The *Western Stars* Documentary is Coming

Springsteen’s most recent album, Western Stars, will be the subject of a music documentary that Warner Brothers will release this Fall.  Here is Variety:

Warner Bros. has nabbed global rights to “Western Stars,” the upcoming music documentary co-directed by Bruce Springsteen. The film will be released on the big screen and will open in theaters this fall after its world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival.

“Western Stars” is Springsteen’s first studio album in five years and the film marks his directorial debut. It weaves in archival footage along with Springsteen’s narration, and shows him performing all 13 songs on the album, alongside a band and a full orchestra, in a nearly 100-year-old barn on the singer’s property.

The film was also overseen by Thom Zimny, a frequent Springsteen collaborator. Zimny directed the Boss in “Springsteen on Broadway” and “Bruce Springsteen: Hunter of Invisible Game” (2014), and picked up a Grammy Award for “Wings on Wheels: The Making of Born to Run” (2005).

“Bruce lives in the super rarified air of artists who have blazed new and important trails deep into their careers,” said Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Picture Group. “With ‘Western Stars,’ Bruce is pivoting yet again, taking us with him on an emotional and introspective cinematic journey, looking back and looking ahead. As one of his many fans for over 40 years, I couldn’t be happier to be a rider on this train with Bruce and Thom.”

Read the rest here.

Naples

Gurinder Chadha Talks About the Making of *Blinded by the Light*

blinded-by-the-light-yt-thumb-5f40ad83b5dc50ac221cecf17a83235e

I will be doing my best to see “Blinded by the Light” this week.  In the meantime, here is a great interview with director Gurinder Chadra:

Bruce Springsteen was born to run. Luckily, so was English film director Gurinder Chadha.

She ran into the Boss on a red carpet several years ago. When you want to make a movie using all his early music and then see him in the flesh, you don’t walk up to him. You sprint.

“I ran over and seized the moment. I said, ‘Hi Bruce! You gotta help us out. My name is Gurinder. I’m a film director. I made ‘Bend It Like Beckham,’ ” she recalled. ‘I said, ‘We really want to make a film of the book written by Sarfraz Manzoor about his life and how your music inspired him.’ ”

“To which, Bruce looked at Sarfraz who was there with me and said, ‘Sounds good. I read that book. It’s beautiful. Talk to my manager,’ ” said Chadha, 59, one of the few female film directors of Indian origin.

The end result — “Blinded by the Light” — is one the biggest deals coming out of the Sundance film festival this year, as the film sold to Warner Bros. for $15 million. Early reviews are calling it “the feel-good movie of 2019.”

“Blinded” revolves around a British-Pakistani teenager named Javid (Viveik Kalra), an aspiring poet who meets with the disapproval of his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). Life is bleak in their small town in England circa 1987. Dad has been laid off from the local plant and to cope with the despair and local racism, Javid becomes obsessed with the rocking music and inspirational lyrics of Bruce Springsteen….

What happened after you encountered Springsteen on that red carpet?

Sarfraz and I went away and wrote a script just for Bruce. We sent it to his manager and then came the waiting period. Finally, Bruce sent this message to his manager and it read: “I’m all good with this. Give them what they want.” Our timing was good because he has really been looking at his legacy and the impact of it.

Read the entire interview at Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Watching Bruce Springsteen Watch a Movie

Mike Ryan of Uproxx has a nice piece about the Asbury Park premiere of the Springsteen-inspired movie Blinded by the Light.  Here is a taste:

Look, if there’s one thing I don’t even try to “play it cool” about it’s my unadulterated love for Bruce Springsteen. I’m sort of partially serious when I claim that back in 2004 I moved to New York City for more access to Springsteen concerts. (My number of shows attended has ballooned substantially over the last 15 years.) Anyway, somehow, in all this time, I have never been to Asbury Park, New Jersey. On Wednesday night, Blinded by the Light – a love letter of a movie about the music of Bruce Springsteen that I first saw back at Sundance and adored – was having its premiere in Asbury Park. This seemed to be a good time to go to Asbury Park.

