’s college costs.

Meanwhile, Nina falls in love with Benny, an African-American who works for Nina’s father and the only one in the story who does not speak Spanish. Nina’s parents’ own prejudice doesn’t allow them to see Benny as worthy of their daughter. But Benny too has his own aspirations. He wants to learn Spanish. He wants to start his own business. He’s serious – and deeply in love with Nina. Their duet, “Sunrise,” makes that touching point.

But in the end, it’s elderly Claudia, the matriarch recognized as abuela by everyone in the barrio who saves the day.  Before her sudden passing, she wins the lottery and immediately shares it with her grandson, who in turn shares it with others. Her image and spirit rendered permanent by the barrio’s graffiti artist prevents the neighborhood from disintegrating. Her memory successfully overcomes the centrifugal force of poverty, crime, and economic hardship. The strength of such family ties, memories and tradition hung like a bright shadow over the entire performance.

Not surprisingly, and thanks, I’m guessing, to their art-friendly context, Westporters accepted all of that with open arms and a standing ovation. It was as if the audience recognized themselves in these on-stage first- and second-generation immigrants. And of course they did – precisely because that’s what all of our families are or have just recently been.

Too easily we forget that. We’re all immigrants, aren’t we? At the most basic level, our ancestors were absolutely no different in any way from those we Westporters watched on stage. We’re no different from those our “leaders” fear and cage.

Yesterday’s audience thankfully realized that those Mr. Trump calls “invaders” deserve welcome, appreciation, and standing ovations reserved for the local “celebrities” whose families themselves were once immigrants like those now living in Washington Heights.

Everyone deserves the honor now given to Lin Manuel Miranda. Everyone merits the response we all gave the Country Playhouse yesterday afternoon. That’s the lesson my new neighbors taught me on Mothers’ Day in their hallowed theater.      

“Mary Magdalene” Saves My Lent

I didn’t feel good about my Lent this year – until Holy Week. I don’t know why, but my heart just wasn’t in it till then. However, beginning on what used to be called Holy Week’s “Spy Wednesday,” a whole series of events unfolded that returned me to the spirit that should have characterized the previous 40 days. Its highlight was experiencing an extraordinary film that I want to recommend here. It’s called simply “Mary Magdalene.” It raises questions about women’s leadership in today’s Catholic Church.

What I did just before seeing the film prepared me. It began on Wednesday when I watched an Italian production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The next night brought a brief celebration of Maundy Thursday at our new non- denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church. The following morning, I took part in a two hour “way of the cross” through the town of nearby Darien. Immediately afterwards, came a “Tre Ore” observance at the town’s Episcopal Church. The recollection of Jesus’ three-hours on the cross was marked by long periods of silence broken by seven sermons delivered by ministers from a whole variety of area churches. (At times the latter seemed like a sermon slam, with the clear winner the entry delivered jointly in dialog by our own two pastors from Talmadge Hill.)

Then on Holy Saturday, Peggy and I took in “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Australian, Garth Davis. For me, it was Holy Week’s capstone. To begin with, Joaquin Phoenix embodied the best Jesus-representation that I’ve seen so far. It was understated, believable, sensitive, compassionate, and challenging. Phoenix’s mien and demeanor reminded me of the Jesus forensic archeologists have estimated looked like this:

But it is Mary Magdalene (played by an unglamorous, but beautiful Rooney Mara) who supplies the eyes through which viewers finally see the peasant from Galilee. She’s a midwife, we learn. Far from the one defined as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, she rejects intimate relationships with men. “I’m not made for marriage,” Mary explains to the shock of her scandalized father, brothers and suitor. “Then, what are you made for?” they demand. All of them join together and nearly drown her as they attempt to exorcise the demons responsible for her refusal to submit to marital patriarchy.

Nevertheless, Mary persists and eventually tags along with those following Jesus – the only woman among the band of men called apostles. She herself is baptized by Jesus. She also pays closer and more perceptive attention to Jesus’ words than the others. She even gently corrects her male companions, suggesting that their interpretation of the Kingdom of God entailing violent revolution might be mistaken. Peter’s comment about such impertinence is “You weaken us.” But in the end, Mary quietly retorts, “I will not be silenced.”

