While The Hunger Games received most of the attention at the box office last weekend, another film also opened that, in its own way, was equally as notable. October Baby, a small-budget Christian film with a pro-life message, earned $1.7 million, which may seem negligible when compared to the $155 million of Hunger Games, but October Baby opened on less than 400 screens (compared to more than 4,000 for Hunger Games), and was produced for a fraction of the cost. The fact that it was ranked number one for limited-release movies demonstrates the continuing demand for quality Christian films. Not that long ago, a film made by overtly Christian filmmakers and released nationwide happened infrequently. Thankfully, that is changing. The quality and quantity of faith-based movies is increasing and so are the topics these films are addressing.
October Baby tackles admittedly provocative questions like: What would you do if you discovered you’re not exactly who you think you are, and that what you assumed about your origins is not true? What if you found out that you almost weren’t born, and furthermore that someone wanted it that way? It’s not easy to approach a subject like abortion, but October Baby does it with grace, class, and love. Rather than beat you over the head, or even tap you on the shoulder, the film wraps its arms around you and simply waits for your reaction to all it has to say.
I recently had the privilege to chat with brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the co-directors/writers/producers behind the film, both in person and by telephone. Excerpts of our conversations follow, edited for clarity and conciseness.
CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Considering that this is your first foray into filmmaking, why did you pick such a provocative and emotionally charged subject matter?
ANDY ERWIN: If you had asked us a few years ago, what would our first feature film be, we would have probably picked something other than this one. Not because it’s not a compelling story, but because it’s such a risky subject, and there’s so much heated emotion attached to both sides of this issue. I think as a filmmaker, sometimes you go out to find a film, but nine times out of ten the story finds you. Jon heard a woman speak named Gianna Jessen. She gave her testimony of surviving a saline abortion and having cerebral palsy as a result. She just has a beautiful spirit, and when we heard her story, Jon was so moved by hearing her speak.
CWC: Jon, what was it about her story that captured your attention and moved you?
THE STORY FOUND THEM: 'October Baby' filmmakers (and brothers) Jon and Andrew Erwin decided to tell a story that is a 'celebration of life.'
JON ERWIN: Andy’s right — sometimes a movie finds you, and when I heard Gianna speak … just the concept of an abortion survivor, those are two words I had no idea fit together. I was jarred, surprised, and shattered by it all at the same time. The more I researched it, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just felt this was a unique take on the topic, and it made a political issue become very real. When you look at it through that lens, when you put a face on it, you look at the person. You look beyond the politics to the human issue. And the whole thing moved me. People have said, “You’re very brave taking on this issue.” It’s really not that at all. I’m an artist and whatever is going on in my life works its way out in what we do. In this case, God moved in my life, shattered me over the issue, and it worked its way out into a movie. I felt like we’d been given a gift, a tool to shed light on the issue, but the challenge became how to do that. We ruled out a documentary, so we thought maybe we could take a different approach and make an entertaining film about a beautiful young girl.
AE: Yes, we used the context of Gianna’s life and inserted it into a coming-of-age love story in which a 19-year-old girl finds out that she’s a survivor of an abortion, goes on a road trip to find answers, and ultimately finds forgiveness. But our goal going into it wasn’t to do a political film but to do a human film, a human story that looks at the issue of abortion as a human rights issue, not as a political debate. So it was very interesting that through the eyes of the victim the story became much more entertaining and engaging. That’s when we knew this was the story we wanted to tell.
CWC: So the film was really story motivated and story driven, rather than message driven?
AE: Any movie should be. I think the movies that engage me the most as a viewer are not the ones that try and get a message or agenda across. I think that comes across as propaganda. Our goal is to tell a good story. The story that captivated our hearts as filmmakers was hearing Gianna’s testimony of survival. That’s what motivated us to tell this story of Hannah in October Baby. Being story driven allowed us to speak on a lot of topics we’re passionate about in a way that was not forced.
CWC: Let’s talk for a moment about the idea of “messaging” in films, especially those made by Christian filmmakers. I know you weren’t message driven with this film, but if you had to identify a message, what would it be?
