Thursday, February 24, 2022

African American Film History Month: Red Hook Summer

Red Hook Summer

By almost any criteria, Spike Lee is the most successful African American filmmaker, past or present. Financially, he's made films in the $100 million dollar club. His films have won Oscars, BAFTAs, Peabodys, and the Cannes Grand Prix. He’s won Emmys for his work in television. Four of his films have been chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry. His production company (40 Acres and a Mule) has made dozens of films, and since he’s acted in many of his films and in many TV commercials (often with Michael Jordan), he’s widely known in popular culture. Most importantly for this blog, he's made movies with ministers and churches -- such as 2012’s Red Hook Summer.

The film is about a young teen named Flik (Jules Brown) who comes from Atlanta to Brooklyn to spend the summer with a grandfather he's never met. Flik brings his computer tablet with him and uses it to film the world around him. Since Lee himself grew up in Atlanta and his family moved to Brooklyn, it's not hard to imagine that the writer/director saw himself in the character. “Flik” is not too far removed from “Spike” as a nickname.

Flik's grandfather is a minister, “Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse” (Clarke Peters). There's a Jesus fish on the front door, an “I ‘Heart’ Jesus” magnet on the fridge, and no TV set in the house. The latter concerns Flik greatly. Flik learns he will be spending most of his summer at the “Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook” where his grandfather is the pastor.

At the church, Flik meets Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) who also serves as janitor of the church. Zee doesn’t hide his love for the bottle or his concerns about the financial solvency of the church, telling the pastor in Flik’s presence, “We owe $6000 on last year’s heating bill, the church van is broke again, the roof is about to go and the plumbing down here would give the Roto-Rooter man the mumps.” Bishop Rouse assures the deacon that God has shown him in a dream that a big donor will be coming their way to deal with the church’s financial troubles.

Flik also meets a girl his age named Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), whose company makes life at his grandfather’s much more tolerable. Besides that, his grandfather assures him that the neighborhood will be good for him, “Red Hook is a window to the world, there is no better place to see God’s creation.”

Enoch preaches both about societal problems and about Jesus. He preaches against teen pregnancy and rap music, but he also preaches about the hope found in Jesus. His congregation and the community do seem to have confidence in him. 

Until one day when a strange man comes into the church in the middle of a service. The pastor hopes it is the man from his dream with a big check to save the church from its financial woes, but it’s not. This man knew the pastor years before. When the man was a young boy, Enoch sexually abused him. The man makes those accusations before the congregation.

The pastor admits it is all true. His previous congregation had given money to the family of the boy he molested to cover it all up, and Enoch then left that congregation in the south and came to Brooklyn. 

Upon learning about this, the congregation in Brooklyn turns against him. They allow thugs in the neighborhood to beat the pastor up, and Flik returns to his parents in Atlanta.

It's not hard for people to understand Box (Nate Parker), the young thug in the film who beats up the pastor. Many people find murder more understandable and forgivable than the sexual abuse of minors. It's one of the most heart-wrenching problems in the Church.

This abuse of power has been one of the greatest sources of harm I've seen in the church. Many have left the church because of such abuses. It is difficult to see such abusers as being worthy of life, let alone redemption.

I’ve come to look at things a little differently in my current job. The mission where I work is one of the few recovery programs in the area that takes sexual offenders. These men were abused themselves, usually when they were young. Many of them have still done very horrible things.

I believe these men deserve a chance at redemption because my understanding of Scripture is that Jesus died for everyone (II Cor. 5:15). It is God’s desire that all should know His grace -- but not everyone should have a place of leadership in a church. I Timothy 2 gives a list of qualifications for leadership that includes such qualities as being “above reproach… temperate… self-controlled… not violent but gentle…” Not everyone is called to leadership in the church or to the pastorate. Those who commit certain sins and acts should never be allowed to take certain roles of responsibility in the church. The Good Doctor Bishop Enoch Rouse should never have taken a role as pastor again.

