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Culture Watch

'Little White Lie' — Untangling Family Secrets, Finding New Identity

The Schwartzs seemed like any other Jewish family in Woodstock, N.Y. except for one thing: Mom and Dad were obviously white, and their daughter Lacey was obviously not.

That racial disconnect would be easier to fathom if Peggy and Robert Schwartz hadn't had everyone believing their dark-skinned daughter was the biological child of both parents.

It would take Little White Lie, the film an adult Lacey made about family secrets and religious identity, to unpack this mystery.

“I grew up in a world of synagogue, Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs,” Schwartz narrates over a home movie montage of Jewish holiday celebrations and her own bat mitzvah.

“So it never occurred to me that I was passing,” she continues.

“I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t. I actually grew up believing I was white.”

Little White Lie, which has enjoyed success on the film festival circuit and will reach a larger audience when PBS’s Independent Lens airs it on March 23, revolves around a flabbergasting central question: How could this family pretend that she owed her complexion to the genes of dad’s darkest Italian ancestor?

Schwartz said she wants the film to model how people can face up to family secrets and move on with their lives. In her case, the secret was her mother’s affair with a black man.

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'Merchants of Doubt' Dismantles Climate 'Skeptics' Spin But Misses Chance to Build Bridges

In one scene in the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, explains what he thinks is the underlying factor behind climate change skepticism.

“It isn’t about the science,” Shermer, a libertarian and former skeptic who came around on the issue in 2006, tells director Robert Kenner.

“It’s about me being a consistent team member; showing the members of my tribe that you can count on me.”

Tribalism is an important part of the equation. But Kenner, whose previous film was the well-regarded Food, Inc., believes corporate spin is just as much to blame.

Merchants of Doubt aims to show viewers how the same PR tactics that kept the tobacco industry thriving for decades are now being used to encourage climate change skepticism and denial. While the film does important work in helping audiences understand how paid representatives spread misinformation, it doesn’t do enough to address the tribalism that may keep the film’s most necessary audiences from seeing it.

READ Sojourners' interview with Merchants of Doubt Director Robert Kenner here.

To his credit, Kenner does an excellent job at making the subject matter appealing. He uses the framework of close-up magic as a metaphor for the way PR representatives work to cover up industry-damaging facts, first for tobacco, and then for coal, oil, and other clients. He interviews journalists, scientists, and lobbyists whose stories are at once fascinating and infuriating. There are even some sources, like conservative former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who manage to help the film build bridges with audiences whose tribal identity might require them to skew towards climate skepticism.

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Merchant of 'Doubt:' Robert Kenner, Director of 'Food, Inc.,' Has a New Film on Corporate Spin. Here's What He Says About It.

Robert Kenner is the director of the new corporate spin documentary Merchants of Doubt, now in theaters. The film explores how representatives of large industries create doubt on contentious issues like climate change by presenting themselves to the media as independent researchers. Kenner’s previous film, Food Inc., examined similarly sticky issues of truth and transparency in the food industry. Sojourners sat down with Robert Kenner after Doubt's Washington, D.C., premiere to discuss the nature of doubt and the rise of corporate involvement in media narrative-making

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Abby: Why did you want to use the tobacco industry to introduce audiences to the world of corporate spin? And why go from there to climate change?

Kenner: I see this as a film about this class of doubters, how there are these very talented people who are very successful at what they do. We just had a screening at the Columbia Journalism School, and someone there said that for every journalist, there’s 4.5 PR reps.

There used to be more journalists than PR reps — and some of these reps are now being paid by the people they used to investigate. So in effect, we’re looking at multiple industries. We could have spent as much time on pharmaceuticals or the food industry.

I was also certainly interested in the notion of how you can have these things like tobacco, like certain pharmaceutical issues, or like climate, where the science is clear yet the doubt persists. How do you maintain doubt when the science is clear that it’s about something else? What are the factors? And it turns out there multiple, of which money is one of the biggest.

Part of it is tribal, but that was true with gay rights, too, and all of a sudden six years later things have changed. I’m feeling kind of optimistic that it can change around the issue of climate from that perspective. 

But the thing that interested me most was how media could represent issues as if they were debates when they weren’t debates.

READ Sojourners' review of Merchants of Doubt here.

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Dissecting the 'House of Cards' Church Scene

All presidents beseech God to bless the United States of America. Many pray for divine aid for themselves or their policies. Some can only wonder at the inscrutable ways of the Almighty.

Then there’s Frank Underwood, who spits in God’s face.

Underwood is fictional, of course, the power-grabbing president and central character in the hit Netflix series House of Cards. And Underwood is a notoriously amoral — criminal, actually — practitioner of a realpolitik so brutal that nothing he does should be surprising.

Indeed, in the show’s first season, a frustrated Underwood stopped by a church and looked heavenward to speak to God, then down to address Satan. Finding no satisfying answer from either, he concluded:

“There is no solace above or below. Only us, small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”

Still, it is almost jarring when, in the third and most recent season of the political thriller, Underwood — again stymied in his schemes — meets with a bishop late at night in a darkened sanctuary and engages in an extended debate on divine justice, power and love.

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Reclaiming 'Angry' Feminism and Other Lessons from 'She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry'

Bras weren’t the only things the second-wave feminists burned in the ‘60s. But that’s all I learned about the movement in school and casual conversation (on the rare occasions when feminist movements were brought up). The documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, fills in what our education system and historical imaginations leave out.

Second-wave feminists also burned oppressive patriarchy, definitions of feminine beauty, and, most poignant to me, their hard-earned diplomas. They literally set fire to bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and PhD certificates. An activist in the film explained, "We had graduated and learned nothing about women."