Soon Jesus commissions Magdalene to baptize women.  As a result, they end up following the Master in droves. From then on, we see Mary habitually walking next to Jesus as he treks across Palestine’s barren landscape from Galilee through Cana and Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. At the last supper, after washing Jesus’ feet, she sits at his right hand. Clearly, she’s in charge and a leader of men nonpareil.

At one point in the journey to the Holy City, Mary unmistakably demonstrates her unique leadership. She implicitly reminds viewers of the words John the Evangelist attributes to Jesus, “The one who believes in me, the works that I do shall (s)he do also; and greater works than these shall (s)he do . . . (JN 14:12) For after witnessing Jesus restore a dead man to life, Mary herself emulates the healer’s ritual and restores to life a score of people left for dead by the brutal Roman occupation forces. None of the males among Jesus’ followers even dares such close imitation of Christ.

Then there is Magdalene’s relationship with a young smiling, cheerful, and very sympathetic Judas. He came to follow Jesus after his wife and child had been brutally killed by the Romans. So, he hears Jesus’ words about God’s Kingdom as a promise that Jesus will inspire and lead a retributive rebellion against Rome. But after Jesus’ participation in a direct-action demonstration in Jerusalem’s temple, Judas appears worried that Jesus is losing resolve and direction. So, in an evident effort to force Jesus’ hand, the apostle cooperates in Jesus’ arrest and collects the reward on his head. Judas fully expects that his teacher’s plight will mobilize his followers to the uprising Judas confidently anticipates. When that doesn’t happen, Judas is filled with despair. He returns home. The next we know, he’s hanging from the lintel of his hovel’s doorway.

Of course, there is no uprising. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. Afterwards, his limp body is placed in the lap of his mother. He’s then buried. While the other apostles flee, distancing themselves from the corpse, Magdalene faithfully sleeps on the ground outside the tomb. In the morning, she’s awakened by Jesus’ voice. He’s clothed in martyr’s white. Without uttering a word, she quietly sits on the ground next to him, convinced that he has come back to life.

So, she returns to the site of the last supper and tells Peter and the others her good news. They refuse to believe her. It’s at this point that Mary says those words, “I will not be silenced.”

According to Pope Francis, that refusal and her bringing of Good News to the apostolic leadership has merited for her the title of “apostle of apostles.” She is more important than any of them.

As you can see, I’m grateful to “Mary Magdalene” for salvaging my Lent. However, her story makes me wonder about the absence of female leadership in Francis’ church.

How about you? See the film and decide for yourself.

Jesus, the Law, and “Les Miserables” of Today

Les-Miserables[1]

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 62; 1-5; Ps. 96: 1-3, 7-10; I Cor. 12: 4-11; Jn. 2: 1-11

During our family’s recent Christmas trip to France, we spent a couple of evenings watching “on location” films. We saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and loved it. Owen Wilson did such a good job of imitating Allen himself. And seeing Wilson wander through the famous sites we were passing each day was great fun.

But on a more serious note, we also took in “Les Miserables” which was such a success back in 2013. At the Golden Globes that year, “Les Miserables” won the “best film” award in the category of musicals and comedies. Hugh Jackson was named best actor for his portrayal of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as Fantine. She went on to win an Oscar as well.

Watching the film in France this time made it especially poignant. I ended up in quiet tears at its conclusion.

“Les Miserables” is Victor Hugo’s familiar tale of Jean Valjean, a Christ figure intimately connected with today’s Gospel reading about Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana.

Following the royal restoration after the French Revolution of 1789, Valjean was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children. He was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the most brutal conditions.

Having completed his sentence under the watchful and threatening eye of the cruel Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe in the film), a bitter and vengeful Valjean journeyed homeward. As he passed through the town of Digne, he was given food and shelter by the kindly Bishop Myriel, the pastor of the local cathedral.

But Valjean is not impressed. He rises in the dead of night, steals the bishop’s silverware and candelabra, and flees the rectory. Soon he’s captured by the gendarmes. When he’s dragged back to the bishop by the police, Bishop Myriel secures Valjean’s release by confirming the thief’s lie that the stolen goods had been given him as a gift by the priest. Valjean cannot believe his ears. The bishop’s act of generosity, forgiveness, and mercy transforms him. He goes on to become a successful factory owner and champion of the poor.