Therefore, Rouse receives our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

One last note about this film. Spike Lee not only wrote and directed this film; he also plays a role. He plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man -- the same role he played in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. For those who have seen that film, he still works for Sal.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

African American Film Month -- Nothing But a Man

Nothing But a Man

Though it's not written or directed by African American filmmakers, 1964’s Nothing But a Man has an important place in the history of African American films.

The film’s director, Michael Roemer, was born into a poor Jewish household in Berlin in 1928. His father had trouble getting work due to antisemitism, and as an 11-year-old he was forced to flee Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport. He said he drew on his experiences in Germany in his approach to the experiences of blacks in the South in the 1960s.

Roemer wrote the screenplay with the help of Robert M. Young (a documentary filmmaker, not Marcus Welby, M.D.) The two men spent time in the rural South, going from community to community, black family to black family. As Jewish men from New York City, they were welcomed by local whites (they were, in fact, warned that their food might be poisoned.)

Roemer said he learned much from James Bevel, an African American minister. Bevel was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Bevel hosted Roemer in his home in Greenwood, Mississippi, where Roemer and Young came up with the plot of the film. They returned to New York and wrote the script in six weeks.

It was difficult to cast for the film. At that time, not many African Americans were cast on Broadway or in films or television, so the search was more difficult. The lead role of Duff Anderson was played by Ivan Dixon, who had been in an episode of The Defenders -- not a good episode, but it got him an audition which he aced.

Abbey Lincoln, as Josie, made her acting debut in this film. She was already a successful jazz singer and had been politically active in the Civil Rights movement. Julius Harris, who played Duff’s father, Will, also made his acting debut in the film. He had been working as a nurse. Stanley Greene, playing Josie’s father, the Reverend Dawson, had a number of acting credits before this film and continued to work. The actor in the film who went on to have the biggest career was Yaphet Kotto, who made his screen debut in the role of Duff’s friend, Jocko.

Most films by white filmmakers about the African American experience before Nothing But a Man focused on white characters as well. Films like To Kill a Mockingbird usually featured some kind of white savior. But the few white characters in this film play minor roles, and most are racists making life more difficult for Duff. Still, the film is nuanced enough that none of the characters are all good or all bad.

Fortunately for the sake of this blog, there is a church and a clergyman in this film. Josie’s father is a preacher of prominence in his community. He’s not a bad guy, but he is certainly flawed.

The film opens with Duff Anderson laboring alongside the rest of the section gang on a railroad near Birmingham, Alabama. One night he decides to visit an evening service at a church in a small town. He obviously enjoys the gospel choir (“Precious Lord, Take My Hand”) and the fried chicken at the potluck -- and he's attracted to the young woman who serves his plate of chicken. She asks him whether he’ll be staying around for more of the preaching, but he says he’s never cared much for hell talk. He asks if she'll be sticking around. She tells him that she is the pastor’s daughter, so yes, she’ll be staying for more of the preaching. When Duff asks whether she’d be willing to go out some other night, she agrees.

He takes her to a honky tonk, where they dance (but she limits herself to drinking near-beer). She agrees to go out with him again, but the next date would be on her parents’ front porch. They park for a bit and talk -- and are approached by a couple of white men with flashlights who seem disappointed not to find the couple physically engaged. Their flashlight shines chiefly on Josie, and they seem to be checking out her figure. Duff is visibly angry, but one of the men says, “That’s the preacher’s girl. Mess with him and you got Old Man Johnson on your back.” And they leave. 

We find out who “Old Man Johnson” is when Duff visits the Dawson home. Josie introduces Duff to her parents and Mr. Johnson, the white head of the local school board, who is on his way out after a visit with the Rev. Dawson.

After Johnson leaves, the pastor tells Duff, “It’s hard to know how to talk to the white folks these days, but it looks like we’ll be getting our new school.” Duff asks why the black students can’t go to the white school, and Dawson responds, “We haven’t had trouble in this town for eight years, and we’re not going to start now.”

The Reverend asks Duff if he’s a churchgoer, and Duff tells the preacher, “It seems like we colored folks do a lot of church-going, but it’s the white folks who need it.”

