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.)
Sally Field’s signature moment as an actress may well be the scene where Norma, on the verge of being forcibly removed from the factory floor, scrawls the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and stands defiantly, holding it in the air. As the effect of her defiance rippled through the other workers, Field projects both strength and frailty. Ironically, the most famous scene from a movie about free speech is one in which not a single word is spoken.
Shut Up and Sing
Barbara Kopple’s documentary gives us a bird’s eye view of the media and social pushback on Natalie Maines after she made a catty but ultimately innocuous comment during a 2003 Dixie Chicks concert. The film was a revelation for me on several levels.
I had never even heard of the Dixie Chicks at that time, but I could not help but be struck by how much more articulate and introspective Maines was than the president she criticized. (“They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records.”) The pivotal moment for me—one that pushed me to finally declare my long-dormant political feminism—was when Bill O’Reilly pronounced that these women “deserve to be slapped around.” That some can proclaim offensive opinions with impunity while others are vilified and shamed seemed evidence enough that freedom of speech is not enjoyed by all citizens equally.
Kopple is unparalleled in her ability to paint a nuanced celebrity portrait from bits and pieces of the band members’ daily lives. Maines emerges as a complex but sympathetic subject, one who is at various turns surprised, chagrined, and defiant about her flippant remark and the impact it had. What makes me love Shut Up and Sing so much is that it charts the awakening and evolution of an artist and a citizen from someone who takes for granted the freedoms she possesses to one who values and sacrifices for them when she sees how quickly they can be taken away.
The film also gets bonus points for recognizing the enduring power of art and music to cut through the political rhetoric and truly touch people’s hearts and minds. “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice,” the song from whence the film takes its title is a glorious, defiant anthem about Maines but for anyone who refuses to let herself or himself be silenced: “How in the hell can the words that I said / Send somebody so over the edge / That they’d write me a letter / Saying that I’d better / Shut up and sing, or my life would be over?”
He Named Me Malala; Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry; This is Not a Film
Do American Christians have a persecution complex? Is part of the attraction of films like God’s Not Dead that they confirm their conviction that Christians enjoy less freedom of speech than do proponents of seemingly more politically correct beliefs? These three films provide a reminder that there are parts of the world where dissenting opinions are met not with boycotts but with a prison cell—or a gun to the head. These documentaries depict the risks of speaking out in Pakistan, China, and Iran. Of these three films, Davis Guggenheim’s profile of Malala Yousafzai and her father is probably the most accessible. Viewers of This is Not a Film new to Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi might be confused by the chronicle of his house arrest unless they know the backstory. (The director’s 2006 film, Offside, is easier to grasp but not specifically about freedom of speech.) All three, however, are sobering reminders that freedom—to speak, to dissent, to express unpopular opinions—is a right enjoyed by very few of the world’s 7.125 billion occupants.
A Man for All Seasons
The freedom to speak must always, paradoxically, include the freedom to remain silent. Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play casts the legendary Paul Scofield in the titular role of Sir Thomas More. In the most coercive societies, it is not enough to refrain from criticizing those in power. As Cromwell (Leo McKern) argues before the court, More’s silence “betokens” something. In addition to providing a chilling warning about how quickly those who pride themselves on tolerance can become agents of oppression, the film is also a tragic reminder of the ways in which those who think themselves God’s servants are too often willing to justify bending the truth and bearing false witness. More has many foils in the film. From Richard Rich’s callow selfishness to King Henry’s scary immaturity to Cardinal Wolsey’s tired resignation, the film depicts over and over the deleterious effect on character that is wrought by small compromises in our speech.
While most of the films on this list are about those who have been in some way denied the freedom to speak, Douglas McGrath’s underrated adaptation of Jane Austen’s underrated novel paints a painful portrait of that freedom loosed from all restraint. The climax of the heroine’s moral education comes when she is made to feel the full force of a thoughtless insult levied at an irritating but harmless spinster. In the novel’s opening pages, its narrator tells us that the “evils” of Emma’s situation were “the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” How many of us believe, deep down, that our pride and the assertion of our privileges are greater snares than some external power that would deny us the right to do and say as we please? One of the great achievements of Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance is to make Emma so likable and understandable even as we are forced to acknowledge that she does some pretty despicable things. Her true friends never give up on her, and Austen’s poor little rich girl grows into a woman capable of biting her tongue and curbing her selfishness. The power to speak is power indeed, and as another wise man quoted over a century later to another confused prodigy, with great power comes great responsibility.
The book of James reminds us of the immense difficulty fallen and flawed humans have when trying to exercise their freedoms responsibly: “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (3:2). Would that those of us with political license to speak spent as much time and effort trying to discipline our speech as those who have been silenced spend trying to win it.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.