However the former convict has broken his parole. So he’s pursued by his prison tormentor, Inspector Javert. Javert is determined to return Valjean to chains. The inspector is a lawman in the strictest sense of the word. He believes he is doing God’s work in pursuing Valjean, and often prays for success in his mission.

Nonetheless towards the film’s end, Javert falls into Valjean’s hands. His former ward has the opportunity to kill Javert with impunity for opposing the People in their revolution against the French crown. Yet Valjean refuses to do so, opting instead to follow the example of bishop Myriel, even though releasing Javert means Valjean will likely return to prison.

Javert can neither believe nor accept Valjean’s generosity. In his eyes, since the law has been broken, Valjean must pay the price. Yet Valjean has acted towards him with such generosity. . . . Javert doesn’t know how to handle such kindness. His life dedicated to law enforcement now seems entirely wasted in the light of Valjean’s compassion and wonderful disregard of the law. Confused and disheartened Javert commits suicide.

Of course, Victor Hugo’s tale is much more complex than that – and much more beautiful. (The singing and lyrics are gorgeous!) But that’s the story’s kernel – a portrayal of a conflict between love, compassion, and mercy on the one hand and respect for the law on the other. That’s what makes it relevant to today’s Gospel.

There we find Jesus attending a wedding. With the other revelers at this feast of seven days, he’s been dancing, singing, eating and drinking already for days. Then the wine runs out. The party is in danger of losing its spirit; the guests will go home; the bridal couple will be disgraced. So Jesus responds to the alcohol shortage by providing about 200 gallons of the best wine the partiers had ever tasted. Significantly, he takes the large stone vessels full of water for ritual washing according to Jewish law, and turns that water into wine. As a result, the fun never stops. And believers have never ceased telling this story – the very first of Jesus’ “signs” as John calls them. We’ve come consider them miracles.

But let’s take John at his word. He sees this rather trivial event at what turns out to be Jesus’ coming out party as a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. . . . (I say “trivial” because on its surface nothing “great” is accomplished. A party is saved from petering out. Some friends – the bridal couple and their families – save face. But was that worth this exercise of divine power?) Nevertheless, John says this is a sign. But of what?

The answer, of course, is that changing water into wine so early in John’s story constitutes an image providing indication of Jesus’ entire mission as John understands it. Jesus’ mission is to obey the spirit of the law even when that means disobeying its letter.

In John’s poetic narrative, the letter of the law is cold, hard, and insipid – as hard and frigid as the stone vessels John takes care to mention, and as tasteless as water in comparison with wine. But it’s even worse than that. The law as Jesus will criticize it in John’s pamphlet is routinely used against the poor (people like Valjean in Hugo’s tale) – the lepers, prostitutes, beggars, Samaritans, tax collectors, and the generally “unclean.” The law is used to oppress “Les Miserables.” Meanwhile, the privileged and elite use legalisms for their own benefit – to enrich themselves and elevate their prestige. Jesus, John is saying, has come to transform all of that.

He has come to change the water of the law’s letter into everything wine symbolizes. The wine of Jesus’ teaching and life is meant to lift the spirit. (It’s not for nothing that alcohol is called “spirits.”) Wine is red like blood not colorless and neutral like water. Wine relieves pain. It evokes laughter, and singing and dancing as it did for the revelers at the Cana wedding feast. Wine enlivens life which, John implies, has more to do with a seven-day party than with what happens in the Temple (or our churches!).

We need to be reminded of all that don’t we? That’s especially true today when the law is used so clearly against the poor, while the rich typically escape its reach. Think about the way our political “leaders” villainize the world’s most impoverished people. They tell us that the dirt poor are the cause of the very problems they and their rich friends have produced. (For example, the poor had nothing to do with the Great Recession whose disastrous effects are still ruining the lives of the poor and middle classes.)

Even worse, the coalition of the rich creates refugees by sending planes, missiles and drones to destroy the homes, schools, hospitals of already desperate people throughout the Middle East and Global South. They overthrow the governments the poor have elected, and afterwards install dictators and drug lords to take their places. Then they complain when the refugees they’ve created seek escape in countries like our own.

In the process, distressed mothers and their children are described as drug dealers, gang members, and murderers. So, in the name of unjust laws, our leaders rationalize the separation of pre-teens from their parents and even create baby jails. Meanwhile, the business of privatized prisons prospers, while their dungeons are increasingly filled with the poor and minorities.