This documentary shows us what the textbooks didn’t and still don’t show often enough — the early, angry, undoubtedly beautiful grassroots radicals.

Of course, not all anger is beautiful. Some anger is abusive, relentless, and uncontrollable. I noticed three types of anger in the documentary — one beautiful, and two problematic.

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Christian Alternative to 'Fifty Shades' Makes the Same Mistakes, Just Without the Sex

This Valentine’s Day, two films will battle for the hearts and minds of the American public. One of them is Fifty Shades of Grey, the popular culture juggernaut that has earned millions of dollars worldwide. The other is a Christian-produced independent film, Old Fashioned, which bills itself as the scrubbed-up, evangelical alternative.

Having faith-based responses to secular media (and saying Fifty Shades of Grey is secular is a little like saying the Grand Canyon is big) is more than appropriate. It’s necessary. Otherwise we risk ignoring the vital words of Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Christians and non-believers alike should be regularly exposed to art that causes them to question the world around them.

Sadly, Old Fashioned is not the movie to fit that bill. Both it and Fifty Shades of Grey present dangerously unrealistic portraits of relationships — one just does it without the sex.

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How to 'Defy the World:' An Interview with 'Wanted' Author Chris Hoke

Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders is non-fiction, but I read it like it was one of the latest blockbuster novels, this time with gorgeous writing. I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t want the journey to end, following Chris Hoke through jails and streams and farms of Washington’s Skagit Valley as he grew from a young man interested in faith outside the walls of the church to a pastor to the “homies” of the area, as they called themselves—men whose criminal past or undocumented status have caused them to be among the most marginalized in our society. This book is imbued with dignity, prayer, and an understanding that relationships require forgiveness, on both sides. Wanted is a beautiful reflection on what the life of faith looks like in action.

Hoke grew up in southern California but was drawn to the dimmer corners of the Christian faith. He made his way to northwest Washington state to work with Tierra Nueva, a ministry that “seeks to share the good news of God’s freedom in Jesus Christ with people on the margins (immigrant, inmates, ex-offenders, the homeless).” We recently chatted about his work with Tierra Nueva, the value of a good metaphor, and how reading the Scriptures in prison can make them new.

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For the Love of ‘Paddington:’ A Movie Review

I loved Paddington, the new movie based on the Michael Bonds books about an immigrant bear who arrives in London from darkest Peru. Paddington has no resources other than his faith that he will be welcomed with open arms. Sadly, his experience begins like that of most undocumented immigrants to the European or American shores – he is rejected and ignored. But this is a playful movie with a happy ending that celebrates what wonderful things happen to the Brown family when they allow Paddington into their hearts and home.

Admittedly, Paddington is a handful – a wild animal unfamiliar with modern conveniences, whose commitment to being polite does not prevent unfortunate accidents that fulfill the nervous Mr. Brown’s worst fears. As the family learns to love this accident-prone bear, however, their love for each other is renewed. The villain (yes, of course, there’s a villain!) is defeated, Paddington finds a home, and the Brown’s problems are cured by loving the alien in their midst.

Does this fictional account of immigration with a happy ending have any bearing (pun intended!) on our real world immigration crisis? This movie invites us to wonder whether our fears of the changes that immigration brings are unfounded. After all, many European and American citizens fear the waves of legal and illegal immigration in Europe and the United States. We know all too well that these uninvited guests are radically changing racial, religious, and cultural demographics. Immigrants disrupt labor patterns, burden welfare systems, and tax the criminal justice system. And unlike the movie’s cartoon explosions, floods, and fires, the violence in our world that seems fomented in and among immigrant communities is all too real a threat.

Or so the story goes that stokes our fears. But is the story true?

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'Leviathan' a Grimly Familiar Beast

When we meet Kolya, the film’s protagonist, he’s in the midst of a long legal battle. He’s about to lose the house he built to the town’s mayor, a paranoid man obsessed with his own job security. Kolya’s already lost in court, but enlists the help of former army buddy Dimitri, a high-powered lawyer, to help him with an appeal. After the appeal’s failure, and some nasty bullying from local officials, Kolya is hit with a seemingly endless avalanche of humiliation and personal catastrophes.

The fishing village depicted in the film is a run-down hamlet characterized by an impressive amount of skeletal remains — and not just the kind that live in the closet. It’s strewn with ruined buildings, wrecked boats, and massive whale skeletons. In our world, the best architecture serves as a testament to man’s accomplishments, but the buildings and bones of Leviathan do exactly the opposite. They’re a constant reminder of decay and the temporary nature of what we mere mortals spend so much energy building and fighting over. Leviathan’s target is corruption in Russia, but its themes of pride, personal struggle, and frustration are universal.

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‘Selma:' We Are, Because They Were

In the first moments of SelmaI feel butterflies rise in my stomach as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) practices his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech while trying to tie his ascot. Butterflies rumble in my soul. I am almost fearful as we step into the world of Selma, because I am a student of the Civil Rights era. The movement’s lessons have shaped my life. I feel like I am about to meet my heroes.

So, King fiddles with his ascot in Oslo, Norway, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) comes close to comfort him, and little girls descend into the bowels of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and butterflies rise and my soul sits at attention. I know what is coming: hell … and glory.

The film still haunts me. Every performance is nuanced, textured, and humanizing. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is breathtaking. Her eye translates words into feelings into images — moving images that never leave you. Brutality and reverence occupy single frames. At once, the audience is horrified and awe-struck. I have no doubt Selma should win Oscars.

It is an amazing film, but it doesn’t haunt me because of its excellence. As I sat in the dark watching the movement unfold before my eyes, it was not the past that haunted me. It was the present.

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