AE: The message of October Baby is very much about forgiveness and healing. Those are universal and relatable topics and they allow you to address issues that you normally wouldn’t. This film deals with everything from abortion to adoption, from abstinence to post-abortive realities. There’s a line in the movie that says to be human is to be beautifully flawed. I think the reality that some films miss out on is that as humans, we are broken and we have issues. We use that reality to touch on these topics through the eyes of grace and through the eyes of the gospel in a way that I think a secular world can engage with.
JE: We hope the film doesn’t tell anybody what to think, but the biggest thing we wanted the movie to confront was indifference and inaction. This is one of the crucial issues of our time, and we very rarely stop and think about it. We wanted to address that apathy.
CWC: Do you consider this a pro-life movie? Are you comfortable with that term?
JE: Yes, I do consider it a pro-life movie. Is this a political movie? Absolutely not. The movie is about celebrating the value of life. In my opinion, that should be the definition of pro-life. It’s not an “anti-anything” movie. This film has a broad brush and encompasses not only the abortion/pro-life issue, but also adoption and caring for those who can’t care for themselves. I believe there’s an awakening in our culture, especially among our youth, to the value of life. I think we can all agree that we haven’t valued life enough, which manifests itself in a lot of different ways. So I would even go beyond pro-life and say the film is a celebration of life.
AE: I don’t think people will be offended at the way it’s presented. We don’t vilify or demonize anybody as much as we look at a very harsh reality, the very hard subject of abortion in a fresh way — through the eyes of someone who survived one.
CWC: But given that October Baby speaks to so many universal themes, like forgiveness and healing, do you have any concerns about people pigeonholing it as just a theatrical vehicle for the pro-life movement? Conversely, are you at all concerned about groups intentionally minimizing that aspect of the movie?
AE: My job as a filmmaker is to stir the pot and get people talking. If I can do that, then I’m able to step back from the process and trust that God will allow it to be productive. There are a lot of hurting people from all walks of life that will watch this film and it will stir all sorts of emotions and issues in them, and they will need to deal with those things. This is why our ministry partners are so valuable. For example, a ministry like Surrendering The Secret can step in and minister to post-abortive women. Or Care Net and Heartbeat International can minister to girls that are in a crisis pregnancy and don’t know what to do. I’m very excited about that.
I’m very comfortable with how Jon and I present the message in October Baby. I think we took an honest look at it. So I’m not ashamed at all, because I don’t think there’s anything about the way the story is told that I would apologize for. I think one thing my generation craves is a positive way to engage these issues. We’re tired of the negativity and the hurtful rhetoric. But we do want to stand for life and to raise awareness of the value of human life.
CWC: The value of human life is an important theme in the film. How have you extended that theme beyond the movie-going experience?
AE: Every life deserves a chance. Every life has value, no matter what. Jon and I decided that our film needed to be a catalyst for active involvement on these issues, so we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We and our distributors agreed that once the movie turns a profit, 10 percent of that profit will be set aside and distributed to frontline organizations that work with crisis pregnancies, post-abortive care, and care for orphans and adoption. We’re still working out all the details on that, but we’re excited to be able to give back with our movie.
CWC: Given the disproportionate incidence of abortion in urban communities, what do you think is an effective way to bridge the gap and use a film like this to penetrate that audience?
A DIFFERENT ROLE: Actress Jasmine Guy's time on screen is brief, but her character is pivotal in 'October Baby.'
JE: Great question. I think one of the biggest ways is to persuade people in all communities to wake up to the value of life and realize that faith without works is dead. Let’s get beyond politics and bring help to girls making this incredibly difficult decision, especially in our urban communities. As Andy stated, that’s one of the reasons we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We want those funds to go straight through to pregnancy care centers, including those in black and other urban communities.
CWC: One potential draw for the black and urban community is the role of Jasmine Guy. So many of us remember her from her role as Whitley on A Different World. Talk about the significance of her presence in this film.
JE: Without giving away the story line, she plays a character that ends up being the key that unlocks the mystery for Hannah. Hannah understands exactly what happened to her after her encounter with Jasmine. The whole movie hinges on Jasmine’s scene. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have a movie. You can get ostracized for taking a role like this, so I’m just grateful she was bold enough to take it.
