Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Something the Lord Made

Even though this movie was recommended by a normally reliable source, I can't say that I had terribly high expectations of it--at least not after looking at the back matter. An HBO film? With, well, Mos Def?

I mean, I thought it would be "loosely based" and formulaic (like Remember the Titans or some such), with stupid dialogue and trite sermonizing. But, I thought, at least it would deal with "important issues" or something, so it would be worth watching.

It was none of the things I had thought.

Well, yes, it dealt with "important issues" (see here for the historical background), but so gently and subtly that it didn't feel like an "important issues" movie.

It was not at all formulaic, either. And the dialogue was restrained, well-written, appropriate.

And Mos Def did an outstanding job. His Vivien Thomas was gentle, subtle, restrained, yet completely compelling.

I keep using those words--gentle, subtle, restrained. That's how I would characterize the whole movie, actually. With the exception of Alan Rickman's southern accent (which is about as successful as Kevin Costner's British accent in Robin Hood), nothing was larger-than-life or overdone. It felt real--no small feat for a movie portraying incidents of another era, one with high probability for emotionalism and sermonizing.

If I had one negative thought about the movie, though, it was that Vivien Thomas was a rather "safe" black hero. He was a man who suffered quietly the insults he was offered more often than not, who accepted with gratitude the recognition he was finally given (decades late and still fairly inadequate), and who cared more about the life-saving work he was doing than what he had to endure to do it--or how his using his gifts benefitted and enriched everyone but himself.

Yes, his character is a shining example of Christ-like virtue (patient suffering and self-giving in the face of others' vainglorious pursuit of "success"), but he may have been rather too easy on Blalock and Johns Hopkins--and, by extension, us. It was too easy for Blalock to enjoy the material and societal benefits of his association with Thomas (who enjoyed only the moral satisfaction of his work), and to atone for it at the end of his life with the recognition that "I have some regrets."

And too easy for us. As James Cone supposedly said at a recent AAR conference (I'm getting this third-hand, so my apologies if I'm getting the story wrong), "You white theologians always wanna talk about Martin. When are you gonna talk about Malcolm?" If our pantheon of civil rights saints is limited to figures like Vivien Thomas and, yes, even MLK, we (white America) are letting ourselves off rather too easily.

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