Arts and Culture

Nominated Films Raise Questions of Conscience

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in “The Green Book.” Father Lauder predicts Mortensen will be nominated for an Academy Award. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Universal Studios) 

Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I have long been interested in film. When I was in grammar school and high school, I loved all types of movies. When I moved on to college, I became interested in serious films. I also developed a strong interest in foreign films by directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer and Robert Bresson.

The Academy Awards will be distributed Feb. 24. This year I’m especially interested because of a wonderful movie-going experience I had during the fall. Every year I participate in a show on NET-TV devoted to the Academy Awards and so I try to see as many of the nominated films as possible.

Because the nominations were not announced until Jan. 22, I had to guess which films might be nominated and try to see those films. My guesses were so good that they led me to see five terrific films: “The Hate That You Give,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “The Green Book,” “Roma” and “BlacKkKlansman.”

 Adam Driver and John David Washington in a scene from the movie “BlacKkKlansman.” (Photo: Catholic News Service/Focus Features) 

I don’t recall ever having an experience of seeing so many really wonderful films in such a short period of time. All five of the films dealt with racial prejudice in some way. Two of the films I picked were not nominated, but the other three were.

I have no idea why “The Hate That You Give” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” were not nominated. The depiction they give of racial prejudice is so powerful that I would never ask people who saw these two films whether they enjoyed the films. Somehow the word “enjoy” does not seem to fit in the same sentence with these two films. I might ask them if they agree with me that the two films are special, extraordinary works of art that powerfully portray the sin of racism. I might even ask them if they were uncomfortable while watching the films. I know I was.

I would never say that I “enjoyed” the two films, but I hope I appreciated them. I know they stayed with me after I left the theatre. The films are such exceptional works of art that I think, indeed I hope, that they will challenge the consciences of those who experience them. I know I felt challenged.

I went to see “The Green Book” with several friends. About 15 minutes into the film, I whispered to the friend sitting next to me that the film’s star, Viggo Mortensen, will be nominated for an Academy Award. Of course, he was. It is a great part and Mortensen plays it beautifully. Though there is much humor in his portrayal, I don’t think Mortensen’s acting goes over the top. The humor, besides adding to the enjoyment of the film, also unveils different levels of the character’s personality. That the film is ultimately a “feel-good movie” does not detract from its depiction of racism or from its message about the transforming power of friendship.

“Roma” is an excellent film and the type that critics love. I found it demanding, but well worth any effort I made to enter into an appreciation of the relationships that the film explores so beautifully. Every minute of the film seems to serve the role of a small piece contributing to a great, beautiful mosaic. I am thinking of one scene early in the film that first struck me as pointless, but later fit beautifully into what director Cuaron wanted to say.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in a scene from the movie “The Favourite.” (Photo: Catholic News Service/Fox) 

There is one scene of frontal male nudity. A friend of mine found it offensive and asked if I thought the scene was necessary. I think questioning the scene’s “necessity” is the wrong question. I suggest the better question would be does it fit into the film and advance the story intelligently. I think it does but I can understand why others might find the scene objectionable.

At the time that I am writing this column the two favorites to win the Academy Award as the best film are “Roma” and “The Favourite,” a film which I have not yet seen. I suspect that “Roma” will win but I am hoping that “BlacKkKlansman” wins. Directed by Spike Lee, this may be the best of all the anti-racism films that have appeared this year. I cannot imagine a racist sitting through a viewing of this film. How could a racist face the terrible truths about the sin of racism that Lee brilliantly exposes? Wouldn’t the experience be too painful?

Writing this column has raised some important questions for my conscience. Am I seeing the sin of racism in others but giving myself a clean pass?

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV

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