October Baby released nationwide March 23, 2012. Check the official film website for a list of cities where it’s showing and for resources related to the issues and themes presented in the film.
The World Series is over, which means no more baseball until next spring. But forgive me for still having a little baseball on the brain. You see, I just recently caught the new baseball film, Moneyball. From most accounts, Moneyball is a pretty good movie. Fans of baseball, Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, and underdog stories in general all have plenty to love. As a historical drama, it does play a little fast-and-loose with the facts, but it captures the emotional essence of the subject matter. And as baseball movies go, it’s decidedly less crass and more inspirational than many of its counterparts, which could make it popular among conservative, faith-based audiences.
Seems like the only people who aren’t that enthused about the film (which adapted Michael Lewis’ 2002 chronicle of the same name) are the actual baseball executives whose stories are depicted in it, primarily Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his stat guru assistant Paul DePodesta (fictionalized as Peter Brand, because DePodesta didn’t consent to allowing his name to be used).
Their main complaints of the film stem from what DePodesta and Beane believe to be an overly dramatized schism between the GM’s office and the rest of the scouting and management. In the film, Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as Brand/DePodesta are continually at odds with the A’s grizzled corps of veteran scouts, most of whom have a rigid sense of orthodoxy concerning what good draft prospects look like, and who resent Beane for discarding their sage advice and picking players using advanced statistics. This conflict is a source of constant tension, especially because it pits general manager Beane against manager Art Howe, who refuses to fill his lineup with any of Beane’s recent draft picks.
If baseball were a religion, Moneyball would play out like a classic faith-versus-science debate. In this sense, the divide between traditional scouts and the proponents of advanced metrics in baseball mirror the divide between conservative Bible literalists and liberal scholars who view the Bible only as literature. In both cases, the generalizations that depict the former as backward and the latter as enlightened are just that — generalizations, more useful for establishing a dramatic narrative than for arriving at an accurate assessment of the truth.
Truth is, there are plenty articulate, enlightened Bible traditionalists, and plenty of close-minded so-called progressives whose view of the Bible is woefully ignorant. Likewise, plenty of older baseball scouts use quality stats to back up their intuitions, and plenty stat geeks are led astray by faulty or incomplete data sets. The best talent evaluators rely on both what the computers say as well as what their eyes tell them.
As a matter of fact, Billy Beane has said on the record that he never set out to revolutionize baseball’s decision-making process. He just needed to find ways to stay competitive against teams with larger payroll budgets. But the larger story of how the Oakland A’s front office changed baseball remains a compelling story, and church leaders in particular would do well to find the lessons that go beyond the typical Hollywood platitudes.
Avoiding False Choices
Despite the magnified conflict in the film, one lesson that the fictional Billy Beane manages to get right over time is avoiding the false dichotomy, or as I like to call it, the Dis-Or-Dat trap. This is the fallacy that assumes that two traits that appear dissimilar can never inhabit the same space. Getting caught in a Dis-Or-Dat trap causes people in pressure-filled situations to ignore the nuances and hastily choose between extreme contradictions in thought or behavior. So women are viewed either as virginal girl-next-door types or slutty femme fatales. Bosses are either rigid taskmasters or softy pushovers. Blacks are either the noble oppressed or immoral and degenerate.
(You get the idea.)
Over time it became clear to Billy Beane that he couldn’t simply rely on either his eyeballs or his stats; he had to do both. This is the kind of thinking that more church leaders should use. It’s not enough for pastors to either know the Bible well OR be great communicators. They need to do both. The same goes for speaking grace and truth. And the worship leader shouldn’t only have to choose between traditional or contemporary music, as if there is no one under 25 who appreciates a good hymn or no one over 40 who appreciates good hip-hop. If the church in America is to thrive, there must be room for both.
Value in the Refuse
Another kingdom value on display in Moneyball is the idea of finding value in hidden places. The main way the Oakland Athletics were able to compete with a smaller payroll was by picking up players that others had overlooked or discarded. And there’s nothing quite so Hollywood as watching a group of misfits and oddballs beat the odds together.
