Warning: This post contains spoilers for the film The Best of Enemies.
I did not know what to expect from the film The Best of Enemies, but what I experienced was a range of emotions—disbelief, pride, anger, discomfort, and finally, hope. If it were not based on the true story of the fight for school integration in Durham, North Carolina in 1971, I would have had a difficult time believing the events of the 2019 film, The Best of Enemies directed by Robin Bissell. That is not to say that Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell did not offer compelling performances as civil rights leader Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis—because they did—but the notion of deep-seated and systemic racial oppression being rectified through charrette, the meetings held for the community to resolve the issue of school segregation, co-chaired by a civil rights activist and the local KKK leader is incredulous. Yet, it is true. Based on the book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, the film portrays the unlikely beginnings of a lasting camaraderie between Atwater and Ellis. Throughout the film, viewers are presented with Black pain, Black resilience, Black joy, and the hope that justice will prevail, which it does very neatly in the end. Despite the ending, the issues addressed in The Best of Enemies felt eerily familiar as America is still plagued with systemic racism in housing, healthcare, education, and employment that affects the lived experience of Black people across the United States.
What felt true as I watched The Best of Enemies was the prominent role that Black women, particularly women of faith, play in the fight for social justice. Academy Award-winning actress Taraji P. Henson, in her role as Anne Atwater, embodies a kind of holy courage. The film highlights the most notable work of Atwater in the desegregation of Durham Public Schools, however, she was known for more than the events depicted in the film. Atwater was a generous organizer who leads the charge for Black and poor people in the community over several decades. She lent her voice in the face of great evil, stating, “God gave me the gift to reach out and touch.”Atwater is part of the great cloud of witnesses of Black women whose faith informs their activism and understanding of the humanity of all people, including Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Prathia Hall. This faith informed justice is still being witnessed in the life and work of Rev. Traci Blackmon who serves as Executive Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries for The United Church of Christ, Rev. Jennifer Bailey of the Faith Matters Network, Rev. Neichelle R. Guidry, Dean of Sisters Chapel at Spelman College, and many more who, like Atwater, are getting in the way of racism, sexism, and disparities in healthcare, economics, employment and education.
What also felt true and frightening as I watched The Best of Enemies was the relationship between White Nationalism and White Christianity and the systemic support of racialized oppression. The acting in the film had such depth that it felt all too real. The closing prayer offered at the KKK meeting left me squirming in my seat. I had a visceral reaction every time there was an exchange between Ellis (Rockwell) and members of the city government showing the way in which the government was in bed with the KKK and other White supremacists. I was maddened every time Atwater testified before the all-White, all-male city council as one member blatantly disregarded her by turning his chair so his back would be to her as she spoke. I was infuriated when Ellis was hand chosen by the Mayor (Bruce McGill) to steer the charrette in such a way that so that school segregation would continue to be enforced remarking, “He’s about to hand you the keys to school integration and you’re going to lock the door.” Days after the screening, I was still unsettled. While the costumes, hair, make-up, and set design transport viewers to 1971, I was sitting with the fact that these are not solely historical realities, but rather issues that are alive and present today. There is still a strong relationship between Christian supremacy and White supremacy in the United States. And a quick glance at the headlines shows institutional racism is present in our local, state and national governments in 2019. From Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam admitting to President Donald Trump’s clarion call to Make America Great Again alongside statements and policies that devalue Black and Brown people, it is evident in the film and today that the fight for justice is rigged.
As much as I enjoyed The Best of Enemies, it was not above critique. In my estimation, the glossy cinematography and upbeat score did not jibe well with the grit and tenor of events. There was a cognitive dissonance present as my eyes and ears were stimulated against the backdrop of racism, especially the heinous words and actions of Ellis and the Ku Klux Klan members. Also, the conversion of Ellis’ ideals, as the Black Gospel choir sang, “God is Tryna Tell You Something” is an overused trope in film that adds to the sanitization, saccharization, and oversimplification of the work of racial reconciliation and redemption. There was no conversation at the KKK meeting as Ellis led the prayer for God to bless the “Invisible Empire” early in the film. There was no conversion as Atwater reminds Ellis “Same God made you, made me” in the parking lot after a charrette. The scene where Ellis has a change of heart after witnessing Black bodies joyfully singing to God, I would argue, dangerously puts the onus on Black people to do the heavy lifting in the work of justice while making a joyful noise despite their pain. Dismantling racism is going to take a lot more than Black folk ushering White people into the presence of God, rather it requires White people facing their own privilege and power and truly recognizing and living out an ethic that all are created in the image and likeness of God, a point that was missed in the film.
The Best of Enemies is a film that arouses a range of emotions but leaves the audience feeling hopeful. This story of expected and unexpected courage, civility and camaraderie in the plight to desegregate Durham Public Schools in 1971 is a must see. And for me, the film piqued my curiosity about the lives of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis and the ways in which their story can be studied, adapted, and replicated in the continued plight to dismantle racism, sexism, and other injustices that plague American society.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah is a preacher, chaplain, teacher, artist, writer, thinker, and dreamer who loves to study the Word of God, encourage others, and worship God. Rev. Owusu-Ansah holds a BS in Studio Art from New York University, an MFA in Photography from Howard University, and a Master of Divinity, Pastoral Theology, from Drew University. You can check out her website at https://www.reverendmotherrunner.com.