When Josie leaves the room, the reverend tells Duff that they don’t want him hanging out with their daughter.

Duff tells Josie he thinks her father is a bigot. And that he isn’t about to follow his demands, assuming Josie will still see him. She agrees to keep seeing Duff.

In time, Josie agrees to marry Duff. For Duff, this will mean quitting his well-paying, but itinerant, job with the railroad. They have a small church wedding and the Reverend Dawson does officiate at the ceremony.

They find a small house to rent, with a deposit paid by Josie’s salary as a teacher. They notice a man across the way sitting on his porch, and Duff comments, “I hate seeing a man like that sitting on his porch all his life. I’ve seen hundreds of them.” 

Josie responds, “My father’s never done a thing for them.”

Duff has a hard time finding work; most places won’t pay blacks well and also most don’t treat their employees with respect.

Reverend Dawson encourages Duff to try harder to get along with his white employers. “I know how you feel son, but you’re doing it the wrong way. Use some psychology, make them think you’re going along and you can get your own way… Maybe you’d be better off in the North.”

Duff tells him, “Seems to me, Reverend, you just don’t want me around, people seeing me as your son-in-law. You are just looking out for yourself. You’ve been stooping so long, you don’t know how to stand up straight. Seems to me you’re half a man.”

In spite of this response, Josie’s father gets Duff a job at a local service station, but Duff loses the job when he won’t allow himself to be disrespected by the customers.

Josie tries to show Duff understanding, but he lashes out at her. He tells her she’s had an easy life and doesn’t know what he and other men like him go through. Eventually, the two reconcile, telling each other they’ll make it somehow.

It’s a powerful film partly because there is no assured happy ending, though it does end with some hope.

The film was warmly received at the Venice Film Festival in 1964 but then didn’t get much of a release. It wasn’t until 1993 that the film received a national release with a new print, and it was critically lauded. Some appreciated the film earlier. 

Julius Harris, who played Duff’s father, encountered Malcolm X in 1965. “You’re in Nothing But a Man,” X said, and expressed admiration for the film.

I’m afraid I can’t give too high a score for Rev. Dawson and his church, though. They had a fine Gospel choir and good potluck food, but the Reverend was a man of compromise and a judgmental attitude. I’m afraid Two Movie Churches Steeples is the best I can do.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

African American Film History Month -- The Heart is a Rebel

The Heart Is a Rebel

Most film buffs could tell you the first African American actress nominated for an Oscar because she's also the first African American person to win an acting Oscar (Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind), but do you know the second African American person nominated for an Oscar? That would be Ethel Waters for 1949’s Pinky.

Waters would have been remembered if she had pursued only a musical career, with hits such as “Stormy Weather,” “Am I Blue?”, and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She earned a place in the Gospel Hall of Fame and the Christian Music Hall of Fame. She even got her own stamp from the U.S. Postal Service in 1994.

She played herself in On the With the Show (1929), her first film. Her first role portraying a character other than herself was in a short, Rufus Jones for President (1933), playing the mother of young Rufus Jones (Sammy Davis Jr.). In 1939, she became the first African American to star in her own television series, The Ethel Waters Show. In 1950, she starred in a prime-time show, Beulah.

Her memorable career meant that by starring in The Heart Is a Rebel (produced by World Wide Pictures, Billy Graham’s production company), she drew attention to the film as a true star, with top billing. The picture was therefore big-time show business, which is especially interesting because one of the themes of the film is whether Billy Graham’s crusades are just a big show.

Waters plays Gladys, the nurse of a sick boy named Davy (Scotty Morrow). (As was common for African American actors at the time, most of her film roles were playing domestic workers.) Davy’s parents, Joan (Georgia Lee) and Hal Foster (John Milford), are pleased with Gladys’ care for their child but are concerned she is pushing her religion on him. Gladys has given Davy a book of Bible stories (which Davy deems “swell”) Hal refers to her “religious mumbo jumbo”.

When Davy’s doctor suggests prayer as part of the treatment for his heart malady, Joan keeps thinking about it. While walking near her workplace, she sees a church with a sign reading, “You are invited to enter this beautiful church to rest and to pray.” She goes inside, and when she goes home, she talks to Gladys about it.