So, here’s a little bit of backstory about Bruce Springsteen and this movie: Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s book about growing up in a Pakistani family while living in English town of Luton and falling in love with Springsteen’s music. Springsteen pretty much gave this production full access to his catalog – using a Springsteen song in a movie usually costs a pretty penny – and, boy, Blinded by the Light did not skimp on the Springsteen music. So, of course, when Blinded by the Light premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, there were countless rumors Bruce himself would be making the trip to Park City, Utah.

Now, I’ve seen Bruce roughly 26 (maybe 27, I haven’t counted recently) times but I’ve never caught one of his “secret” or “rumored” shows. Basically, let’s say, oh, Joe Grushecky is playing a gig at The Stone Pony or Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, there’s maybe a five percent chance Bruce shows up to just jam. This will never, ever be announced. And most of the time you’re just going to wind up getting a full Joe Grushecky set. But, on those rare occasions, the lucky people there will get to basically be transported back in time to the early 1970s, before Born to Run, where they get to see Bruce Springsteen just hanging out in a bar playing guitar. It’s every Springsteen fan’s dream.

Read the entire piece here.

And here is a glimpse of Springsteen’s mini-concert with Southside Johnny on Wednesday night:

 

What Do Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, David Blight, and 25 Cent Wings Have in Common?

BlightThis:

Former President Barack Obama was meeting with Steven Spielberg on Monday night, sources exclusively told Page Six, months after Obama’s production company with wife, Michelle, unveiled a slate of films with Netflix.

Obama and the Oscar-winner were at upscale seafood eatery Marea, spies said.

“Spielberg walked through the front and no one noticed,” said the source, while Obama arrived through a side entrance.

“They were with a group — with lots of Secret Service,” said the source. “But it was still pretty low-key with no disruptions to other diners.”

The Obamas have seven planned Netflix projects via their Higher Ground Productions, including an adaptation of David W. Blight’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” as well as a series called “Bloom,” set in the fashion world of New York after WWII.

In 2015, it was reported that Spielberg — whom Obama awarded a Medal of Freedom the same year — was helping the ex-pol create a “narrative” for post-presidential life….

On Monday, the director’s wife, Kate Capshaw, was spotted having 25-cent wings with Bruce Springsteen and wife, Patti Scialfa, at Henry at Life Hotel.

Read the whole story at Page Six

 

I Can’t Wait to See This Movie!

Blinded by the Light is a new movie featuring the music of Bruce Springsteen.  Here is a description of the movie from Wikipedia:

Blinded by the Light is a 2019 British drama film directed by Gurinder Chadha. Inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor and his obsession with Bruce Springsteen, the film is set in Luton in 1987. Manzoor co-wrote the script. It premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in the United Kingdom on 16 August 2019, by New Line Cinema.

The official synopsis reads “Blinded by the Light tells the story of Javed (Viveik Kalra) a British teen of Pakistani descent, growing up in the town of Luton, England, in 1987. Amidst the racial and economic turmoil of the times, he writes poetry as a means to escape the intolerance of his hometown and the inflexibility of his traditional father. But when a classmate introduces him to the music of “the Boss,” Javed sees parallels to his working-class life in Springsteen’s powerful lyrics. As Javed discovers a cathartic outlet for his own pent-up dreams, he also begins to find the courage to express himself in his own unique voice.”

Here is the trailer:

 

Springsteen’s Harry Potter Song Will be Released in an Upcoming Movie

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for a Harry Potter movie.  His song “I’ll Stand by You Always” did not make the cut, but it has now found its way into a new Springsteen-inspired movie titled “Blinded by the Light.”