CHURCH OF BASKETBALL: Blazersedge.com managing editor and Lutheran minister David Deckard is part sports journalist / part online pastor.
David Deckard, like many pastors, is bivocational. He works another job, squeezing it in alongside his role as clergyman, husband, and dad. But unlike many pastors, who might hold jobs in sales or construction, his other job is in sports entertainment — specifically as the managing editor of Blazersedge.com, the leading source of fan-based coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team. Part of the SBNation, Blazersedge stands apart from other sites because of the rich sense of community its members provide.
And in the center of it all is Deckard, the man known to the masses simply as “Dave.”
As a Portland native and devoted Blazers fan, I sat down with Deckard for a wide-ranging interview covering the curious intersection of sports and faith.
JELANI: Given your lifestyle as both pastor and sports blogger, give us a little background on how you got into these roles. Plus, how did you become affiliated with Blazersedge?
DAVE DECKARD: Hah! I could tell a thousand stories about each of those things.
I grew up in a very non-churchy-type family. I sang in a Catholic boys choir when I was 10 or so, and that was it. But my high school choir director took a job at a downtown Portland church and I wanted to sing with her after I graduated, so I started singing in that church choir. That’s where I got my first inkling that God was a decent person to know and that faith might be part of my make-up. I went from that to a summer as a counselor at a church camp, then another, then youth directing, then to seminary. So be careful what you do! God is sneaky like that. You go in one day just wanting to sing a little and BAM! You’re working for the guy for life.
I’ve been a Blazers fan since I was quite young. It’s all I cared about as a kid. I went through all the ups and downs. When the Internet came in vogue, I got mixed up with an e-mail group talking about the team. A friend was blogging for the local paper’s website, and he became part of the group. He had to leave for a short emergency trip and asked me to fill in for him for a few days. I did and got the bug, then started my own site. Casey Holdahl, now with the Blazers, was running Blazersedge.com at that time. He left and contacted me about taking over Blazersedge. The rest is history.
So be careful what you do! You just start chatting about the Blazers and do a favor for a friend one day and BAM! You’re the managing editor at the biggest Trail Blazers site in the world.
As a pastor who also operates in the public square, I think you have an interesting perspective on practical theology.
Personally I think theology suffers when placed in the abstract, such as, “I believe in Doctrine X.” So often that’s a shorthand way around knowing people and God, instead of an invitation to know both better. Doctrine is like underwear. It’s indispensable, but meant to support the rest of the stuff you’re wearing. If you’re just into flashing the doctrine in public, people should run.
I’m Lutheran, to be specific. But even people within a denomination usually don’t know or understand its teachings fully. The best thing to say is just, “Let’s talk about God and life and such and you’ll get the idea.”
A few years back, I was trying to explain to my wife the significance of Blazersedge in the life of an average Blazers fan, and your role with it in particular. And I think it was after reading a commentary you wrote that touched on the whole Erin-Andrews-hotel-room thing that, in my attempt to contextualize the situation, I referred to you as “the Internet pastor of Blazer nation.” Is that a fair label, informal or not?
I haven’t heard that one before! I suspect plenty of people would bristle at that, either because the pastoral relation implies voluntary consent or because the entire idea is anathema to their worldview. However, it’s accurate to say that my outlook (read: faith) determines how I speak, how I react to folks, and in general how the site functions.
UPS AND DOWNS: After a string of misfortune with once-promising players, forward LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the few solid players left on the Blazers’ roster. (Photo: Mark Halmas/Newscom)
Oddly enough, most people misread the role faith plays. They assume that our site’s non-profanity rule stems from a religious source. I am not overly offended by swearing in personal conversation, nor do I find it more ungodly than a hundred other things people do every day. The no-profanity thing is out of concern for public decorum and being welcoming of all people without having something as insignificant as swearing get in the way.
That’s where the real faith issues come in: Diverse voices are welcome, you’ve been given power to add to this conversation, use that power for good, and frame your assertions to welcome others as you’ve been welcomed. People get banned at Blazersedge for one reason: they’re exercising their power of speech for the good of the self, hurting or ignoring others in the process. That’s a statement of faith — valuing the neighbor as oneself translated to Internet conversation.
In my writing I try to be fair and thoughtful, to treat my subjects like real people and not just objects, and to do justice to the topic instead of writing to gain more traffic for myself. I try not to take things too seriously, as a sense of humor is an asset to faith. I don’t draw too much of a distinction between my on-site life and the rest of my life. I try to write in such a way that I could be held accountable for what I say. So I guess in that way you could say that my approach is pastoral. But it’s found more in example than preaching. I’m not the center of attention. Just like church isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering God together, the site isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering the Blazers together.