Given this, how amazing would it be if American churches were identified primarily as places where people’s lives and contributions were valued, regardless of class, talent or achievement? Pastors and worship leaders would feel less pressure to become multimedia superstars, because in God’s economy, everyone brings something to the table. And material success would be the default standard in ministry, because defying the odds is nothing new for God.
Doing more with less? Please. He invented that with five loaves and and two fish.
The most significant lesson of Moneyball is, interestingly enough, the one most up for interpretation, like that spinning top at the end of Inception.
At one point in the film Beane laments that winning 20 games in a row doesn’t matter if you lose the last game of the year. As a postscript, the film notes that Billy Beane is still searching for that final win.
However, it also says that after he turned down their offer to hire him as GM, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series by adopting Beane’s statistical approach.
So the lingering question is obvious … was he successful, or not?
Well, how does one define success?
Pitt played Billy Beane as a man whose life goal was to win at baseball, yet he never really achieved that goal in a meaningful way. Walking out of the theater, I couldn’t help but notice his resemblance to another cinematic tortured soul — Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Both men, flawed as they were, experienced a measure of redemption.
But it required accepting a different definition of success, one that measured influence and relationship higher than the more tangible signs they’d been waiting for — for Mr. Holland, his final musical masterpiece, and for Billy Beane, a World Series title.
This is the lesson that pastors, worship leaders, and other church ministers need to receive the most.
Our success at ministering in the church must be defined first and foremost by our ability to know God and be in right relationship with Him. There’s a reason why Matthew 6:33 doesn’t tell us to seek God’s kingdom and his achievements … because outward signs of success are included in the “all of these things will be added unto you” portion of the verse. His righteousness is the thing we are instructed to pursue first.
That doesn’t mean that outward signs shouldn’t follow. After all, James tells us that faith without works is dead. But it does mean that if we truly trust God with everything, then we’ll allow Him to set our agenda and allow Him to change our definition of success if it derails us from His.
* * *
The irony for Billy Beane in Moneyball is that his professional success was about maximizing output with minimal money, yet his personal success brought him the opportunity for so much money that he was in danger of losing his sense of self and relational significance … which was what drew him into baseball in the first place.
The good news for believers in Christ is that we don’t need our stories retold on the silver screen in order to have peace and prosperity. And we don’t need to collect trophies or achievements to have personal significance.
All we need to do is receive the gift of salvation,
TO SERVE AND PROTECT: The officers of 'Courageous' (from left) Ben Davies, Ken Bevel, Alex Kendrick, and Kevin Downes. Each man faces a different struggle related to fatherhood.
A disturbing trend has subtly crept into the American family, and its onslaught was so insidious that it went unnoticed for 40 years. It’s called the absent father. Fatherlessness affects more than 25 million children in America. Emotional fatherlessness affects millions more. Absent fathers are the root cause of children who are oftentimes abused, live in poverty, and suffer psychological distress, which produces: 63 percent of youth suicides, 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children, 85 percent of all children with behavioral problems, and 85 percent of all youth in prisons. Children without a father become the statistics of every negative report and they most often live with a mother burdened by the stress of a lack of support for her children.
Alex and Stephen Kendricks (creators of Fireproof, Facing the Giants, and Flywheel), realizing that fatherlessness has grown to epidemic proportions, prayerfully went about crafting a movie that would rivet our focus to the urgency of this problem. The brothers have written their fourth movie called Courageous, which addresses the issue of absent fathers. A Provident Films and Affirm Films production, Courageous depicts the lives of five men — four urban cops, and their newly found working-class friend, who through a series of tragic events are forced to look to God for guidance as fathers and husbands, as well as keepers of the law. Not since Will Smith’s portrayal of Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness has a film made a more vigorous plea for fathers to take their parenting role seriously. The intended purpose of this film is to challenge all men to have the courage to step outside their comfort zones or bad histories, and to have enough integrity to put away their excuses and be the fathers they’ve been called to be.
