This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, September 2015: A Unified Kingdom issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 14 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “A Unified Kingdom.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

During my time in college, my focus was increasingly divided between one of two things: filmmaking and campus ministry. I was majoring in film studies, concentrating on history and screenwriting, and trying to decide what career path I might chose. I was also developing a renewed commitment to the body of Christ, and I made the school’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an international campus parachurch organization, my primary Christian community. Our mission as a chapter, in a city with a deep racist history, was to be an actively witnessing, racial reconciling Christian community. As a young chapter still seeking out God’s call for multi-ethnicity, our chapter was primarily made up of white and black students, in and of itself certainly not a light achievement. We were one of the only Christian communities (or communities of any kind) on campus that strove for multi-ethnicity as a foundation.

The racial events of the past half-decade, added to the long history of race in America, have assured that the body of Christ can no longer turn its head and wait for injustice to resolve on its own.

As a white man from the South, joining the chapter was my first real attempt to get to know my black sisters and brothers in Christ: an opportunity that had too often been unavailable to me, but one I had also equally, and shamefully, never sought out.

I was learning about two things at once in college. The first was how to analyze, appreciate, and create stories through film. The second was my own privilege as a white American; the deep, historic oppression of the black community; and my role in battling systemic racism and creating space for racial reconciliation. These two ventures share some immediate attributes. I’m still actively learning both of them;I know I’ll never finish. Even as an infant art form, relatively speaking, cinema has a rich history and a complex technical framework. Racial history in America is understandably complex, and my response to it is always adapting. I am always being corrected and educated (for which I am grateful), and I am always pushed further from the comfort of my whiteness.

As such, it was through film that I began to honestly value the stories of those who do not look like me, and it was through my multi-ethnic chapter that I recognized the vital importance of those stories to our culture-at-large. What I learned in my multi-ethnic community was beautiful, and it never made me less white, it only made me more like Jesus.

To speak of American cinema is always to speak of race. Many of our nation’s formative cinematic works are infused with its racist past. D. W. Griffith’s seminal work The Birth of a Nation has long been regarded as a technical masterpiece. It is also known as a key cause for the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence in mid-1920s America. Al Jolson’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer is popularly regarded as the first sound film (although it actually wasn’t, but specifically the first feature-length film with synchronized sound incorporated directly into the narrative). It is also a milestone in the long tradition of Hollywood black-face, cultural appropriation, and more than casual racism. Most Southerners’ interpretation of the Civil War begins and ends at Gone with the Wind and its source novel, peppering an incomplete and incorrect version of history throughout Southern culture for decades. Sidney Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night is a landmark film on racial policing, and it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1968 at a postponed ceremony after the original date, April 4, was marred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To speak of the Bible and God’s mission is often to speak of race as well, but it has taken me years to see that.

It has been a prophetic cry since John wrote of seeing every tribe, tongue, and nation praising the Lord in Revelation 7:9. It has been a foundation of missions since Philip and the Ethiopian traveler crossed paths in Acts 8:26–40. Multi-ethnicity has been a necessary reflection of faith since Paul wrote his letter to the divided Ephesians and urged for a ministry of reconciliation. God cared about reconciliation when Simon of Cyrene (now Libya) was forced to carry the Cross of Christ to its horrible conclusion in Mark 15:21. It has been a core of the Gospel since Jesus disregarded cultural norm to confide in a Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. It has been in the commandments of God since the prophet Jonah ran away from his mission to Nineveh. God cared about racial reconciliation when He saved Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria from the flames, three men whose names are forever recorded in the language of their Babylonian captors as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3). Racial reconciliation has been a mission of the church since the beginning.

Born into a Christian culture, then, it should have been my mission from the beginning, but it wasn’t. Just as I was often surrounded by films that excluded minority writers, directors, and stars, so was I absent the recognition of ethnicity in the stories of scripture. In the past few years, filmmakers and audiences have been rightfully consumed by discussion on just representation, whether for the lack of minority heroes in blockbusters or the absence of Ava DuVernay’s Selma in the Academy Awards Best Picture category. It is not a byproduct of political correctness to demand minority representation in the stories we see, it is a direct product of the Gospel.

Scholars like Donald Bogle have long since referenced the impacts of stereotypical black characters on American audiences. Bogle created his influential taxonomy and referenced them in his seminal work Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, in which he argues that almost every black character ever presented on screen can fit neatly into one of five dehumanizing archetypes. These racist depictions come from movies as much as they are projected onto them. My multi-ethnic brothers and sisters in Christ were not the black stereotypes I saw much of growing up. My friend Tiya is not a maid confined to sing-song dialogue; she is a strong, brilliant black woman, our chapter’s former president, and a campus minister who has led countless students to discipleship in Christ. My friend Brittany is not a “tragic mulatto” torn by her multi-racial heritage; she is a breathing gift of reconciliation. My friend Brent is a phenomenal athlete, but he is not the simpleton “Buck”; he is one of the wisest and most intelligent men I’ve ever known. My friends are not those characters, but Hollywood films have, for decades, told them, and told me, that they are.

As the way most Americans consume culture, too many films have done a great disservice to black stories. We have relished stereotypes time and time again. Too often, we box in our art based on who is making it, rather than the content. In my African American Film History course, we talked a lot about if there was such a thing as a “black film.” We never did decide if there was one, but we all agreed that there shouldn’t be. Genres are reserved for inherent plot trends and devices. To codify an entire people in a genre is foolhardy. I doubt anyone would refer to Paul Thomas Anderson’s films as white movies, but it’s rather commonplace to hear Tyler Perry makes black films.

It’s a vicious cycle that feeds on itself. There is such a lack of minority filmmakers that we feel necessary to recognize the few as harbingers for the message of their entire people. The same happens when we consider filmmakers like Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals), Robert Rodriguez, or Justin Lin, who in 2002 was famously defended by film critic Roger Ebert after an audience member suggested it was irresponsible of Lin to portray Asian-American characters in such a negative light in his film Better Luck Tomorrow. Ebert’s response was swift: “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’.” The works of minority filmmakers are incredible sources of empathy, yes, but we must not forget they are also movies by talented filmmakers, storytellers whose talents are not predicated on their ethnicity, nor fostered in spite of it.

In Ephesians 2, Paul writes of the “dividing wall of hostility” that Christ has destroyed in us by having “preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” In its place, we have built screens, large and small, where we can comfortably watch our own prejudices played back to us, where can continue to ignore the stories of so many in order to continue the narrative that maintains our privilege. The American Church finds itself at a crucial moment in its history of racial reconciliation. I use the possessive purposefully, because racial reconciliation has always been a core mission of the church, even as the Church continually fails to achieve it.

We lament and seek calls to affirm that black lives matter. There is also another way to say this, a way that helps us begin to understand how we can pursue this affirmation: black stories matter. What if, as a white Christian body, we began to identify with our minority sisters and brothers by experiencing their art, their stories more often? There is no substitute to a real, pursuant multi-ethnic community, and watching these movies is certainly not going to tear down the dividing wall of hostility alone. But here is a starting point, a way to affirm our brothers’ and sisters’ stories.

The racial events of the past half-decade, added to the long history of race in America, have assured that the body of Christ can no longer turn its head and wait for injustice to resolve on its own. For many of us, this ultimatum raises a question: Where to begin? Or for others of us, we are asking how to continue. Some of us, surely, are even asking why we should start. The answers are myriad. I think I have a small, but not insignificant, place to begin. As the kid that always wanted to make movies, I think that’s where we should start.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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