Here is a taste of Steve Pond’s piece at The Wrap:

Almost 20 years after he wrote the song for a “Harry Potter” movie, Bruce Springsteen has finally found a home for his unreleased ballad “I’ll Stand by You Always.” The song has been added to the end credits of “Blinded by the Light,” an upcoming, Springsteen-heavy New Line/Warner Bros. film from “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha.

The song did not appear in “Blinded by the Light” when the film screened at Sundance in January, where its $15 million deal with New Line was the festival’s biggest. But it was added before this week’s screenings in Los Angeles and at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, and will now follow the song “Born to Run” during the end credits.

“Blinded by the Light” is based on the memoir “Greetings From Bury Park” by Sarfraz Manzoor, who was born in Pakistan but came to Great Britain as a child. Manzoor wrote about his teenage years in a small British town where his desire to become a writer was inflamed by a passion for Springsteen’s songs.

Read the rest here.

Historians At The Movies

National Treasure

Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Minnesota, is your host.  Learn more about #HATM in this piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Have you ever, while watching the movie Julie & Julia, drawn comparisons between Julia Child’s struggle to find the right publisher and the mercurial marketplace of academic publishing?

You probably haven’t. But historians have.

The comparison is one of many under the Twitter hashtag #HATM. The abbreviation stands for Historians At The Movies and was created by Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who now lives in Florida where he studies indigenous people and ecology.

Every Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, Herbert and other historians, plus people who just enjoy history, watch the same movie. They tweet along, sharing insight, tidbits, and punchlines. They prepared for the 2019 Oscars, by watching Roma, a Best Picture nominee. On Sunday, they’ll live-tweet the awards ceremony — which will be fun and a break from the norm, Herbert says.

Since the hashtag kicked off in July 2018, the weekly ritual has cultivated quite the following.

The Chronicle spoke with Herbert about what sparked the idea, how to forge scholarly camaraderie online, and why historians have a soft spot for Benjamin Franklin Gates, the historian/treasure hunter played by Nicolas Cage in the movie National Treasure.

Q. How did this idea come to you?

A. When I left Minnesota, I left behind a lot of my friends and colleagues who I saw on a day-to-day basis and would have these great conversations with. I needed to create a new network for myself where I could still be intellectually engaged with an academic community, even though I was physically removed. I got active on Twitter. I would talk to other historians. I had seen that National Treasure was going to be on Netflix. I just tweeted out, ‘We should all watch it.’ And someone said, ‘Yeah, we should do that.’

The running gag with historians is that the archeologists get Harrison Ford, but historians get Nicholas Cage. You laugh at it, but we all kind of love National Treasure. So why not? It’ll be fun and silly and a nice way to blow off steam on a Sunday night in the middle of the summer. We had a lot of people engage. Joanne Freeman, who’s a professor at Yale, jumped in. She studies early America and she just died when she saw them putting lemon juice on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Read the rest here.

Are the “God is Not Dead” Films Christian?

gods-not-dead2

A lifelong Christian, a former film critic at Christianity Today, and a professor of cultural theory at the conservative evangelical The King’s College, does not think so.

I will admit up front that I have not seen any of these movies.  I have always considered them to be just another weapon in the culture wars and yet another example of the evangelical persecution complex.

Here is a taste of Alissa Wilkinson’s piece at VOX:

God’s Not Dead has never been warmly welcomed by mainstream critics. The problem isn’t really the production value (which is mostly fine), or even the statement in the title, a contradiction of a willful misreading of Nietzsche that’s so generic and bland that few people would find it offensive.

The thesis of the God’s Not Dead series is that Christians and Christianity are under attack in America, and that the way to fight back is through exercising First Amendment rights, mostly in educational settings. In the first film, a college freshman named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper, who returns as a campus minister in the new film) intellectually conquers his caustically atheistic philosophy professor in three classroom rounds of debates about the existence of God. The professor gets hit by a car at the end and dies, but not before he becomes a Christian….