The actors in Courageous aren’t your dime a dozen, glitzed and spritzed glory seekers — but they are ordinary Christian men and women called out by God through the Sherwood Movie Ministry of Albany, Georgia. They have nurtured wounded spirits, jumped from moving cars, run for causes, and have sounded the trumpet call to all fathers who are out of their children’s lives in any sense, to come home and step up their game as the leaders, lovers, providers, and protectors of their families.
UrbanFaith spoke to two actors from the Courageous movie, Robert Amaya and Ken Bevel. Amaya, a Latino, plays Javier Martinez, a family man who was laid off from his blue collar job and is facing the challenge of providing for his wife and children with very few resources. Bevel, an African American who’s also an ex-Marine, plays the role of Nathan Hayes, an urban cop struggling to forgive his deceased father for not being there for him and his mother. His greatest ambition is to be a better husband and father than his father was.
QUALITY TIME: Actor Robert Amaya portrays Javier Martinez, a devoted family man who was laid off from his job.
Addressing the absent father issue in the Latino culture Amaya said, “The second most violent area in the world is Latin America and this violence usually comes from men or women raised without a father.” He offered that, violence due to absent fathers is not only a problem for Latinos, but it’s a blanket problem in America and in the world across the board, because every father leaves a mark on his child. What Amaya along with the makers of the movie are hoping to accomplish through Courageous is, “To let all fathers, Latinos included, know their responsibility under God, and reconnect them to the Lord so that they can be at home with and engaged in, their children’s lives, because it’s the father’s responsibility to call out the men in their sons. In other words, to teach them how to be men, and to show daughters what they should be looking for in the men of their future.”
Amaya, the father of a 2-year-old daughter, says, “Since working on this film, I have found that it is not enough to just listen to my daughter say her prayers at night. I must live before her and teach her the principles of the Bible that we are to live by through Scripture memory, stories, and family time that stresses the values of the Bible.”
Though Amaya’s character Javier shows a gentle, lovable man who doesn’t overtly embody machismo (a Latino concept of masculinity and power), Amaya says of Javier, “Under the light of machismo, he shows that he’s not a weak guy. His strength lies in the fact that he loves the Lord, he loves his family. He shows that men can be gentle and loving to their families, gaining the loyalty and love of their wives and children. When men are great leaders they are also loving leaders. God calls us to be the men in our families but to also be family men who don’t have to be domineering and harsh.”
Statistics show that 28 percent of white children are in single-parent homes, while 35 percent of Hispanic children are in single-parent homes, and the figure is equal to the combined totals of white and Hispanics for African American children, at 63 percent.
Phillip Jackson, the executive director of Chicago’s Black Star Project, told Reuters, “Father absence in African American communities has hit those communities with the force of 100 Hurricane Katrinas. It is literally decimating our communities and we have no adequate response to it.”
AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE: Ken Bevel portrays Nathan Hayes, a dedicated police officer trying to avoid the mistakes his absentee father made.
However, Bevel feels that Courageous will offer a message of motivation and hope to African American men on the importance of fatherhood and throw a lifeline to those men who are ready to change. Like the character he plays in the movie, Bevel says, “I grew up without a father — loving and yet resenting him, because I didn’t have him to give me leadership and wisdom at those critical times in my life, so I kind of fumbled my way through being a youth into being an adult — not really knowing how to treat my wife, not really knowing how to treat my family.But I determined to depend totally on God to put some strong men in my life to show me how to be a man, and He did.”
Some of the same issues affecting fathers and children today were highlighted in the film, such as physical and emotional absence. Bevel believes Courageous will show men that they can return and not only be good fathers, but great fathers, if they follow the plan God made for them as found in the Bible.
“There’s something about this movie that will cause men to see that it’s the responsibility of the fathers to guide and raise their kids. Nobody wants to have children and be a bad father. Nobody wants to go into a marriage and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to divorce my wife five years from now.’ What’s lacking among African American men who grew up without fathers is guidance, and this movie provides a model that shows them: this is how to love the Lord, this is how to follow his Word, this is how to love your wife, and this is how to love your kids.”
