It’s amazing how movies help me process ideas and make connections. Recently, I’ve realized how many classics I need to still see, and so have been trying to catch up. Movies have the power to transport us to alternate worlds, help us put into words what we cannot ourselves, or empower us to envision scenes that we wouldn’t be able to construct from our own realities. Movies inspire and particularly for me, help in making connections between ideas or concepts that may otherwise remain separate and unrelated.
Last Friday was a great example of that.
I was introduced to The Truman Show for the first time (checked a classic off the list!) and was immediately engrossed in Truman’s distorted reality and his journey from discovery of a false identity to complete rejection and rebellion against the system which had placed him as a star in his own reality TV show. Shrouded in humor, lighthearted banter, personable characters and happy neighborhoods, at its core, the movie is existential, deep and haunting. Truman is basically stuck in a reality that is everyone else’s but his own, constantly watched by zealous viewers around the world, lied to and deceived from birth by the people seemingly closest to him. His fate has been scripted by people he has never seen or met, who hold ultimate control over everything from what he eats, to where he works, to whom he marries.
In the middle of the movie, the producer, Christof, this metaphorical God-figure who oversees Truman’s life, says in regards to Truman’s situation and his coming awareness of reality, “We accept the reality of the world as it is presented to us.” Deep, right?!
Okay, before I elaborate on that quote, let me fast forward in my own evening to the second, seemingly completely different movie I saw that day, the newly-released must-see, On the Basis of Sex, a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Firstly, shameless plug for this film — it is powerful, inspiring, informative and provocative. It opened my eyes to a movement of men, women and youth for equality against a discriminate legal system that I had no idea existed. And, apparently, it is helping me make broader, very important social connections.
Basically, RBG, depicted skillfully by Felicity Jones, is one of the most brilliant women ever, who excelled in both Harvard and Columbia Law, taught gender law passionately at Rutgers when denied other employment opportunities that she was more than qualified for, cared for and worked alongside her husband, a skilled tax lawyer himself, raised a daughter and son, and fought tirelessly for gender equality throughout the course of this film. In a quintessential speech in a Colorado courtroom where she was representing a man who had been penalized on the basis of sex for caring for his mother, she delivers a remarkable speech about social change. In her speech, she talks about various laws and cases that brought about social changes, and the pressing need for new precedents and laws to fit a new era. While the opposition wants stasis and stability, out of fear of change and what that will bring to a male-dominated system, RBG and her husband advocate for incremental, step by step change that is needed for a new age.
Now, hopefully this isn’t too much of a jump, but with the premise of this film in mind, I want to return to that quote from The Truman Show, because herein lies my main connection. The basis of that quote is the idea that humanity accepts blindly the norms, structures, systems, realities, institutions, etc. that surround us, maybe on the premise that we are either powerless, lazy, incompetent, unmotivated, whatever, to address or change them. For Truman, there were incredibly active and formidable forces keeping him from changing his reality, so I didn’t see this statement as a remark on any laziness or paralysis on his part to take action, but more of an umbrella statement about the human condition and our tendencies.
For whatever reason, it is comfortable for us to resist change. Or maybe not to resist it, but simply to ignore its possibilities. We are afraid; we’re apathetic; we’re lazy; we lack the foresight to take risks and trust in the unknown outcomes. We cannot often envision futures beyond what we know in the present, or what we have experienced or seen.
This may be the case for menial daily instances like cleaning our room, doing chores, cooking dinner, to larger personal situations like changing a career path, leaving a job or moving abroad. But the idea that we are immobilized or apathetic toward changing larger social things that we know are wrong, unjust or oppressive is very interesting. Why do social systems remain the way that they do — why historically were there hundreds of laws prohibiting women from doing certain jobs and requiring them to live by certain procedures, or preventing African Americans from having equal opportunities and rights as white people? What does it take to uproot a system? Why are we so afraid of change? And why do so many people feel helpless to change things?
Hopefully, you’re starting to see some of the film to social connections that I’m trying to make. Funny how two disparate movies brought up similar questions. My main goal here is to raise the questions that can help us think, and leave you to answer in your own varied contexts.
I now want to bring in a spiritual component to these ideas of social change, resisting structures, confronting norms, and not living within the reality of the world as it is presented to us. The truth for Christians and for my own journey is that Jesus lived both within and outside social systems. He was a Jewish man who in one sense inhabited a human body and died a real and painful death, while in another sense being completely God and effectively subverting and resisting all forces and structures of power and oppression that he came into contact with. The Gospel, as people of Christian faith believe, is not a comfortable reality or something that just fits into a modern or prescribed worldview. We have to notice differences, unethical structures, and step outside the boundaries of what is normal or comfortable to us in order to take action and make changes when we are confronted with them.
The ways we choose to do this depends on the situation and our context, but the truth is that social change, ethical decisions, movements that serve and help others, justice on behalf of marginalized or oppressed peoples, creation and culture care, etc. are not just realities that are presented to us (often reality stands in opposition to them); we must act to propel them forward. This is a biblical and theological precedent as well as a historical one. We are called to take creative and just action and participate in God’s kingdom here on earth, being moved by things that move God’s heart.
So take Christof’s words not as reality but as a warning of what could be; strive to embody social change where it is in line with justice and truth; live within the bounds of earthly systems while trusting in divine, otherworldly realities.
My prayer, both for myself and for you as readers and friends, is that when you do feel immobilized or stuck within a reality presented to you that you know is wrong or you do not want, that you would be able to envision hope and change, both an eternal and everlasting hope, and simultaneously, a tangible and practical hope that meets you in your immediate need.
*Artist: Banksy, Title: Girl with Balloon