The best compliment I get regarding faith — and it happens reasonably often — is when Blazersedge folks find out what I do for a living and say, “I didn’t know you were a pastor, but that makes total sense now that I think about it.” Instead of faith being this distinct moment with a distinct person separate from “real life,” it’s breathed in organically in the course of doing what you love. It’s not about me or you, it’s all around, filling the space between us and making things good whether we realize it or not.
People often equate intense sports fandom with religion. In a post, you once compared sports teams with churches in the sense that they are both public trusts that have strong traditions, but at the end of the day the people who work there are still responsible for making their own choices and protecting their own financial interests. You were trying to balance the perspective of fans who expect loyalty from their sports heroes but treat them as fungible assets when they don’t perform up to expectations — such as with Blazers point guard Raymond Felton. In your opinion, is there more loyalty in the church compared to the sports world? Should there be?
Oh yeah, Felton was about as fungible as it gets.
Back in the day, multiple ties bound people to their church. Doctrine was part of it but social ties, ethnicity, and survival in this strange New World (cultural, if not actual in the form of propagation) made church all but inescapable. If you came here as an Italian Catholic you couldn’t very well flip to a British Episcopalian without losing your identity and community. As descendants in successive generations identified as American, those ties loosened. But even then the idea of “American” and “good, church-going person” were intertwined. You might not go to your grandparents’ church but you went to some church … at least on Christmas and Easter.
In the post-’60s world folks began to question what it meant to be American, even. In most groups ethnic ties had disappeared, now national ties were following. Then came instant global communication and all of a sudden you didn’t have to be tied to local neighbors at all. You could talk to anyone and get anything you want, with the push of a button. In this environment churches have become fungible. Only those truly interested in faith (or too stubborn to let go of the old culture) remain engaged. Even among those, most won’t remain at a church that doesn’t closely align with their personal convictions.
In spirit, loyalty is still a part of the church relationship. In practice, it’s at an ebb … it has to be taught where it was once assumed.
So, do you think we’re worse off today?
Actually, there are good things about this. Those cultural and national ties overwhelmed faith back in the day. Church served the cultural perception rather than transcending it. Faith bound in service to anything but God is not faith at all. We don’t have to worry about that now. People participate in church because they desire a relationship with God, not because it’s the thing to do. Oddly enough, it’s far easier to hear God without all the cultural expectations getting in the way. I actually prefer the small, wandering group of faithful seekers to the large congregation of “good people” set in their ways. We’re just now rediscovering what faith is supposed to be.
I’m not as conversant with loyalty trends in sports but I suspect pro leagues, at least, follow the same trend. We’ll always have diehard Steelers or Blazers fans just like some folks will always be “church goers.” But most folks have a myriad of choices for their leisure time and disposable income today. Teams can no longer assume their fans will follow. The fans that do remain tend to be more knowledgeable and involved and demand more from their teams.
So is that a lesson for church leaders, too?
I believe so. It’s not enough to have just the name anymore; you have to show quality to keep folks engaged. The uniforms still said, “Trail Blazers” in 2011-12 but few fans felt that Ray Felton and company reflected true Blazer basketball. Their complaints and rejection of the product reflected that. For years people of faith have been willing to swallow almost anything that claimed a “Christian” label no matter what it said. If some idiot gets on TV and says he’s for God or a presidential candidate shows up at a church one Sunday they’re supposedly “on our side.” People of faith need to be more discerning. You’ll know where a person’s coming from by the fruit they produce. It’s not enough to divide the world into teams and then say you’re on the right one. Your claims and actions have to do something good in the world before they can be considered godly. Otherwise the uniform you’re trying to claim doesn’t matter.
Yeah, I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who, in a moment of existential gloom, referred to sports fandom as essentially “cheering for laundry.” There are few things more disaffecting than the realization that your emotional investment is not going to yield the dividends you hoped for, and that’s true in the church as much as it is in sports.
Speaking of which, many fans will look at the 2011-2012 Trail Blazers season as The Year the Dream Died, with Roy announcing his sudden retirement, Greg Oden being waived, Nate McMillan being fired, etc. And when I think about some of my episodes of basketball-related frustration (the Western Conference Finals in 2000 come to mind), Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief strike a familiar chord.
Do you find much correlation between the work you do as a pastor to walk your parishioners through grief and the way you help Blazers fans cope with wave after wave of disappointment?
There’s overlap, for sure. Grief is grief. I remember the Western Conference Finals loss in ’91 almost like a death. It was, really … the death of a dream. It hurt. We certainly do our fair share of putting things into perspective, reminding that there’s goodness that circumstances can’t touch, that there are reasons to believe, that the important part is taking the journey together instead of the lumps you take on the way.