Bevel, the father of a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son said, “When I saw the last scene in Courageous, the man in me stood up. It caused me to want to do greater things for God, and to lead my kids and my wife in every aspect of our lives. I wanted to lead my family in Bible study, to be intentional about what we watched on TV and how we spent our time together — to be careful with what I said in their presence. I wanted my children to hear me praying for them and see me studying the Scriptures, so that they would imitate their father.”
Both Bevel and Amaya, with help from their wives, worked out an intentional plan of leadership, guidance, and love for their children with amazing results.
If you are a father who is out of touch with your children, just pause and reflect: Where will your son learn how to treat women? Who will teach your little girl her true worth? Where will they learn to stand up for what’s right? Who will instruct them on the value of an education? Where will their work ethic come from? Where will your child learn about the importance of abstaining from substance abuse and illicit sexual activities? Where will they learn to obey authority? How will your children learn to love and respect God, others, and themselves, if you don’t teach them?
Dads — please don’t turn away. The bravest thing you could ever do as a man is to be present. Your children need you. Now.
Courageous opens Friday, September 30th, in theaters across the nation. Watch the trailer here.
Fatherlessness stats taken from the Courageous website and Fathers.com, a website of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
PLAY THAT FUNKY SOUL: The Kashmere High School Stage Band, circa 1976.
The new Mark Landsman documentary Thunder Soul may be relying on the glitz of executive producer Jamie Foxx’s name to get attention at the box office, but this magnificent little film about the musical achievements of an all-black Texas high school stage band hardly needs Foxx’s help.
Like a PSA on the lifetime value of music education in secondary schools, Thunder Soul captures the reunion of Kashmere High School’s funk band 35 years later as the alumni get the band back together to perform a tribute concert for their famed band leader and accomplished jazz musician Conrad O. Johnson. “Prof,” as the students call him, served as a father figure, drill sergeant, and part-time life coach, for the group of mainly at-risk African American kids, pushing and inspiring them to grow into award-winning musicians who innovated the world of high school stage band music with their smooth James Brown-inspired sound.
ALL TOGETHER NOW: Conrad “Prof” Johnson conducts the Houtson, Texas, Kashmere High School Stage Band.
Once tapped to be a musician for Count Basie’s touring band, Prof eventually passed on the glamorous lifestyle of professional music, choosing instead to settle into marriage and a quieter life of purpose as an educator for a local high school. Or so he thought. It was at Kashmere High that his creativity blossomed, leading him to craft a catalog of songs for the school band that are still being sampled by contemporary DJs and artists on hip-hop records and pop tunes today.
But it’s Prof’s lasting influence over the students’ lives, not the music industry, that looms largest in the film. Still eager to please the man who taught them so much of what they know, the alumni painstakingly turn the dissonance of decades passed and instruments left untouched into a stirring symphony paying appropriate homage to their 93-year-old professor. In awe of their ability to still play, Prof exclaims almost with a well-deserved wink of ego, “You mean they were taught so well, that they can remember what they did then … and do it?”
The answer is yes. And to hear the alumni speak, many of whom hadn’t touched a trombone or flute in over 30 years, those sacred hours spent in the band room during the 1970s were about more than just instruction on notes and harmony. Prof taught the students that they had the power and potential to play as well as any professional band, if they would only work hard. It was that inspiration that pushed many of the students out of the Fifth Ward of Texas with life sentences to poverty and raised them into adults who ultimately became doctors, lawyers, musicians, and even pastors.
Rhythmic and multi-faceted, the film itself is a bit like jazz — always progressing yet lingering over the notes. Landsman, aided by the phenomenal editing of Claire Didier, maintains the backbeat of the band’s story while weaving in colorful snippets of the Black Power movement, the racial segregation of the south, the cyclic nature of poverty in America, and the charm and intimacy of black families. Whether you love niche funk music or are simply a sucker for the sentimentality of a good underdog tale, Thunder Soul, even without a powerhouse star to headline the movie, is worth your time.
Thunder Soul opens today in Atlanta, Houston, and New York. Check the film’s website to find out when it opens in your area.