Despite their titles, the movies haven’t really been about arguments for the existence of God, either anecdotal or philosophical. Arguments for God’s existence are trotted out mostly in support in the movies’ main plots, which are about threats Christian characters face from people who are hostile toward Christians talking about God in the public square.

This, the films posit, is the relationship of Christian America to the rest of the country. And implicit in this idea is the notion that it hasn’t always been that way. As someone in a montage of cable news talking head programs says at the start of the third film, “This is what our country has come to.”

There’s a reason the first God’s Not Dead movies did so well at the box office. (The third installment didn’t fare as well, bringing in less than half of its predecessors’ opening weekend take at the box office — likely a result of competing with the very successful and largely apolitical I Can Only Imagine, and perhaps waning interest.)

White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audienceare the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. (I hardly need to point out that about the same proportion of white evangelical Protestants still form the lion’s share of President Donald Trump’s base.)

Studying Sports Movies

hoosiers

I have been enjoying Ben Railton‘s series on sports movies at his American Studies blog:

The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook

“The Longest Yard(s)”

“Hoosiers and Rudy”

Bad News Boys and Bears

Here is a taste of “Hoosiers and Rudy”:

It’d be hard to decide which of those inspired-by-a-true-story underdog victories is more unlikely and more inspiring. The Hickory high school team in Hoosiers (based loosely on Milan High’s 1954 championship season) is coached by two men as collectively flawed as Buttermaker in Bad News Bears—Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale has been dismissed from his prior job for losing his temper and striking a student; Dennis Hopper’s Shooter Flatch is an alcoholic town outcast—and has barely enough players to field a team, yet goes on to win the state championship against a vastly more deep and talented South Bend team. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose life and events are portrayed relatively close to accurately by Sean Astin and company, is the undersized son of an Illinois factory worker who refuses to give up on his dream of playing football for Notre Dame, overcoming numerous challenges and obstacles and finally making his way onto the team and into the final game of the season, in which he sacks the quarterback on the final play and is carried off the field by his teammates. Having critiqued lovable loser films for their merely pyrrhic victories, it’d be hypocritical of me not to applaud films that depict underdog victories, and such stories are indeed undeniably appealing and affecting.

Yet in order to tell their stories in the way they want, these films also have to leave out a great deal, elisions that are exemplified by the way racial issues are not addressed in Hoosiers. For one thing, Hickory’s opponent in the championship game, South Bend, is intimidating in large part because it features a racially integrated team, which would have been a significant rarity in 1952 and which would seem to make them a team worth our support. And for another, as James Loewen has written in his groundbreaking book Sundown Towns (2005), southern Indiana in the early 1950s was a hotbed of overt and violent racism; to quote Loewen, “As one Indiana resident relates, ‘All southern Hoosiers laughed at the movie called Hoosiers because the movie depicts blacks playing basketball and sitting in the stands at games in Jasper. We all agreed no blacks were permitted until probably the ’60s and do not feel welcome today.’ A cheerleader for a predominantly white, but interracial Evansville high school, tells of having rocks thrown at their school bus as they sped out of Jasper after a basketball game in about 1975, more than 20 years after the events depicted so inaccurately in Hoosiers.” Such histories don’t necessarily contrast with those featured in these films—but it would be important to complement the films with fuller engagement with their perhaps less triumphant contexts.

If you are a sports fan or just enjoy sports movies, these posts are worth your time.

Is “Hamilton” the New “1776?”

Yes.

Watch this clip.  It will be stuck in your head all day:

Matthew Rozsa agrees with the title of this post.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Salon:

It’s a great story, one that both I and many of my close friends ritualistically watch every 4th of July. Yet what about “1776” makes it so resonant? Why does this movie stand out when countless other patriotically themed motion pictures fade into the background?

It’s instructive to first look at another recent musical about our Founding Fathers, “Hamilton.” While it doesn’t pass a lot of tests when it comes to historical accuracy, “Hamilton” works so well because it brilliantly resurrects the philosophical debates that were at the core of America’s founding during the ratification of the Constitution and the administration of President George Washington.