In the meantime, the those who dedicate their lives to exposing such crimes are treated like Jesus and Valjean. The Julian Assanges and Chelsea Mannings — the whistle-blowers of the world – are arrested, tortured and threatened with life imprisonment. “The law is the law,” the criminal arresters remind us. Once again, it’s the story of Jesus and Jean Valjean all over again.

Like “Les Miserables,” John’s story of Cana can raise our consciousness about all of that. The tale of water turned into wine can move us to defend the poor, powerless, imprisoned and whistle-blowers that the law routinely oppresses. Jesus’ example calls us to celebrate “spirit,” and feasts, and food, laughter and dancing. It invites us to destroy by our own hands the law-worshipping Javert who resides within each of us.

Both John the Evangelist and Victor Hugo call us to imitate those who dedicate their scandalous lives to obeying the Spirit of God’s Law by disobeying the letter of human law.

Only God Can Save Us from Nature’s 2025 Deadline: Listen to Pope Francis on Climate Change

Last batter

I recently came across a powerful but profoundly misleading video about climate change. In the name of progressiveness, compassion and love, it waves a white flag before anthropogenic climate change and invites its viewers to blissfully coast through to their inevitable evolutionary demise.

The film’s resigned surrender contrasts sharply with the more hopeful, clear-eyed vision of Pope Francis and the faith-inspired program he suggests in his all-but-ignored eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The stark difference between the two approaches illustrates the impotence of the secularized left before the world’s most pressing problems. It also shows the potential power of Francis’ faith perspective, which progressives ignore at their own (and the planet’s) peril.

First of all, consider the film in question. The eight-minute piece is called “Edge of Extinction.” It was produced and narrated by Guy McPherson, an evolutionary biologist whose webpage slogan is “Nature bats last. Passionately pursue a life of excellence.”

McPherson’s thesis is that “humanity is behaving exactly in accordance with its evolved genetic imperatives to survive, thrive and multiply today, regardless of the consequences tomorrow.”

In other words, humanity is like other animal species. Its evolutionary short-sightedness has it rushing headlong towards its own inevitable extinction whose ultimate cause is “industrial civilization, the most violent set of living arrangements ever devised.”

According to McPherson, this preordained inevitability means that we should all set aside anger and bitterness about human-caused climate change, replacing such unproductive emotions with “compassion and tolerance” presumably for climate change deniers. This, in turn, will confer peace of mind and a resultant “general happiness” as we glide towards extinction which, Mr. McPherson says will occur in 2025.

None of this is to say that it will be easy, the film continues. We’ll witness the cataclysmic death of 7.5 million people. We’ll run out of food, water, and fuel. The soil will become completely unproductive. The world’s abandoned nuclear facilities will melt down catastrophically. Hospitals will be shuttered; disease will run rampant. There will be no first responders to rescue us. Many will commit suicide. Others will be murdered by the last remnants of the privileged still hanging on to their dwindling resources in their sweltering radiated bunkers.

Is that pessimistic enough for you?

It needn’t be for three reasons: First of all, “humanity” has not actually made the decision in question. Secondly, as signaled by Pope Francis, there are clear alternatives. Third, while climate change deniers might deserve our compassion, they emphatically do not merit tolerance.

To begin with, “humanity” has certainly not decided “to survive, thrive and multiply today, regardless of the consequences tomorrow.” In fact, only a sliver of the human race has done so; the rest are in complete resistance.

The sliver in question is a small part of the planet’s richest 1% most of whom happen to live in the United States whose population comprises only 5% of the world’s inhabitants. To put a finer point on it: the criminals in question have coalesced in the United States and in the Republican Party, identified by Noam Chomsky as the most dangerous organization in the history of the world. Republicans can be removed from office. (Remember that next November!)

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has other ideas as signaled in the nascent reforms of the Paris Climate Accord endorsed by nearly everyone in the world excluding the Republican leadership. Moreover, polls show that 61% of Americans—including 43 percent of Republicans—say climate change is a problem the government needs to tackle.

Secondly, there are simple, common-sense alternatives to the looming catastrophe. They have been outlined most compellingly by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (LS). They include on the one hand, acts on the parts of individuals such as “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights. . .” as well as reducing the use of air conditioning (LS 55, 212).

