Friday, February 10, 2017

Black Movie Churches Month: Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country (1995)
The voice of a preacher can make a difference. A droning monotone can put people to sleep. A nasal tone or a squeaky voice might keep people from taking the message seriously. Who could listen every week (without laughing) to the Impressive Clergyman with a lisp from The Princess Bride or the malaprop laden liturgy of Father Gerald from Four Weddings and a Funeral? How much better if a preacher is gifted with a rich, deep tones, a voice of dignity. Say, the voice of James Earl Jones. Yes, imagine the voice of Darth Vader, Mufasa, and “This is CNN” reading Scripture.

Jones plays the Reverend Stephen Kumalo in 1995’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the second film version of the acclaimed 1948 novel by Alan Paton. (The first version was made in 1951 featuring an early performance by Sidney Poitier.) The novel was written at the same time that the formal policy of apartheid was being established, but blacks of South Africa were already being treated quite poorly. This version of the film was made just as the policy of apartheid was ended in 1994.

Rev. Kumalo is the pastor of a small congregation in rural South Africa. As the film opens, a young child brings a letter to the pastor. Before opening the letter, the pastor has his wife feed the child. The letter waits even longer until his wife finally opens it to find that the letter is from another pastor who urges Kumalo to come and help his ailing sister in Johannesburg.

Kumalo’s rural church is a humble place, decorated by a simple wooden cross. The pastor has a simple home. Nevertheless, all in his community seem to treat him with reverence and respect, referring to him as “umfundisi,” the Zulu word for pastor. Even the white people in his community seem to respect him. You can see why he hesitates to leave this relatively safe place for the big city, but he must go because not only is his sister in Johannesburg, but also his son, Absalom. (It is baffling why any minister would give his son such a name, the name of King David’s rebellious though beloved son.)

Kumalo is welcomed into a mission home by a group of clergy, with both black and white pastors dwelling together, dining together. These pastors obviously greatly respect the Reverend Kumalo and his ministry. He also finds his brother, who greets him much less warmly. His brother believes the church has done nothing for the blacks of South Africa, and that politics provide the only hope for blacks of the nation. (It is interesting that two of the greatest opponents of apartheid, men who helped bring it to an end, were a politician, Nelson Mandela and a clergyman, Bishop Desmond Tutu.)

We see another side of Kumalo when he finds his sister, Gertrude. He discovers she has become a prostitute and a seller of liquor. He goes into a tirade, screaming at her as a harlot. But others calm him, and Kumalo eventually urges her to go back to the country with her son. At another time in the film we see another flaw in the pastor’s character: we learn of a time in his life when he considered having an affair. He fasted and prayed and withstood temptation and maintained a long and faithful relationship with his wife.

The real test of the pastor’s faith is when he learns that his son has been arrested for the murder of a white man during a botched robbery. Even worse, the man killed was had worked for the rights of blacks of South Africa. The pastor tries to fight for his son, but he also cares for the father of the victim.

So the pastor tries to care for both his son and those who suffered from the crimes of his son. He ministers to the woman who is pregnant with his child. He brings the woman to prison so his son can marry her, preventing the child’s illegitimacy. He does all he can to save his son’s life.

But he also reaches out the father of the man killed, James Jarvis (played by the great actor Richard Harris). He visits Jarvis, a rich and powerful man in his community, to confess that his son did the killing. The pastor expresses great sorrow for Jarvis’ loss, and Jarvis eventually accepts his kindness, giving a gift to the pastor’s church in his son’s honor.

So we’re giving the Reverend Kumalo our highest rating of four steeples (admitting that one steeple is probably due to James Earl Jones’ magnificent voice).

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