“1776” does the same thing, only with a different moment from American history. It picks apart the debates that occurred between, on the one side, Adams and other revolutionaries who believed America needed to break free from the British Empire, and, on the other, the motley of factions who, for various reasons, felt we should remain loyal to Great Britain.

Read the entire piece here.

Donald Trump is Hud Bannon

hud

As the Trump campaign begins to implode, I want to call your attention to my colleague Jim LaGrand‘s March 2016 piece at The Federalist: “1963’s Hud Shows Why Donald Trump Isn’t a Real Man.”

A taste:

…This brings us back to Trump. As journalists and columnists have tried to make sense of his recent rise, they’ve offered many historical comparisons and parallels. No two people are exactly the same, but to a striking degree, Donald Trump is the anti-hero Hud Bannon.

On the stump, Trump brazenly flouts any commitment to the rule of law, to truth-telling, and to general decency.

I’ll stay away from discussing physical similarities to Newman, although I suspect that Trump himself might try to go there. It’s what’s inside each man that’s more important. Both carry themselves as largely amoral winners. They’re cynical, thinking that holding to principles and following the rules is only for losers.

Indeed, cynicism has become essential for Trump’s campaign. Despite his grand call to make America great again, Trump feeds on the growing cynicism of many Americans right now about the economy, the Republican party, the political system, even the law itself. On the stump, he brazenly flouts any commitment to the rule of law, to truth-telling, and to general decency.

This shtick has served Trump well in the entertainment-politics hybrid he’s invented, and it’s not based on nothing. There is some reason to be cynical about economics and politics right now. But ultimately, Hud-style or Trump-style cynicism is not good for you or me or our country.

We know both from reading and just from paying attention that today’s boys and young men in particular need guidance and instruction. Those with little economic, educational, and cultural capital often face a daunting, unfriendly world. Even more than past generations, they need examples of good, moral, grounded, responsible, successful men. Especially now, they don’t need a principle-less man as president.

Are your best hopes for American children exemplified in men who resemble Hud Bannon?

Think of the members of the next generation that you know, the equivalent of young impressionable Lons. They might be your children or grandchildren, your nieces or nephews, the kids in your neighborhood or at your church. What kind of America do you want them to inherit? Are your best hopes for them exemplified in men who resemble Homer Bannon or Hud Bannon?

I hope you watch “Hud” sometime during this political season. If you respond to it as I do, you’ll want to try to vote for Homer Bannon for president, realizing that his old-style quietly strong and responsible masculinity still has something to tell us and to teach us in this political season. But even with a coordinated write-in campaign, I doubt Homer has a chance. At the very least, though, please don’t vote for the candidate who reminds you of Hud.

Read the entire piece here.

Ted Cruz Channels Michael Douglas in “The American President”

Ted Cruz has a good memory.  He has apparently memorized Bible verses, the entire United States Constitution, and various lines from “The Princess Bride.”  (Inconceivable!).

“The Princess Bride” is apparently not the only movie he has memorized.  In the wake of Donald Trump’s threat to “spill the beans” about his wife Heidi, Cruz went on CNN this morning and channeled Michael Douglas (without attribution) from the movie “The American President.”

Here it is:

How an Old Western Explains Donald Trump

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Is Donald Trump a real man?

Not by the standards of Homer Bannon in the Academy-Award winning movie “Hud.”  My colleague Jim LaGrand explains in an open letter to Trump supporters published today at The Federalist.

Here is a taste:

During a confrontation in which Hud boasts that he doesn’t give a damn what his father or anyone else thinks of him, Homer offers this dead-on analysis of his son: “You got all that charm going for you, and it makes the youngsters want to be like you. That’s the shame of it—‘cause you don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with.”