On the other hand, Francis says that dealing with climate chaos requires action which national governments alone are capable of performing (38, 129). These include weening national populations from dependence on fossil fuels (165) as well as investment in high-speed railways, and renewable energy sources. National governments must also strictly regulate transnational corporate activity (38).

According to Laudato Si’, changing paradigms additionally includes the submission of national governments to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (53, 173, 174, 175). (BTW, the U.S. already submits to international legislative authorities such as, for instance, the World Trade Organization which has the power of overturning United States law.)

So, all of this is doable. And, as Francis insists, the Judeo-Christian tradition about stewardship and care for God’s creation can be invoked to persuade the 83% of Americans who identify themselves as Christian to save the planet.

Ironically, Republicans have effectively invoked the biblical tradition to support their ecocide. Few on the left have followed Pope Francis in the opposite direction. Progressive church leaders need to make climate change the absolute center of their ministries. 2025 is fast approaching.

Finally, like other criminals, Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts in the Congress certainly deserve our compassion. Perhaps, they’ve been corrupted by gilded childhoods, limited experience of the life’s hardships, and by an overriding love of money, profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

But no matter how sorry we might feel for them, we must recognize that they are criminals. This sliver of 1% have taken it upon themselves to condemn all of us, our children and grandchildren to the fate so accurately described in “The Edge of Extinction.”

We cannot allow them to do that. Citizens’ arrests are in order, not to mention non-violent revolution – stimulated by recognition of shared humanity and even faith.

That’s the path Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ suggests.

Black Panther: A Nearly Revolutionary Film

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I remember 10 years ago taking Berea College students for a January “Short Term” to Cuba. Our month-long assignment was to study the African diaspora in that island nation. One day we were privileged to have Cuban poet, essayist and historian, Roberto Fernandez Retamar grace our classroom. Now 87, he was then about my age.

On that occasion, the great man said something that struck me as powerful, and that relates to the blockbuster movie everyone’s talking about, Black Panther. Retamar stated that black people in the Americas are the strongest, most beautiful most intelligent people in the world.

He explained why.

Before slaves were transported from Africa, he said, they were closely inspected for their strength, beauty, and intelligence. Their arms and legs were assessed for their musculature. Like horses for sale, their teeth were scrutinized. Women were evaluated in terms of their beauty and apparent ability to reproduce. Only the best were selected and shipped abroad. Those who didn’t measure up were left behind.

Then on the Middle Passage, only about half – again, the best of the best themselves survived.

When the slaves arrived at the auction block those evolutionary wonders were once again culled – for strength, beauty, skills and intelligence.

The culled are the ancestors of today’s African Americans, who remain, not surprisingly, the strongest, most beautiful and smartest people on the planet.

That’s what Retamar said. And it thrilled me and our mostly African-American students.

The same thrill is today being experienced nearly universally by millions of African-Americans and others across the world as they view the Disney and Marvel Comics film, Black Panther.

It celebrates the beauty, strength, intelligence and resourcefulness of Africans and African-Americans in a magnificent display of their inherent gifts. The film has been called “a defining moment for black America.”

That’s because Black Panther‘s stellar cast is nearly all African or African-American. And to reference another great man, in the movie’s mythical country of Wakanda, all the women are strong, the men are beautiful, and all the children are above average.

Moreover, the film presents themes that are anti-colonial, pro-liberation, wonderfully African and conscious of the oppression that people of color to this day experience everywhere.

The bare bones of the narrative are reminiscent of Greek tragedy: The benevolent king of a fabulously wealthy African country (Wakanda) has died. His virtuous son, T’Challa, is selected to fill the vacancy. But there’s a rival for the throne. It’s his villainous cousin, who challenges and defeats and apparently kills T’Challa in ritual hand-to-hand combat. The cousin proceeds to head a regime that tramples on tradition, disrespects women, and uses his country’s wealth for evil purposes. But T’Challa returns from his coma to restore order, tradition, and prosperity. He shares his nation’s wealth with the rest of the world.

Again, it’s a classic story whose details celebrate blackness, names white supremacist racism for what it is, and calls for revolution against colonialism in past and present forms. All of that is ground-breaking and entirely admirable.