But the roles of “journalist/analyst” and “pastor/counselor” also differ significantly. At the end of the day my role at Blazersedge is to speak the truth as I see it. I make bold proclamations about the Blazers’ prospects that I’d never make to a person sitting in my office in crisis. In counseling it doesn’t matter what you know and feel, it’s what the person in need knows and feels. Sports are more predictable and less important ultimately. They also lie outside of the domain of any individual. Abstract truths become more valuable in that kind of situation. Truth is truth in this venue in a way that isn’t possible in interpersonal relationships.
I find myself contradicting the popular wave of opinion at Blazersedge far more often (and stridently) than I’d contradict a parishioner making decisions about their own life. When the Blazers started this season 7-2 but still evidenced serious holes, I went ahead and spoke out about it. I probably wouldn’t do that so baldly in church because people need to figure that out for themselves.
The other overlap is trolling. Trolls blossom on websites and in churches alike. I must admit having to deal with trolls online has better prepared me for the unhealthy, bad behavior that people sometimes evidence in church. Whatever unfair tactic they’re using, I’ve probably seen it before. I’m much more forward in pointing out those things now than I was before my online experience.
As you know, Dave, fans can get really crazy. Sometimes it’s just fun, but at times it goes too far — like pouring beer on the opposing team’s star player. What do you say to people who really want to enjoy the emotional thrill ride of sports, but who don’t want to totally lose their minds or souls? What are some healthy ways of expressing fandom?
The idea that you can be one person in one venue and a different one in another is overblown. I’m thinking primarily of the Internet here, but I suppose it also applies at the arena or stadium. Your environment will influence your choices. But even allowing that environment determines methodology, you’re still either going to conduct yourself with honor for the greater good or you’re going to make it all about yourself and how you can get ahead. You can’t let that self-serving, “screw everyone else as long as I get ahead and look good” mentality take hold. As soon as you start basing your decisions on that, it’ll color the rest of your life. You can’t really pretend to be a jerk without actually becoming one. That’s true whether you’re clocking somebody from behind on the floor or abusing someone on a website. Act in ways that honor the people around you no matter what the venue (even when arguing or playing against them) and you’re going to bring something good to the world. That’s true whether you’re playing sports, talking about them, or just watching them while your kids say, “Daddy, can you play with me?”
Once again, bigger life lessons from the world of sports …
One other disturbing parallel I’ve noticed about people losing perspective: whether it’s in sports or church, folks seem to value being right more than enjoying the experience and each other. Both sports and faith are communal endeavors. Yet people use their knowledge to try and prove they’re better and/or more correct than the other person. This is silly. What’s the point of following sports at all if you’re not enjoying it with the people around you? The striking phenomenon from the ’77 championship in Portland wasn’t just the title but also the massive parade and community unification in the wake of the event. Fandom requires company to reach full flower. When you destroy the community to exalt yourself, you’re winning a Pyrrhic victory at best.
The phenomenon is even more ridiculous when applied to faith. If any of us could have gotten it right, there would have been no need for Jesus to die for us. God would have simply said, “Nice, Bob! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to get it! Come on up to heaven, you perfectly correct dude, you!” Since Jesus, you know, died for our sins, that seems to imply the necessity and thus our falling short. In many ways arguing about who’s the most correct is arguing who needs Christ the least … a curious argument for Christians to try to win. Missing the greater picture in favor of making your point is a bad idea whether you’re in an online forum or in church.
It seems like it all comes back to the question of “How do we build, sustain, and reflect authentic community?” In what ways can you see the communities of sport and faith combining for the greater good?
There’s always potential. Every year we hold “Blazersedge Night” where the people of our community donate to send underprivileged young folks to a Blazers game. Last year we exceeded 700 kids and chaperones sent so we know people are willing to participate in something good.
I think you’ve hit on the main point, though … it has to be something good, as in “service to others.” Much of the overt “Christian” presence I see online (and I use the term loosely) makes me shudder. People screaming at each other, dividing the world into camps and picking fights, gloating over people’s misfortunes and saying, “I told you so.” It’s not everybody, of course, but it doesn’t take too much of that to turn the name sour. I had to spend years online showing who I am and what I’m about before I was overt at all about my profession. The field has been poisoned enough that when people hear the name “Christian” or “church” they’re just as likely to run or scroll onward as to engage or be curious. So modeling Christ-like behavior online might be the first commitment we sports fanatics all need to make.
Church isn’t the only place people go to learn about Jesus.
At the beginning of Lent, 15 years ago, devout evangelical Christians did not go to church to have ashes marked on their foreheads. Rather, they thronged to theaters to watch a decidedly Catholic film to begin the Lenten season.
That film was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which would go on to gross over US$600 million globally. It brought to screen a vivid portrayal of the last few hours of the life of Jesus and even today many can readily recall the brutality of those depictions. The film also stirred up a number of cultural clashes and raised questions about Christian anti-Semitism and what seemed to be a glorification of violence.
This wasn’t the only film to bring Jesus to cinema in such a powerful way. There have, in fact, been hundreds of films about Jesus produced around the world for over 100 years.
These films have prompted devotion and missionary outreach, just as they have challenged viewers’ assumptions of who the figure of Jesus really was.