“The last time I was inside a church was before Davy was born. We went to an Easter service -- or was it Christmas? People come into the church with that tight expression on their faces but they go out with an expression of peace. As if they’ve found a source of strength outside of themselves,” she tells Gladys.  But Joan doesn’t feel like she can pray.

Gladys will be singing a solo at the Billy Graham Crusade that very night in Madison Square Garden. (Usually, the soloists at the Graham Crusades were famous artists like, well, Ethel Waters. But that night they were inviting a child’s nurse to do the solo.)

Joan decides to go. She tries to persuade her husband Hal to go with her, but Hal demurs because he's working on a big advertising campaign his boss is pressuring him to complete. (In my study of movies and television in the ’50s and ‘60s, at least one-third of all men worked in advertising. Another third worked in architecture, while the remainder mostly drove buses or taxis or were factory workers.) Hal advises Joan, “You catch Gladys’ big moment, just duck out before the fire and brimstone begins to fall.”

The Crusade at Madison Garden is packed and yet Joan, coming late, finds a seat toward the front of the stands (Good job, ushers!). She listens to the choir and a solo by George Beverly Shea, and then Gladys’ solo -- but she also sticks around for Billy Graham’s message.

The film gives a fair deal of uninterrupted screen time for Graham’s sermon. He preaches, “You can become a partaker of God’s new life… It doesn’t mean when you come to Christ you will have no new troubles… the Christian will come into conflict with the world…

"God says 'I’m willing to forgive your sin… But first you must repent'… There must be a willingness to turn from sin…By faith you must receive Christ into your heart.”

And Joan does receive Jesus as her Lord and Savior, walking forward to the strains of “Just As I Am.” When she returns home, she tries to tell Hal about her experience, but he doesn’t have time to talk. He can't stop working to listen to her because, he says, “I’m really on to something.”

He really is on to something, because when he turns his new campaign over to his boss, and his boss shows the campaign to his client, the client is thrilled. So the boss invites the client over to Hal and Joan’s house for drinks that very night. (This kind of thing happened on the TV show, Bewitched, all the time, and I didn't understand it then, either.)

The client, Alfred Carlson (Kenneth McDonald), brings his wife (Madge Blake, Aunt Harriet from the Batman TV show) to the Fosters', along with various people from the agency, including Hal’s friend, Bill (Alvy Moore, Hank Kimball from the TV show Green Acres). Gladys helps prepare the hors d'oeuvres, commenting to Joan, “How can people call tidbits like this food? They’re just teasing their stomachs.”

The party conversation turns to the Crusade at Madison Square Garden, which has been going on for weeks. Mr. Carlson says, “The Crusade is a well-organized campaign. They have a foolproof product, and they know how to sell it. The man has a script and he knows how to sell it.”

One of the other guests says, “Most of his followers are the unstable sort. In six months' time, everyone will wonder what the fuss was about.”

Joan is silent until someone asks her opinion. She tells the group she went to the Crusade the previous night. “Last night I discovered I was completely ignorant about what Christianity really is about. As Mr. Graham talked, I felt a need for a personal savior. I went forward. I found myself with others looking to accept Christ.”

An awkward silence ensues, and Mr. Carlson, along with all the other guests, announces they really must be going. Hal is quite obviously angry. Before Bill leaves, though, he tells Hal he should be proud of his wife’s courage. Hal is not proud of his wife’s courage.

Hal berates his wife for ruining his career by talking about religion in front of his boss and the client. But Hal’s career is not ruined. He continues to do quite well, receiving promotion after promotion.

One day, Hal comes to Joan’s work to tell her that they are finally in a financial situation where they can properly care for Davy. They can afford the specialist his doctor had been advising. He says Joan can stop depending on religion as a crutch, but Joan tells Hal her faith is real and not a fantasy.

As they talk, Joan receives a phone call. Gladys is calling from the hospital because Davy had taken a turn for the worse. Hal and Joan go to the hospital. Davy’s doctor tells the parents that the boy must go in for heart surgery immediately. During the operation, Joan hears Hal pray that God would save their son.

