Into the Wild ‘Blue’ Yonder

Into the Wild ‘Blue’ Yonder

FAITH OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARIES: Marshall Allman and Claire Holt bring Donald Miller's bestselling book to life in 'Blue Like Jazz.' (Image: Roadside Attractions)

“Jazz is the mother, and hip-hop’s the child / She died and revived, now her child’s running wild.” – Grits, “Jazz,” Mental Releases, 1994

The highly anticipated film adaptation of Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, which opens this weekend, accomplishes something rare and beautiful: it depicts an authentic faith journey in a bohemian, urban setting. Though the titular music is mentioned only a few times in passing — over the plaintive wails of vintage Coltrane — the movie pulses with many aspects of great jazz. It is alternately exuberant and melancholy, messy and chaotic but with a coalescing sense of order and progression.

Directed by former CCM artist and producer Steve Taylor (who also directed 2006’s The Second Chance starring Michael W. Smith) and starring Marshall Allman (HBO’s True Blood), Blue Like Jazz is a fictionalized account of Donald Miller’s crisis of belief at liberal Reed College, a stark contrast to his Baptist Texan upbringing.

Plenty of keystrokes have been expended dealing with the question of whether or not this is a Christian movie. In my book, motion pictures can be no more Christian than model trains or milkshakes, which are all products born of long, collaborative processes. What people really mean when they ask that question is, “Does this film espouse a Christian worldview?”

The answer there is a firm, “yes, but.” Yes, but not an exclusively conservative evangelical worldview. Yes, but only if your definition of a Christian includes those who struggle and doubt and make horrendous mistakes and occasionally [SPOILER ALERT] deface buildings with giant condoms. (Did I mention this is a PG-13 film?)

Marshall Allman plays the fictional Don Miller as an everyman-turned-iconoclast, who fled to Reed as an act of rebellion amidst personal turmoil in his personal life and at his fundamentalist Baptist church. Eventually, he ends up rebelling against the rebellion, slowly finding his way back to a place of forgiveness and reconnection after spending a school year “lost in a sea of individuality.” Viewing his journey, then, is a little bit like an ad hoc whitewater baptism. It’s full of confused, frightened thrashing about, but after it’s over, you walk away with a deep sense of peace and meaning.

Dramatizing a primarily internal conflict, a challenging task in any film, requires getting the details right. And as Don says in the film, if you’re going to have an existential crisis, you can’t do much better than winter in Portland. Despite its paucity of ethnic diversity, the city of Portland, home to Reed College and plenty of native weirdness, plays a significant support role, with many iconic Portland locales represented onscreen.

And though most of the screen time is carried by Allman’s Don alongside new friends Penny (Claire Holt), Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), and an enigmatic character known only as The Pope (played to the hilt by Justin Welborn), Don’s journey is encapsulated by an active disdain for his parents and an effort to run from the faith of his past.

MEN BEHIND THE STORY: Director Steve Taylor (from left), author Donald Miller, and star Marshall Allman during one of several tour stops this spring to screen 'Blue Like Jazz' for preview audiences.

Thus, the main source of the film’s God-centered outlook comes from the seemingly incomprehensible way that the people and events that comprise Don’s first year at Reed somehow lead him back to faith, rather than pushing him further away. Somehow, despite the copious amounts of alcohol, philosophical debates, activist stunts, and gender identity politics, Don begins to see with clarity who he really is, and in contrast, who God has been the whole time.

There’s something wonderfully symmetrical about a film that depicts a rediscovery of God among the godless being named after an art form initially rejected as vulgar and inferior. That sense of poetic justice is amplified further when you consider that the trio of producer Steve Taylor, cowriter and cinematographer Ben Pearson, and Don Miller himself, had given up on the project after four years of fundraising futility. They were only able to move forward after two fans emailed them with the idea of a crowdsourced Kickstarter campaign  — one that eventually shattered all the previous fundraising records for films and turned thousands of financial supporters into de facto associate producers. So after witnessing the creative journey from memoir to screenplay to the big screen, Blue seems very much like, pardon the expression, a God thing.

Which is good, because this film is a significant departure from standard faith-based fare that takes more of an obvious approach to faith. It’s obvious that the film, like the book that spawned it, was intended to help spark honest conversations between members of competing faith communities, including those who have no faith at all. In this sense, Blue Like Jazz is clearly a bridge-building film, and it could very well serve as a notice to the rest of Hollywood that it’s possible to do faith-based filmmaking that is both spiritually honest and commercially viable. For that reason alone, people need to go out and see Blue Like Jazz as soon as possible.

My only remaining hope is that, if this film reaches a modicum of commercial success, the principal creators turn their attention to another intractable problem in need of cultural bridge-building — the racial divide in America. If that seems like too tall an order, they should take it as a compliment. I have plenty of faith in God expressing Himself through the talents of Donald Miller and Steve Taylor.