However, the film pulls its punches severely leaving its potentially revolutionary message muddled and garbled. That’s true to such an extent that Black Panther finally comes across anti-revolutionary propaganda for the status quo and CIA. The attentive will see this as they witness a film that:

* Is entitled “Black Panther” but makes only a nod to the actual Black Panther Party of the 1960s.
* In doing so, deceives the uninformed in its audience about the Party’s nature by portraying its only member in the film as a “Killmonger” (the wicked cousin) instead of a community organizer.
* On the one hand, depicts Killmonger’s program as arming the world’s oppressed against the white colonial status quo that tyrannizes people of color throughout the world.
* But on the other describes him as preparing for that mission by service as a CIA mercenary killing hundreds of those people in Iraq, Afghanistan and other poor countries imperialized by the United States.
* Confronts Killmonger with T’Challa, his good-guy adversary, whose idea of changing the world is charity rather than systemic transformation of what Killmonger correctly perceives (in bell hooks words) as the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy.
* Has T’Challa ally himself with the CIA to defeat the revolutionaries Killmonger has assembled.
* Peoples the movie with “strong black women” whose strength is mostly evident in their machismo – i.e. in their ability to scowl and kill as heartlessly as their male counterparts.
* Celebrates the film’s heroine for allegiance to country above her most intimate relationship.
* Presents a white CIA agent as heroic.

Moreover, any chance of understanding the film’s references to colonialism, white supremacy, and the villainous reality of the CIA is further obscured by Black Panther’s spectacular visuals – by 134 minutes of comic book chases, space ship dogfights, explosions, karate displays, knifings, spearings, shootings, fantastic escapes, and magical returns from the dead.

One comes away from the film happy to have seen blacks centralized and celebrated in a Hollywood blockbuster, but having gained very little in terms of understanding the nature of oppression, the robbery that is the essence of colonialism, or the true spirit of the Black Panther Party, of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, or Angela Davis. There is no hint of any Free Breakfast for Children Program, of Black Panther health clinics, or the party’s emphasis on food justice. Instead, one identifies Black Panthers as violent Killmongers with utter disrespect for life, women and tradition.

When Roberto Fernandez Retamar gave us his class, he said something else that relates to Black Panther. Though his skin color is as white as my own, he introduced his remarks with the phrase, “I who am more or less black . . .” With those words he reminded us all that, by every account, life began in Africa. So, all of us are more or less black.

In other words, Black Panther is about us all. It can remind us that White Supremacy is a fiction that oppresses every one of us. So is capitalism’s patriarchal regime with its seemingly inseparable colonialism, neo-colonialism, and endless resource wars.

The struggle for liberation depicted in Black Panther is incumbent on all of us to join.

Too bad that point wasn’t made more clearly.

The Shape of Water Is about the Unexpected Shape of God

Shape

It’s about an amphibian creature dredged from a river in South America. It’s a fairy tale about a princess who falls in love with a monster. It’s science-fiction fantasy about a gigantic scaly Merman who learns to communicate and to love. It’s about a God made flesh who’s killed by the state, but then rises from the dead and gives eternal life to his devotee. It’s about an alien trying to get back home.

Put otherwise, The Shape of Water is science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, myth, and story of humans’ doomed attempts to effect the death of God. It’s entirely redolent of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ET, and the Jesus Myth.

And for that reason, plus its artistic excellence The Shape of Water has struck a chord with viewers subconsciously hungry for meaning. They’ve called it tender, elegant and mesmerizing. It has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

For what it’s worth, I agree. Sally Hawkins‘ performance as Elisa Esposito, the mute janitor-princess who falls in love with the Creature, is nothing short of magnificent. She deserves her Best Actress nomination – and the Oscar.

The film’s central theme is conveyed in its beautiful, mysterious title that invites its audience to imagine the impossible. The shape of water? Of course, it has none at all. Water takes the contours of its container.

And that’s the point imagistically asserted at the very beginning of the picture. There the story’s world is portrayed as filled with the medium of life itself. As the movie unfolds, it’s hard to miss that theological point: the world is full of possibilities for realizing the presence of the divine. The patriarchal establishment can’t see that. Only the social misfits do – a mute janitor, her African-American friend, an aging gay unemployed artist, a Russian enemy of the state.