Images of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, have long been part of the Christian tradition. From amulets to icons, paintings to sculptures, Christianity incorporates a rich visual history, so perhaps it is not surprising that cinema has become a vital medium to display the life of Jesus.
Inventors of cinematic technologies, such as Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, were among the first to bring Jesus’s life to the big screen at the end of the 19th century. Hollywood continued to cash in on Christian audiences all through the 20th century.
Fifteen years later, crowds flocked to see Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings”, demonstrating the power of a big budget and a well-known director. Writing about DeMille’s film some years later, film historian Charles Musser commented how the film evoked “Christ’s charisma” through “a mesmerizing repertoire of special effects, lighting and editing.”
In Hollywood’s portrayal, Jesus was a white, European man. In Nicholas Ray’s 1961 film, “King of Kings” Jeffrey Hunter made a deep impression on his audience in the role of Jesus with his piercing blue eyes. Four years later, George Stevens’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, cast the white Swedish actor Max von Sydow in the lead role.
In all these films, evidence of Jesus’s Jewish identity was toned down. Social or political messages found in the gospels – such as the political charge of a “kingdom of God” – were smoothed over. Jesus was portrayed as a spiritual savior figure while avoiding many of the socio-political controversies.
This was, as Biblical studies scholar Adele Reinhartz put it, not Jesus of Nazareth, but the creation of a “Jesus of Hollywood.”
An advertisement for Olcott’s film, for example, stated how it was “destined to be more far-reaching than the Bible in telling the story of the Savior.” Indeed, as media scholars Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke have noted, many Christian leaders throughout the 20th century utilized the power of film for moral instruction and conversion.
A 1979 film, known as “The Jesus Film”, went on to become the most watched film in history. The film was a relatively straightforward depiction of the life of Jesus, taken mainly from the gospel of Luke.
The film was translated into 1,500 languages and shown in cities and remote villages around the world.
The global Jesus
But, as majority Christian population shifted from Europe and North America to Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and South Asia, so did portrayals of Jesus: they came to reflect local cultures and ethnicities.
In the 2006 South African film “Son of Man”, for example, Jesus, his mother and disciples are all black, and the setting is a contemporary, though fictionalized, South Africa. The film employed traditional art forms of dance and music that retold the Jesus story in ways that would appeal to a South African audience.
It was the same with a Telugu film, “Karunamayudu” (Ocean of Mercy), released in 1978. The style resembles a long tradition of Hindu devotional and mythological films and Jesus could easily be seen as part of the pantheon of Hindu deities.
For the past four decades in southern India and beyond, villagers have gathered in front of makeshift outdoor theaters to watch this film. With over 100 million viewers, it has become a tool for Christian evangelism.
Other films have responded to and reflected local conditions in Latin America. The Cuban film “The Last Supper,” from 1976, offered a vision of a Jesus that is on the side of the enslaved and oppressed, mirroring Latin American movements in Liberation Theology. Growing out of the Cold War, and led by radical Latin American priests, Liberation Theology worked in local communities to promote socio-economic justice.
Meanwhile, the appeal of some of these films can also be gauged from how they continue to be watched year after year. The 1986 Mexican film, “La vida de nuestro señor Jesucristo,” for example, is broadcast on the Spanish-language television station Univision during Easter week every year.
The power of film
Throughout history, Jesus has taken on the appearance and behavior of one cultural group after another, some claiming him as their own, others rejecting certain versions of him.
Cinema allows people in new places and times to grasp Jesus “anew,” and create what I have called a “georeligious aesthetic.” Films, especially those about Jesus, in their movement across the globe, can alter the religious practices and beliefs of people they come into contact with.
While the church and the Bible provide particular versions of Jesus, films provide even more – new images that can prompt controversy, but also devotion.
Natalie Manuel Lee, a California native, fashion stylist/influencer, is the executive producer and host of Hillsong Channel’s newest series, “Now with Natalie,” premiering on March 3. The series is a fresh, relevant, and necessary examination into the depths of the Christian millennial experience. Featuring guests such as Kelly Rowland, Tyson Chandler, and Hailey Bieber, the series focuses on purpose and identity, the blessing and curse that is social media, and staying grounded in a culture that glamorizes status over self-care. With its countercultural “it’s not what you think” approach, “Now with Natalie” is sure to set a precedent in the modern Christian narrative. Ahead of the premier, Urban Faith sat down with Natalie to find out more about her new series, what inspired the idea, and her personal journey of staying grounded in a hustle and bustle society.
WHAT INSPIRED “NOW WITH NATALIE”?
I saw a need. A plight of this generation is to glorify the one in a position instead of seeing the purpose behind that position. The idea behind the show is to dismantle counterfeit definitions of identity and purpose and to pull back the veil of false narratives that culture tends to push. What we do and what we have cannot define our worth and value. Our identity should be rooted in who we are and whose we are. I personally have wrestled with these concepts before and wanted to have authentic conversations to shed light on this.