Viewers come to see that Hud is no hero. Rather, he’s an anti-hero. He’s still a leading figure, but he twists or corrupts almost every traditional heroic virtue. Hud is proud of being a man without principles, of not being troubled by morality, of being determined to get what he wants no matter the costs. All this he excuses because he’s a winner—at least in his own eyes. He wins over women (including other men’s wives), he wins contests (even if he has to resort to trickery), and he tries (ultimately unsuccessfully) to win over young Lon to his worldview.

This brings us back to Trump. As journalists and columnists have tried to make sense of his recent rise, they’ve offered many historical comparisons and parallels. No two people are exactly the same, but to a striking degree, Donald Trump is the anti-hero Hud Bannon.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Vatican Congratulates “Spotlight” on Winning Best Picture

Spotlight_(film)_posterOver at Religion News Service, Rosie Scammell is reporting that the Vatican has given “two thumbs up” to “Spotlight,” the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.  As most of you probably know, “Spotlight” is a movie about the Boston Globe‘s investigation into clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

[“Spotlight”] manages to voice the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovery of these horrendous realities,” wrote journalist Lucetta Scaraffia of L’Osservatore Romano, a “semi-official” Vatican newspaper.

Here is a taste of Scammell’s piece:

In her column, Scaraffia praised the film for recounting the reality of how, within the Catholic Church, “some are more preoccupied with the image of the institution than of the seriousness of the act.”

Scaraffia also noted Sugar’s acceptance speech, arguing that his reference to the pontiff demonstrated there was still hope in the institution of the church.

“There is trust in a pope who is continuing the cleaning begun by his predecessor,” she wrote.

L’Osservatore Romano’s praise for the movie follows comments of a similar vein by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, who said earlier this month that all bishops and cardinals should watch the film.

“The movie shows how the instinct — that unfortunately was present in the church — to protect a reputation was completely wrong,” Scicluna told an Italian newspaper.

Cotton Mather Movie Reviews

This New Yorker post is from 2014, but Rick Kennedy, author of a great new biography of Cotton Mather, brought it to my attention via Facebook.

What would Cotton Mather think about contemporary movies? Tom O’Donnell speculates.

 Here are a couple of Mather’s reviews:

“American Hustle” gets 1 out of 5 stars:

What dark Serpent of Hell did contrive such a Satanical tale? Greed, Lust, Intemperance, and indecently large Hairstyles comprise an Entertainment so Lewd and Sinful that a Christian Man of God can be forgiven for skipping it in Theatres. As Job awaited Deliverance, so you should await the DVD Release of “American Hustle.”

“The Hobbit” gets 1 out of 5 stars:

A Small Pagan is enlisted by a Scheming Warlock to help a Pack of Bearded Devils recover their Gold from a Wicked Serpent. What can I say, I loved this Film. Nay, that was but Sarcasm! I have used the Great Deceiver’s own Device against him. In Truth, “The Desolation of Smaug” is an Endless Satanical Parade of Witchcraft and Lycanthropy, designed to lure all good People of God toward the hateful Flames of Perdition. I can only hope that the Third Installment is better.

Disney’s “Frozen” gets 0 out of 5 stars

Snowmen are Graven Images sculpted of the Devil’s Ice by Idle Hands and Abhorrent in the Eyes of the Lord. The Presence of a Snowman alone would qualify “Frozen” as Satanical. But the Snowman in this Film is brought to Life with Witchcraft! Like Moses in the Desert, I am at a Loss: to continue this Review would require the Invention a new Word meaning “the most Satanical Thing I have seen since the Daemonic Talking Candlestick from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ” Therefore, I will end my Review here, as inventing new Words should be left up to God.

Read the rest of Mather’s reviews here.

I Wish We’d All Been Ready: John Turner on "A Thief in the Night"

Over at The Anxious Bench, John Turner of George Mason University writes about showing the 1972 evangelical apocalyptic classic “A Thief in the Night” to his class on religion and film.  