There are plenty of references that suggest such meaning:

– Biblical themes of the Great Flood and Crossing the Sea, as well as purgative baptismal images of are all evoked by the film’s water-world.
– More than once, we’re told that the film’s androgynous monster is worshipped as a god by primitives in its place of origin.
– It has powers to heal.
– And resurrect from the dead.
– Near the story’s beginning, the fish-human’s demented antagonist, Richard Strickland, discusses specifically his own idea of God. In doing so, he reveals why recognizing the divine in such unexpected form is impossible for him. He’s looking for someone made in Strickland’s own image. God’s actual incarnation is anything but.
– The central character’s apartment is located above a movie theater showing a biblical film, The Story of Ruth who discovers and embraces God in a foreign and unexpected form.
– A supporting character’s name is Delilah, and the story of Samson and Delilah is told twice.
– Meanwhile Giles (the aging unemployed artist) grows back his hair as, like Samson, he owns his ability to help destroy the enemies of the alien god he’s come to love.
– Like the Roman soldier at the foot of Jesus’ cross, Strickland as representative of the patriarchal military, finally recognizes and confesses that the monster is indeed god.

Yes, this film is about our experience of the divine, about God’s shape, and omnipresence. It’s about baptism, cleansing, and salvific intercourse with the divine. It’s about death and resurrection and making it possible for the divine to manifest itself. It’s about the work of misfits (and especially women) that enables the divine to fit into a world created by men – specifically by a military committed to the death of God. It’s about females cleaning up the messes that men create everywhere, from their bathrooms to the battlefield and the world at large.

As Sally Hawkins clutches her Oscar, watch for those feminist and perhaps even theological themes in her acceptance speech.

In the end, however, The Shape of Water is about the total commitment that the discovery of God provokes. For a moment, as the film concludes, Elisa recovers her voice. She gazes at the monstrous but fascinating object of her love and prays the haunting words of the picture’s central air, “You’ll Never Know.” She whispers:

If I can do one thing more
To prove that I love you,
I swear I don’t know how.
You’ll never know
If you don’t know now.

Would that we could all make that prayer our own!

Groundhog Day, The Musical: Better than Church

Ground Hog Musical

Today is Groundhog Day. It reminds me that last summer one Sunday instead of going to church, I took in the musical version of the familiar story. I accompanied my daughter’s and son-in-law’s family to the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street in New York City to see Groundhog Day: The Musical. It’s the inspired and inspiring Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin rendering of the familiar Bill Murray classic of the same name, without “The Musical” addendum.

Virtually everyone, of course, will recall the Groundhog Day story. It’s about Phil Connors (Andy Karl), the big city TV weatherman sent to small town Punxsutawney PA to cover its famous winter festival. To his great frustration, the jaded and self-centered Connors finds himself condemned to living the same day over and over again till he gets it right.

Obviously, then, it’s a story about personal transformation reminiscent of Murray’s Scrooged. But the musical version of Groundhog Day has the advantage of making its point even more sharply than the Murray film, because the play’s memorable songs provide direct insight into the minds of the story’s characters.

So my choice of theater over church proved to be a good one. The play confronted me with the sort of questions that church should raise for me, but rarely does. Among them:

  • What is the nature of time and space?
  • Does when and where I live make any difference?
  • Does my own life make a difference?
  • How do I escape from behavioral patterns that objectify women and seek salvation in sex, alcohol, and the latest fads in natural healing, therapy and religion?
  • What is life for anyway?
  • Does God fit into any of this?

Surprisingly, the play suggests answers that coincide perfectly with universal spiritual traditions found everywhere. As the play’s book writer, Danny Rubin, points out, I’m not alone in saying that. Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle loves the story.

Take those questions about time and place and the pointless nature of life’s repetitious patterns. The play’s songs make them as inescapable as Connors finds Punxsutawney itself. After all, his very job has caused him to focus on the future and absolutely predictable weather events. That job has given him an identity of sorts. But it’s no more meaningful than that of his namesake, Punxsutawney Phil, a large rodent who comes out each February 2nd to declare with great pomp and circumstance what everyone already knows: “There Will Be Sun,” but there will also be six more weeks of winter.