WHAT TOPICS DO YOU FOCUS ON IN “NOW WITH NATALIE”?
The show will focus almost exclusively on the topics of purpose and identity. Because it is such a deep and pervasive wound, the series will focus on dissecting these topics from different perspectives and experiences.
WHICH INTERVIEWS ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT?
Honestly, I am excited about all of them. Each episode serves a different purpose. You will hear about experiences ranging from the music industry, professional athletes, professionals in the area of cognitive neuroscience, and more. Each episode is enlightening and is intended to make you feel more free after watching.
WHAT IMPACT DO YOU BELIEVE SOCIAL MEDIA HAS ON SELF WORTH?
Social media can be the greatest blessing, but also the biggest curse. When misused, social media can fuel inadequacy. As humans, we tend to compare and want to compete based off what we scroll through on these highlight reels. A lot of our thoughts come from what we see and, for some, this level of comparison has peaked the epidemic of depression and anxiety. I always advocate taking periodic social media fasts, and just deleting the apps when needed.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE HAPPINESS?
As a mental perspective. When you truly know who you are and what you’re defined by, happiness will arrive. I think about happiness as joy, and the joy of the Lord is my strength. I constantly revert back to the truth of who I am, and the truth of who God is. Happiness and joy align with those truths.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK-LIFE BALANCE ROUTINE?
I start my mornings still. I give myself time in the morning, and spend time with God. The biggest lesson I have learned in the last decade is to not abort the process God is putting me through, and to keep my eyes fixed on the bigger picture. God created us each with a very specific and unique life blueprint, and He has equipped us to navigate it without looking to the left or to the right in comparison. God graces each of us to run our own unique race.
Mahershala Ali’s life changed in more ways than one the week of the 2017 Oscars. Four days before he won best supporting actor for his performance in “Moonlight,” his wife, Amatus-Sami Karim, gave birth to their first child.
“When I won, all I could think about was: I just want to get home,” Ali says, grinning.
It wasn’t just Ali’s soulful, tender performance as a drug dealer in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” that illuminated Ali to audiences. It was his incredible poise through awards season, where he became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, during the outcry over Donald Trump’s ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries, he eloquently spoke about “Moonlight” and acceptance: “We see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves.”
It was clear enough: Here was no flash-in-the-pan. Here was a journeyman actor of uncommon grace and dignity. And Ali’s phone started ringing.
“It changed the trajectory of my career,” Ali, 44, said in a recent interview over tea in midtown Manhattan. “It gives you permission in some way to not dream bigger but dream deeper. Like: What type of work do you really want to do?”
Ali still harbors larger aspirations, like playing boxer Jack Johnson, but this fall has provided some of the answer. Ali stars in Peter Farrelly’s road-trip drama “Green Book” and headlines the upcoming third season of HBO’s “True Detective.” And “Green Book,” now in theaters, has again catapulted Ali to the top of the supporting-actor contenders. Many believe he’s in line for another Oscar.
But this time, the road has been rockier. “Green Book,” brisk and modest, has won raves from some critics and many audiences as a feel-good story about the real-life friendship that developed when the refined concert pianist Don Shirley (Ali) hired a racist Bronx bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), to drive him on a 1962 tour of the Deep South. But the film has been criticized by some as an outdated, sentimentalized kind of movie, one that trades on racial tropes , perpetuates the “white savior” cliche and isn’t deserving of its namesake (a travel-survival guide for African-Americans in the Jim Crow South).
Ali grants “Green Book” is a portrait of race in America unlike one by Jenkins or Amma Asante or Ava DuVernay. But he believes the film’s uplifting approach has value.
“It’s approached in a way that’s perhaps more palatable than some of those other projects. But I think it’s a legitimate offering. Don Shirley is really complex considering it’s 1962. He’s the one in power in that car. He doesn’t have to go on that trip. I think embodied in him is somebody that we haven’t seen. That alone makes the story worthy of being told,” says Ali. “Anytime, whether it’s white writers or black writers, I can play a character with dimensionality, that’s attractive to me.”
“Green Book” was hailed as an irresistible crowd-pleaser and a major Oscar contender after its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the festival’s audience award . (And every film in the last decade to win that prize has ended up a best picture nominee.) But the $23 million-film has struggled to take off at the box office, earning $8.3 million in two weeks. Universal Pictures still has high hopes. Audiences gave it an A-plus CinemaScore and the National Board of Review on Tuesday named it the year’s best film .
Still, along the way, Ali has heard the complaints about “Green Book.” He disagrees.
“A couple of times I’ve seen ‘white savior’ comments and I don’t think that’s true. Or the ‘reverse “Driving Miss Daisy'” thing, I don’t agree with,” he says. “If you were to call this film a ‘reverse “Driving Miss Daisy,'” then you would have to reverse the history of slavery and colonialism. It would have to be all black presidents and all white slaves.”
