Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Dead Man Walking (1995)

Years ago, I worked at a video store...back when people had to lead barbaric lives and actually leave their homes to get their entertainment.  One of my co-workers was a young college-age woman who worked at the store during the summers when she wasn't attending a strict Christian college.  I say "strict" because she told me the college made incoming freshmen sign pledges that they wouldn't watch any films rated 'R' or beyond.

Nevermind the fact that the college had no reasonable way to enforce this policy, and should a student be caught watching these evil 'R' movies, I'm sure no one was expelled as that would mean the loss of tuition.  Still, this co-worker, being a devout, obedient Christian, took the pledge seriously and would not watch any rated-R movies.  This obviously made working with her very interesting as she was limited in her film knowledge - a serious detriment when working at a video store.  And, forget about even touching the porno tapes, not even to simply put them back on the shelves when returned to the store.

Of course, this begs the question why she was working at a video store in the first place, but that's another issue altogether.

After closing one night, we got into a discussion along with another co-worker about her college's ban on R-rated films.  She firmly held that it was a Christian's duty to avoid sin and temptation, which included the avoidance of hearing the foul language and seeing the excessive violence and nudity in films.

"That's all well and good," I remember saying to her.  "But, staying away from R-rated films alone isn't going to help with that."

Our discussion then veered into how the rating system worked and how the arbitrary and political nature of the rating process made a film's designation as PG, PG-13, etc. barely a reliable suggestion of its content let alone provide a viable guideline on which to base any belief or policy.  I advocated for an analytical approach via research to educate oneself on a movie's content, rather than dismiss it outright due to the rating that some unknown group of individuals had assigned it.  And, offending her a little, I called her college's No R-movies policy a prime example of "bureaucratic lazy-mindedness" that "stifled critical thinking in an effort to spur mindless adherence to a prescribed dogma rather than a true exploration of spirituality and faith."

Yeah, I wasn't very diplomatic as a young man.

The movie I brought up as support for my ideas was Dead Man Walking.  Rated R due to a brief scene of violence, which included rape and murder, the film takes a long, hard look at the death penalty through the eyes of Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun in Louisiana.  Although the film does ultimately side against the death penalty, it does so by unflinchingly and respectfully considering the nature of violent crime and the effects it has on the families of the victims.  It also provides one of the most positive and compelling portraits of a Christian I have ever seen on film.

In Sister Helen, I got to experience a rare film first: at the height of the conflict, as she stands in a prison just hours before the execution of the young man she is counseling and facing the coldly calculated process of government-sponsored killing, she goes to the bathroom and prays.  No big speech.  No scenes of her barging into some room to confront her adversaries.  She simply finds some privacy and quietly prays for strength to get through the experience and do what is right.

This scene is the culmination of Sister Helen's journey through a minefield of conflict among political ideologies, religious beliefs, and genuine suffering with only her faith and desire to follow the example of Jesus to guide her.  Sister Helen never has a huge epiphany or validation of her faith, but she does find the strength she asks for and is rewarded by being able to see the humanity in an individual whose past actions would label him as a soulless animal.

More importantly, through Sister Helen, the film shows that love doesn't take sides or withhold itself from one in favor of another.  Sister Helen is able to have genuine love for Matthew Poncelet, the young man sentenced to die for his violent actions, as well for the families suffering tremendous pain from the loss of their children.  And, through her, a small glimmer of hope emerges, at least for one of the fathers, of possibly finding a way through the hatred and finally to some peace.

Dead Man Walking accomplishes all this without offering tidy answers to very complicated questions or simple resolutions to dire problems.  The film doesn't merely say that killing is wrong.  Instead, it examines the real causes and ramifications of violence.  And, it suggests that spiritual healing is possible in time through love and support.

The idea that a college would bar its students from seeing such a powerful film that embraces some core Christian values simply because of its rating baffles me to no end.  The point I tried to make to my co-worker was that Dead Man Walking could inspire rich discussion among Christian college students about what it means to live by Christian ideals in the modern world, a major theme explored in the movie.  And, I expressed my dismay that a college, an institution for learning, would deny its students that opportunity.

It was all to no avail.  At least at that time.  She was more interested in an easy road of mindless obedience with no expectation of rational thought or critical thinking.  No doubt the simple and empty platitudes offered by films like God's Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real would be more appealing to her and those like her.  Those movies provide quick, nice little answers to questions about the existence of God and the afterlife.  They don't require any deep thought and certainly don't leave room for the messiness of discussion and debate.  And, above all, they don't suggest that living the principles of a faith, particularly the Christian faith, requires diligence and hard work and sometimes risks.

But, those two movies are rated PG.  So that must make them good films.


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