Again, Phil Connors’ job is like that too. So he’s entirely bored. He’s as stuck in past patterns of thought and living as the two drunks Phil eventually identifies with in the song, “Nobody Cares.”

Phil’s foil in Ground Day is Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss). As the associate producer of his TV spot, she has accompanied Connors to Punxy to cover Groundhog Day festivities. And she’s everything Connors is not. She was French major in college focused on 17th century French poetry. She enthusiastic and lives in the present. She loves Punxy, its simple people, and Groundhog Day itself with its funny hats, balloons, and ice sculptures.

The contrast between Phil and Rita is wonderfully expressed in their rousing duet “If I Had My Time Again.” Phil’s part is focused on the superficial, and he’d do it all over again.  Rita would make great changes in her life. Phil has spent his life focused on eating, drinking, sex, violence and money. He’d like to sleep with 90% of the women he meets. He’s stolen $18 million dollars, started 700 fights, and once masturbated seven times in a row. If he could, he’d eat a dozen donuts at a time without knowing why. And he’s spent endless nights contemplating different ways of committing suicide.

Rita, on the other hand, is focused on growth and change. Sure, she’s made mistakes, but she’d like to set them all right. If she could live her young life over, she’d take the road less trodden. She’d fulfill neglected desires, study math, send unsent letters, learn piano, and make more friends. She’d also punch a lot of men.

The reason for the latter is embodied in her relationship with Connors. For two-thirds of the play, he tries to bed Rita using all the ruses familiar to men (and women!). He flatters and even feigns interest in French literature. But Rita resists each time and actually does punch Phil at one point. She’s intent on not being like Nancy, Rita’s own foil.

Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry)  is the Punxy girl we meet at the beginning of Act II. She has come to terms with the world shaped by men – men like Phil Connors. Nancy is pretty and, as she confesses, looks good in tight jeans and low-cut tops. But, like Rita, even she wants to be more than a sex object. She wants to be more than the role men expect from women. But she’s given up trying. She says all of that beautifully in her wistful “Playing Nancy.” Listen for yourself.

As it turns out, Rita outlasts Phil. And here’s where his spiritual conversion comes in.

Realizing that the present moment is all that he has, Phil at first concludes that his actions have no consequences; after all there is no future. He’s free to do anything he wants. So he continues doing what he’s always done, only with greater abandon. More sex, drinking, anger, and violence.

Then, however, comes the inevitable. The meaninglessness of it all becomes so clear that suicide makes more sense than ever. So Phil puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Ironically, however, that’s the key.  As Buddhists would put it; Connors saves himself by dying before he dies. That’s necessary, he realizes, before he can resurrect – as he himself puts it, “Like you know who.”

His resurrection makes Connors discover his own divinity. He realizes that in fact he is God. The awareness makes him so sensitive to his unity with others that he becomes as familiar with the details of their lives as if they were his own – because they are his own. So he knows what they’re thinking and everything they’ve done with their lives. He perceives it all in God’s eternal Now where everything is happening simultaneously – where there is no past or future. Here’s the way Bill Murray expresses the consequent power in the movie.

In this way, like Dickens’ Scrooge, Connors transforms before our eyes. He exchanges his cynicism for cheerfulness, shares his money generously, changes tires for strangers, takes care of the homeless and dying. He falls in love with Rita’s person, not just her body.

As a result, winter’s bleakness ends for this human Punxsutawney Phil. He’s released from the rodent-like behavioral patterns that previously imprisoned him. He’s finally free to exit Punxy. Ironically, though, he chooses not to. He and Rita decide to remain in the small town he previously despised. They end up on a park bench simply watching the sunrise.

The play’s bottom line?

  • Time and space are figments of the imagination.
  • Small town life can be every bit as meaningful as in the big city.
  • So when and where I live is completely relative.
  • My own life can make a difference for others if it is focused on the present rather than the past or future.
  • Putting the needs of others first provides exit from self-centered and destructive behavioral patterns.
  • That’s what life is for.
  • It’s the path to realizing (making real) the divine nature all of us share.

Of course, all of that sounds platitudinous, doesn’t it? A lot of it is what we learned in Sunday School. But Groundhog Day: The Musical makes us realize it’s all true. And it does so far more effectively than most Sunday sermons I’ve heard.

I’m glad I took it in. Church can wait.