Friday, October 4, 2013

God, Hollywood and Jackie Robinson

A friend sent me an article recently about "42," the Jackie Robinson biopic that came out this spring and can now be seen in all formats. Writer Eric Metaxas wondered why the filmmakers left out mentions of Robinson's religious faith: He was praised for adopting a dignified stance toward the people who hated him for breaking the color line in Major League Baseball, but the film didn't stress his real-life adherence to Christian principles or respect for Jesus' teaching.

I wonder why that was. A film biography should explain how the character of the protagonist was formed. A movie about Napoleon would stress his military beginnings; a film about John Keats would explore his literary roots; a movie about a practicing Christian ought to bring Christianity into the story, if it had a serious effect on his life.

Some people will interpret this as a financially motivated decision: In order not to annoy nonbelievers, the producers decided to drop this element of Robinson's life. But surely the average moviegoer, believer or not, wouldn't be put off by hearing that some of Robinson's patience and perseverance came from the Bible or other Christian teachings.

Some will see it as a further slap in the face of a large section of the public that has already given up on movie theaters, preferring to watch, rent or buy a miniseries such as "The Bible" for home enjoyment. Metaxas argues that Hollywood should cater more to this audience, which spent $600 million on "The Passion of the Christ" nine years ago. I think that's irrelevant, because "Passion" became a unique, must-see event in the way "Titanic" did. Christian films before and since have found small audiences in theaters and larger audiences at home, and none have been blockbuster hits.

I'm assuming the people behind "42" just didn't care one way or another. They may have had the stereotypical idea that all black kids raised in the Depression-era South grew up as churchgoers, so his faith went without saying. They may have stressed the sectarian side of his non-violence, because that's the side with which they could identify themselves. Neglect seems a likelier cause to me than caution: This is a sin of omission, rather than commission.

If you look around a bit, you can find Hollywood films that examine spirituality. "Gravity," which has now become the most memorable movie of the year for me, shows a life-changing event that may or may not be inspired by God: The viewer must make up his own mind. Maybe filmmakers feel freer to think about such things in works of fiction, where nobody calls their research and accuracy to account.