The last decade has witnessed a growing number of Hollywood films with Christian characters and themes. Most are not in the blockbuster category, but some feature well-known Hollywood actors.
Once the ‘Christian film genre’ was like Christian music, a category developed for, and aimed at a certain audience, but now this hybrid type of film aims to reach a more general audience as well as the Christian community.
A Saint for All Seasons?
Saint Judy is a newly released on-line film focussing on a real-life legal case in the USA. This case is tried by Immigration lawyer Judy Wood, who is earnestly played by Michelle Monaghan. The case itself is very important as it became a test case, changing US law on asylum seeking by women. The context was a woman Asefa Ashwari (played by Leem Lubany from Bagdad Central), who provided education to girls in a Taliban controlled area in Afghanistan.
Judy’s own life is complicated, and there are multiple points being made, but it is basically straight-forward storytelling. Oddly, this film has some aspects in common with the ‘preachy’ type of Christian film in that it is so at pains to highlight its message it must repeat it. It also has some elements not in keeping with the ‘Christian film genre’.
The film highlights the first word in its title, ‘Saint’, but in a secular or popular way, rather than its Christian context. Another basic illustrative difference is the occasional use of gratuitous language. This could have been easily edited, and the reason for its use escaped me, apart from adding a bit of earthy colour that could perhaps be related to the idea of a secular saint for today?
Judy’s personal faith does not feature strongly, and some parts are more secular in their portrayal. Judy is portrayed as having unwavering devotion to her clients, versus other lawyers who are stereotyped as focused on earning more money to buy another expensive car. It is not fully clear however why her underlying philosophical beliefs provide the foundation for her actions.
Overall, the script reduces some characters, including well-known character actors like Alfred Molina to stereotypes providing sound bites, rather than providing a more nuanced picture and insight into this significant case and the overall complexity of asylum seekers today.
It is a however, a good start to telling the now very lengthy Judy Wood legal career. I was fascinated by the cameo type real-life footage at the end and thought a contemporary documentary would be an excellent follow-up project.
Common Grace on Film
This warm-hearted film also released online in Australia will provide encouragement to Christians to consider the way people can be changed by common grace. The story is well-known in the USA. A couple befriend Denver (played by Djimon Hounsou), a homeless man, and a growing love and support for each other leads to a foundation that has raised multi-millions of dollars for homeless support.
The USA context is striking with the KKK context providing the initial reference to the story of Denver’s life that illustrates the history of the South and the issues that had continued since the civil war. Greg Kinnear is Ron, the unfaithful husband, and film’s narrator, who is given a second chance by his wife Debbie (Renée Zellweger). She does not want him to win her back with presents, but wants him to change, and enlists him to serve in the local homeless mission.
Here, while providing help, Ron renews his marriage and life as he connects with the most unlikely person, he would have ever thought he would have connected with.
It is no coincidence that the movie night film at the mission is It’s a Wonderful Life. Christian references abound, though again, this is not a typical ‘Christian film’, especially with the range of Hollywood actors involved (two Oscar winners as Jon Voight plays Ron’s estranged father). It is certainly a film one could see with family and friends and I would hope prompt significant discussion about faith, love, and hope.
Both films highlight the long-running debate about the nature of a Christian film. While I understand the producers of these films did not set out to make a traditional faith-based ‘Christian movie’, the main theme in Saint Judy of helping the refugee and outcast seek justice would have linked very well with a focus on some biblical references (albeit in a non-preaching context).
Similarly, the fruit of the spirit displayed in Same Kind of Different As Me, could have been easily linked to a fuller explanation of the power of the gospel in changing a life, and showing how works are a natural outcome of that change.
This may be the key to the difference with the more traditional faith-based approach. One seeks to make faith explicit (perhaps sometimes too forced?), while the other makes faith implicit.
Both have a place, though to fully appreciate the impact of faith in these two films, I would argue it is necessary for a Christian viewer to explain some points, and this is where ‘Hollywood Christian films’ could be seen as pre-evangelistic, and even opportunities for Christians to share the gospel and their own faith.
Peter Bentley is a Sydney (Australia) based writer and commentator on church, media and cultural issues. He is a former President of the Australasian Religious Press Association.