Reviews of Christian films, particularly negative ones, have come to have the same dull predictability about them as the films themselves. Pure Flix’s sequel to its commercially successful but critically lambasted film about a college professor trying to bully Christians into denying their faith resets the front line of the culture wars to the high school classroom. Here it is the teachers and not just the students who are afraid to open their mouths. Critics have not been kind to God’s Not Dead 2; at one well-known review aggregating site, pans outnumber praises by a factor of nine to one.
The most common criticism I’ve heard about the God’s Not Dead films is that they distort the world they depict, appealing to their target audiences’ fears of being suppressed or silenced. If Jean-Luc Godard was correct in his assertion that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another, better movie, then the films on this list are perhaps better rebuttals to the Pure Flix franchise than would be another snarky column from a film critic.
Many of the films I’ve recommended here revolve around a central conflict created when a person or state tries to regulate, suppress or coerce speech. A few deal with the devastating impact that words can have—reminding us that the absolute freedom to say whatever we want rarely comes without the sort of absolute power that can tempt us to try to dominate or control others.
Most importantly, the bulk of these films are well respected by critics and audiences alike. Three are from Academy Award-winning directors. Another two feature beloved Hollywood stars in what are often considered their signature roles. One is autobiographical. Freedom of speech is an important, nuanced, difficult subject that demands art that challenges viewers rather than pandering to them. These seven films do just that.
What makes Martin Ritt’s film about the political awakening of a textile factory worker (Sally Field, in the role that won her the first of two Oscars) such a great place to start in discussions about free speech is that it isn’t really about that issue. Or, rather, like most great art, it recognizes that almost all important issues, including free speech, are enmeshed with other important issues. Show me the contemporary American who is against free speech in the abstract and I’ll show you an anomaly. But show me an American who is never frustrated by the way some others put that freedom to use and I will show you an even rarer political specimen.
When Reuben, the out-of-town Jewish agitator, finally gets Norma to arrange an organizing meeting for the mill workers in the southern, Baptist town, he says: “I remember some of you from the Chockoyotte church. I did all the talking that day. Now, I would like to hear you speak.” Repressive societies seldom jump straight to censorship; it is the escalating pattern of harassment that pushes people toward angry, fearful silence. When the workers finally do speak, it is painful to witness how petty are the indignities to which they are subjected and how seemingly small are the changes they want.
One of the many ways that Norma Rae is insightful is in its recognition that no cause is ever championed by perfect people. Norma is an adulteress, and Reuben sometimes goads and guilt-trips his disciple into acting before she is ready. Equally observant is the way the film notes how human weaknesses feed ad hominem attacks when those in power and privilege begin to feel threatened. (Rumors spread that Norma made a pornographic movie, and while there is no evidence of this, the film admits that a society already prone to think of her as promiscuous because of her child is willing to believe whatever rumors are convenient to its cause.)