The doctor comes out and tells the parents and Gladys that the surgery went better than expected. They can expect full recovery for Davy.

Joan suggests to Gladys and Hal they should thank God for saving Davy, but Hal says he has no time for that, he has to go back to work. Joan reprimands Hal for his hypocrisy, since not long before he was pleading to God for their son.

Hal doesn’t go to work. He goes to a bar where he is joined by his friend, Bill. And Hal drinks to the point that the bartender threatens to cut him off.
The television is playing behind the bar and Billy Graham comes on the screen. The bartender says, “There’s a showman.” 

Graham says, “I’m going to ask you to surrender to that little voice because that voice is the Spirit of God.” 

Hal is quite obviously moved, but the bartender says, “Sorry, Hal, I’m going to have to change the channel, that preacher makes customers uncomfortable.”

Hal goes to Davy’s room at the hospital to find the boy alert and in the company of Joan and Gladys. He apologizes to his wife for how he’s behaved. “I’m going to change that,” he says, “With God’s help. I need so much help. I don’t know how to take the first step.”

“You already have, darling,” Joan says. The film ends with a close-up of Gladys looking skyward.

The film is corny as can be, but it does capture a moment when a man like Billy Graham could go to a large city and really make an impact with one of his Crusades. Graham made his missteps in life (defending President Nixon chief among them), but his life was characterized by integrity and faithfulness to the message of the Gospel. So we’re giving Billy Graham and his sixteen-week Madison Square Garden Crusade our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

African American Film History Month: Body and Soul

Body and Soul

Some people have a few more accomplishments than others. Paul Robeson went to Rutgers University on an academic scholarship and was named the class valedictorian. He was also playing football and was twice named to the All-American team. He went on to play for the National Football League while earning his Bachelor's of Law -- but he isn’t remembered as a football player or a lawyer. Instead, he's remembered as an actor, singer, and political activist.

He received acclaim in productions of Othello, Show Boat, and The Emperor Jones on Broadway and in Europe. He recorded spirituals; he often gave profits from the sale of those recordings to charity. He advocated for civil rights for blacks in the United States and the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, but he got into trouble when he supported the Soviet Union, gaining the interest of the F.B.I. He lost his passport but gained it back when his case went to the Supreme Court.

His life was, you might say, eventful.

He was also a movie star. His first film role, the starring role, was for the pioneering African American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. In 1925’s Body and Soul (a silent film, of course), Robeson plays an escaped prisoner who disguises himself as the Right Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins, who comes to a small town and pastors a small congregation with the intention of swindling them out of their funds.

In the meantime, he finds plenty of nefarious activities. He goes to a local bar, enjoys the good liquor, and asks the owner for a “contribution.” 

“I’ve laid off preaching about this house of hell," he says, "but that may change soon.” 

He cheats and steals wherever there’s an opportunity, but the people of the congregation all think he’s wonderful -- all but beautiful young Isabelle Perkins. The “Reverend” falls for Isabelle, to the delight of Isabelle’s mother, Martha Jane, one of the most faithful in the congregation.

Isabelle is not interested in the “Reverend,” but is in love with Isaiah’s brother, Sylvester (also played by Robeson). When Isabelle refuses the fraud’s advances, he rapes her. He then steals Isabelle’s mother’s savings. 

Knowing her mother won’t believe the pastor stole the funds, Isabelle takes the blame herself (I don’t claim to understand this plot development). Isabelle flees to Atlanta and becomes ill. Her mother follows her, and before she dies, Isabelle tells her mother the true story. Martha Jane returns to her church and confronts the pastor in front of the congregation.

Turns out (Spoiler!) it was all a dream. Martha Jane wakes up to find Isabelle is fine and going to marry Sylvester.

We won’t give the Rev. Jenkins a steeple rating because he wasn’t a real pastor, The church gets a two steeple rating for its gullibility.

The film was entered in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2019, primarily for being Paul Robeson's film debut.