They just won’t be able to set it in Portland, because, well, there just aren’t enough Black people here.

Prayer Mentioned at Zimmerman Arrest Press Conference

Prayer Mentioned at Zimmerman Arrest Press Conference

Prayer made an appearance at Special Prosecutor Angela Corey's Press Conference announcing the arrest of George Zimmerman.

Prayer is the first thing Florida Special Prosecutor Angela Corey and her team did when they met with the parents of Trayvon Martin some three weeks ago, she said at a press conference last night announcing that George Zimmerman had been arrested on second-degree murder charges in Martin’s death.

Wearing a large gold cross around her neck, Corey said, “After meeting with Trayvon’s parents that first Monday night after we got appointed in this case … the first thing we did was pray with them. We opened our meeting in prayer.”

Corey did not make any promises to Martin’s parents, she said. “In fact, we specifically talked about if criminal charges do not come out of this, what can we help you do to make sure your son’s death is not in vain? And they were very kind and very receptive to that,” said Corey.

She thanked “all of those people across this country who have sent positive energy and prayers our way” and asked them to “continue to pray” for Trayvon’s family and for her team. “Remember, it is Trayvon’s family that are our constitutional victims and have the right to know the critical stages of these proceedings,” said Corey.

At a separate press conference, Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, thanked God and Jesus for Zimmerman’s arrest. “We wanted nothing more, nothing less,” she said. Fulton also expressed gratitude toward supporters, saying, “I just want to speak from my heart to your heart because a heart has no color. It’s not black; it’s not white. It’s red, and I want to say thank you from my heart to your heart.”

Likewise, Corey addressed the racial tensions inherent in this case, saying, “Those of us in law enforcement are committed to justice for every race, every gender, every person of any persuasion whatsoever.”

Speaking after Fulton, Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, said, “We [have] a long way to go and we have faith. The first time we marched, I looked to the sky and I just told myself, ‘When I walk, I will walk by faith.’ We will continue to walk by faith. We will continue to hold hands on this journey: White, Black, Hispanic, Latino.”

Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, did not invoke faith at his press conference, but said his client is “troubled by everything that has happened.” It is perhaps ironic that he also said “it must be frightening” for Zimmerman to not be able to go into a 7-11 because of “hatred” directed against him given the fact that Martin was reportedly returning from a 7-11 when Zimmerman shot him.

O’Mara said his client will plead not-guilty and he will ask for bond to be set at a level Zimmerman’s family can afford. They are not people of means, O’Mara said. He has advised his client to “stay calm” going forward.

Corey said her office does not “prosecute by public pressure or by petition,” but “based on the facts of any given case, as well as the laws of the state of Florida.” A CBS News article describes her as a tough, tenacious litigator who ran for and won her boss’ job as state’s attorney after he fired her.

“The Supreme Court has defined our role on numerous occasions as prosecutors that we are not only ministers of justice, we are seekers of the truth, and we stay true to that mission,” she said at the press conference.

She also said her office is “equally committed to justice” for both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. “We will scrupulously adhere to our ethical obligations and to the rules of evidence in presenting this case,” said Corey.

The decision to charge Zimmerman was made last week and the Sanford Police Department investigation was ongoing when Florida governor Rick Scott assigned her to take over the case, she said. If convicted, the maximum sentence Zimmerman could receive is life in prison, but Corey said she will not decide what penalty to seek until after the case has been tried.

O’Mara said Zimmerman is “concerned about getting a fair trial” in central Florida given how “high” emotions are running against him. Asked why he took the case after Zimmerman dropped his previous attorneys, O’Mara said, “It’s what I do. … Mr. Zimmerman needs a very good and focused defense, so we’re going to build him one.” Florida’s “stand your ground” law will be a facet of Zimmerman’s defense, O’Mara said, but he conceded there are “troublesome portions” to it. “We are now going to have discussions and conversations about that as a state. Right now it’s the law of Florida,” he said.

In an interview this morning with the Today show, Fulton said she believes her son’s death was an accident. “I believe that it just got out of control, and [Zimmerman] couldn’t turn the clock back,” she said. How her use of the word “accident” will impact legal proceedings and public opinion now that Zimmerman has been charged with murder is anybody’s guess.

Update: Sybrina Fulton released a statement this afternoon through her attorney stating that her “accident” comment was “mischaracterized” by the media. “When I referenced the word ‘accident’ today with regard to Trayvon’s death, in NO way did I mean the shooting was an accident. We believe that George Zimmerman stalked my son and murdered him in cold blood. The ‘accident’ I was referring to was the fact that George Zimmerman and my son ever crossed paths.”

 What do you think?

Will public emotion settle down now that Zimmerman has been arrested?