Yet the debates over “Green Book” have put Ali in a plainly awkward position, particularly when Mortensen used the n-word at a Q&A for the film while discussing the slur’s prevalence in 1962. Mortensen quickly apologized , saying he had no right, in any context to use the word. Ali issued a statement, too, in support of Mortensen while firmly noting the word’s wrongness.
“It was challenging, especially being the lone black presence in the film and feeling responsible to address that publicly,” says Ali. “There’s a difference between racist and lacking awareness. And I think he lacked awareness in that moment of the inappropriateness of the word, even within an intellectual context like that. There’s a mini explosion that happens whenever a non-black person says that in a public setting.”
“But I love him,” Ali adds. “And we’ve talked about it more. He’s a great dude and he’s going to continue to be a great dude.”
Ali first got to know Mortensen on the awards circuit two years ago, when Mortensen was nominated for “Captain Fantastic.” The film rests on their relationship; that it works so well is a testament to their chemistry together. When cast, Mortensen’s first question to Farrelly was who was going to play Shirley.
“When Pete said Mahershala Ali, I said, ‘Well you can’t do better than that,'” Mortensen said by phone. “He’s very sensitive and extremely intelligent and thoughtful and has a real awareness of himself in any space. He’s at ease with himself. My sense of him is that he’s meticulous as an artist. There was a dynamic there based on each of us trying to help the other guy doing the best possible job that he could. It was beautiful.”
Ali grants he shares Shirley’s own fastidious nature (“I would say within reason,” he says, smiling). Farrelly adds that Ali’s precision had a hugely positive effect on “Green Book,” especially in shaping the portrayal of Shirley. “I wanted to make sure Don Shirley was equally if not more empowered,” Ali says. The actor suggested tweaks and changes to deepen the pianist’s pain at, like Nina Simone, being denied a career in classical music.
“And he did a bunch of those. He was very hands on in a good way,” Farrelly said by phone. “He and Viggo are a great balance. They’re such perfectionists in their work.”
Farrelly, best known for his broader comedies with his brother Bobby (“There’s Something About Mary”), also defended his film.
“I’m getting some crap from people saying it’s a rosy picture of race, but, you know, it’s just a rosy picture of that relationship, not all race relationships,” said Farrelly. “And it’s the truth of what happened to these two men. And that is the thing that really drew me to the project. I’m a hopeful guy. I know we’re in a dark period right now in race relations but I am hopeful.”
Ali has his own kind of optimism for “Green Book” and its place in a larger conversation.
“The disease of racism and bigotry and discrimination — there are a myriad of ways to tackle that,” Ali says. “And you need all of them.”
Joe Morton, left, and Brandon Micheal Hall star in “God Friended Me,” in which Hall’s character, Miles Finer — the atheist son of an Episcopal priest, played by Morton — receives a friend request from God on social media. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wenk/CBS Broadcasting Inc.
Even in our present “golden age” of television, with the number of scripted programs on network, cable and streaming channels expected to top 500 this year, shows that feature religion or faith are scarce.
Rarer still are spiritually themed series that successfully find an audience, if not critical acclaim, amid the thrum of hundreds of other viewing options.
Those shows seem to come along perhaps once a decade — “7th Heaven” in the 2000s, “Touched by an Angel” in the ’90s, “Highway to Heaven” in the ’80s, “The Flying Nun” in the late ’60s through the early ’70s.
Then this fall, the new CBS hourlong dramedy “God Friended Me” premiered to such impressive ratings that the network gave a full-season order for it after only three episodes. Its surprise success has caused some media watchers to wonder whether we’re on the cusp of a religion renaissance on the small screen.
“It’s cyclical,” said Jeffrey Mahan, a professor of religion and communication at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and author of “Media, Religion and Culture: An Introduction.” “It’s not random. We get them in response to something.”
After 9/11 came shows such as “Survivor,” “Fear Factor” and “Lost,” which reflected the existential crises and angst experienced by many Americans, said Craig Detweiler, president of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and author of several books about the intersection of faith and culture, including “A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture.”
“Now we have so much existential dread generated by the fear industry that is network news and is thriving in the Trump era — they’re pushing that fear button every day — that we have shows that have to wrestle with despair and ultimate questions,” Detweiler said.
The wildly popular apocalyptic visions of “The Walking Dead,” for instance, are a “perfectly rational response” to what feels like a kill-or-be-killed era, Detweiler said. “Or the visions of the afterlife that started with a show like ‘The Leftovers’ on HBO and that continue with ‘The Good Place’ or ‘Forever’ in a more accessible way. The questions are still the same: Are we living in hell? Do things get better?”
In the face of societal anxiety, Mahan believes, TV shows that depict divine or supernatural intervention are a comfort. “The genre … says God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world, God is attentive, God is jerking people back from in front of the subway train, God has a partner for you,” he said.
Whether for dramatic or comedic effect (and with varying degrees of artistry and efficacy), in troubled times, mainstream television seems to experience an uptick in programs featuring celestial or superhuman beings interacting with humankind, or mere mortals wrestling with eternal conundrums.