Watch the entire movie below.  If you don’t have time, the first five minutes should give you a sense of what it is all about:



I have seen “A Thief in the Night” and its sequels several times over the years.  As a young evangelical these movies scared me to death.  The guy with the lamb chops who is secretly working UNITE is frightening.  

As a divinity school student, I organized a “Thief in the Night” marathon in which we watched all three movies in the series.  This viewing party could best be characterized as a mix of entertainment and theological reflection, but we also made fun of the 1970s evangelical subculture. 

We have mentioned this film several times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You can find those posts here and here and here.

And here is a taste of Turner’s post:

My church — a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that straddled the worlds of evangelical and mainline Protestantism — did not screen the film when I was a teenager. We were encouraged to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, but not because the world was about to end or because we might be left behind to suffer the assaults of Satan after the rapture. So while thousands or millions of American evangelical young people watched A Thief in the Night in the 1970s and 1980s (the film’s producer claims that in all, three hundred million people have seen the movie), I watched it for the first time this week.

Here are a few thoughts:

– Laugh and groan all you want. It’s no small accomplishment to make a $60,000 film and have millions of people see it. A Thief in the Night is certainly one of the very few most significant evangelical movies ever made. As Randall Balmer observes, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that A Thief in the Night affected the evangelical film industry the way that sound or color affected Hollywood.”

– People make films for all sorts of reasons. The primary purpose of A Thief in the Night was evangelism, to persuade nominal Christians to make a heart-felt prayer asking Jesus to come into their hearts. What the film intended to do it apparently has done rather well. “I have found,” writes Heather Hendershot in her Shaking the World for Jesus, “that A Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience.” Many successful altar calls followed screenings of the film.

And let’s not forget the movie score, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” written and performed by Christian rock legend Larry Norman:


Why Not a Movie About Frederick Douglass?

I teach the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass every Fall semester in my United States history survey course.  I tell my students that they cannot claim to be an educated person unless they have read this classic piece of American literature and explored its historical context.

As we discuss the text in class I am often asked if there has ever been a movie made about Douglass’s life. The narrative has so many dramatic scenes–the shooting of Demby, the wrestling match between Douglass and Covey, the pensive Douglass staring out over the Chesapeake longing to be free, and Sophia Auld’s change of heart after her husband forbids her to continue teaching Douglass how to read.  This has all the makings of a big time feature film.  (If a film has been made about the Narrative, I am unaware of it).

Writing at his blog at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers some suggestions as to why characters like Douglass or Harriett Tubman have not found their way to the big screen.  Here is a taste:

One of the rather frequent responses I get when posting the stories of people like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or Robert Smalls is that their story deserves to be a movie. A biopic is seen by a lot of us as the ultimate testimonial to a person’s life. Moreover, movies have the unique power to reach and influence millions of people. Finally, movies offer the possibility of all the imagery and input we hold when thinking of, say, Harriet Tubman to be made manifest before the world. I think this impulse is basically correct. It is especially correct given that Hollywood doesn’t just ignore slavery and the Civil War but turns out revisionist dreck like Gods and Generals.

At the same time I think it’s important to not talk as though it were an entity separate from the politics, economics, and history of America. The person who would bankroll a Harriet Tubman biopic would likely be someone who was particularly touched by her story. Such a person would not have to be black, but I don’t know how you separate the paucity of black people with the power to green-light from the paucity of good films concerning black people in American history.

Moreover, movie-making is risky and expensive. Any discussion of the lack of a Harriet Tubman biopic should begin with the shameful fact that median white wealth in this country stands at $110,000 and median black wealth stands at around $5,000. It would be nice to think that this gap reflected choices cultural and otherwise, instead of the fact that for most this country’s history its governing policy was to produce failure in black communities, and most of its citizens supported such policies. It would be nice if Hollywood were more moral and forward-thinking than its consumer base. But I would not wait around for such a day.