Since the 2016 presidential election, for instance, shows such as “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World,” “Living Biblically” and “Lucifer” have come and gone from network television (although after Fox canceled “Lucifer” in May, Netflix has picked it up for a fourth season to air next year.)
Cable and myriad streaming channels have proffered grittier shows with spiritual themes and settings to slake an audience’s thirst for metaphysical solace or intrigue, including “The Path” on Hulu, “The Leftovers” and “The Young Pope” on HBO, “Preacher” on AMC, “Call the Midwife” on PBS and “Greenleaf” on Oprah’s OWN network.
For the last decade or two, spiritual and religious content in mainstream television programming, while certainly remaining a minority, has run the genre gamut from the serious (“Big Love,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Saving Grace”) to the silly (“Jane the Virgin,” “John from Cincinnati,” “Impastor,” “GCB,” “The O’Neals”) and the earnest-if-twee heavenly-hosts oeuvre (“Touched…” “Highway…” “7th…”).
Most never find an audience robust enough to keep them on the air for more than a season or two. But sometimes a dark-horse show appears in the right place at the right time.
From left to right: Violett Beane as Cara Bloom, Brandon Micheal Hall as Miles Finer and Suraj Sharma as Rakesh Singh appear in an episode of “God Friended Me.” Photo courtesy of Michele Crowe/CBS Broadcasting Inc.
Over at CBS this fall, God is having a moment.
“God Friended Me” chronicles the adventures of the atheist son of an Episcopal priest who’s dispatched by a Facebook user who goes by the handle “God” to rescue perfect strangers. The supporting cast includes Jewish, Hindu and Muslim characters. Its Sept. 30 debut earned a 1.4 Nielsen rating and drew 10.4 million viewers — noteworthy, particularly given the show’s subject matter: faith, doubt and the nature of the divine (if it does, in fact, exist).
It’s an unorthodox programming mix for mainstream TV, for sure, and it’s also one of the most highly rated new dramas on television.
For more nuanced and robust exploration of those themes, Mahan said he looks to popular shows that dip into the faith arena for an episode or two, or in the secondary story arc of a larger narrative.
Think of Kathryn Hahn’s character, Rabbi Raquel Fein, and the various Pfefferman family members’ wrestling with Judaism and the nature of faith itself in Amazon Studios’ “Transparent,” or the earthy faith of Jenifer Lewis’ sassy grandmother character Ruby Johnson — “Black Jesus, Black Jesus!” — on ABC’s “Black-ish,” which dedicated a whole episode to the Johnson family’s experiences at a white hipster evangelical church.
Or the multi-seasonal storyline on “The Americans” when the teenage daughter of Russian spies living in Washington, D.C., rebels by becoming a born-again Christian and sharing the family secret with her youth pastor.
“I think we tend to get better episodic dealing with religion than we get from the shows that have a big commitment to proving that religion, particularly Christian religion, is good,” Mahan said.
What you rarely find are series that revolve around a religious community (although “Call the Midwife,” set in part among the nurse-midwives and members of an Anglican religious order in 1960s London, is a notable exception) or with a lead character or characters who are clergypersons or for whom faith is the grounding motivation for how they live.
The million-dollar question, then, is why not?
“It just doesn’t rate — not a big enough audience,” said Julie Piepenkotter, executive vice president of research for FX Networks. “And it certainly goes against the edgier fare that seems so popular now…. Nobody sets out to make a mediocre-rated show. It’s hard enough to do with shows that aren’t hampered by treacliness that is not in vogue.”
Shows that attempt to put a relentlessly positive spin on religion or faith in general will find it nearly impossible to find purchase in the era of “Under His Eye” and the dystopian nightmares of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” she said.
Jonathan Bock, founder and CEO of Grace Hill Media, which specializes in marketing faith-based content in film and television, places part of the blame for the dearth of artful, thoughtful spiritual content on TV on the audience itself.
“For the most part right now, American Christians like the world portrayed as it should be, not as it is,” Bock said. “That’s why you have a lot of ‘Christian’ movies where a nice person becomes nicer, and it works because it’s only 90 minutes…. But on television that’s hard to sustain” without sex, violence and moral quandaries that make some Christians uncomfortable.
They don’t want messy. They don’t want moral ambiguity. But what makes one group of the faithful nervous is precisely what most intrigues another.
“What I’d like to see is progressive religiosity that thinks that faith matters, that having a ritualized or a spiritual practice is sustaining in the midst of a life where God is not in control of everything and bad stuff happens,” Mahan said. “Whether there’s any kind market for a story like that is a whole other question.”
For a spiritually themed TV show to succeed, Piepenkotter said, it would need to go deeper than superficial niceties and be controversial. Ultimately, that is up to the people who create the character and the narrative.
“You have to find the writers who want to tell those stories and have the ability to tell them well, with multilayered characters, complex characters, relationships and execution,” she said. “I want to see what’s behind that curtain. I want to see a level of hypocrisy that I see from the outside looking in.… That’s probably a really interesting show.”