Classic Movies and the State of Our Union:
Timeless Films Inspire Unity and Solidarity in An Age of Division
By Onalee McGraw, Director, Educational Guidance Institute
With the state of our union as fragile as it is, is it possible that great classic movies can help us repair our torn national fabric? Educational Guidance Institute has been sharing classic movies with college and high school students in its programs for over a decade. During this time we have seen the power of a great film to illuminate the existential questions of life. Invariably students make a discovery about human nature with each film: We are hardwired as social beings and our lives are bound up with others in family, community and civil society.
We have collected 7 films together in our new film study guide, Liberty and Justice for All: Classic Films and the Things that Matter Most in a Free Society. Through these films, engaged citizens can examine the “first things” that support our common life in civil society. From the jury room of 12 Angry Men to the halls of Congress in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, classic movies can elevate our conversations on who we are and where we are going as Americans.
Each of the films in Liberty and Justice for All provokes discussion on life’s existential questions regarding our common life:
Can we converse and debate with each other in ways that sustain mutual respect, civility and friendship?
Does the good life depend on our ability to live together with a shared understanding of justice and the common good?
Are the good things in life worth the effort it takes to preserve them?
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: The Ideas are in the Images
“Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private virtue, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”
~ John Adams
Ideas about civic virtue, the nature of truth, and the role of conscience are shown brilliantly in Frank Capra’s 1939 masterpiece, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
The other members of the senate begin to believe him because he speaks truth with reason, humor and humility.
Jeff Smith confronts Senator Paine with the truth: “I guess that this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once — for the only reason any man ever fights for them — because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love your neighbor’. And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any other. Yes, you even die for them.”
On The Waterfront: The Awakening of Conscience in Defense of Truth
In our college campus program, students discussed the barriers that can stand between conscience and confronting the truth. Ignorance, pride, or tragic personal experience can blind us to truth and reality.
In the final scene Marlon Brando’s character overcomes his fears and stands up for justice and the common good.
Father Barry says, “I’m not asking you to do anything. It’s your own conscience that’s got to do the asking.” Brando’s Terry Malloy responds “Conscience, that stuff can drive you nuts.”
Exploring the Universal Nature of Human Dignity with No Way Out
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
~Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of striving to enter into the palace of justice. He warns against falling into bitterness and hatred. Pondering King’s words, we are sobered by the deep divisions and racial animosities that continue to plague our civil society.
Will we ever be able to live in the palace of justice in peace and harmony together? We need answers to these important existential questions in the present moment of our nation’s history. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, No Way Out is a groundbreaking 1950 film exploring racial hatred, helps us to find them.
Several years ago, Educational Guidance Institute presented No Way Out to students in an after-school program in a large multi-cultural Northern Virginia high school. In this film, which introduced Sidney Poitier to movie audiences, a young black doctor is persecuted by a white racist. The film dramatizes the vital role of friendship in times of crisis and racial animosity. I love to tell students the film’s moving back-story: No Way Out’s protagonist Sidney Poitier and his antagonist Richard Widmark began a lifelong friendship in the making of this film. Years later the friendship of these two film icons was recounted by Widmark in his tribute to Poitier at the American Film Institute. Richard Widmark Tribute to Sidney Poitier
Even though the disturbed villain uses the “N word” to attack the black doctor several times throughout the film, this did not shock any of the students in this racially diverse classroom. This is the power of cinematic art: We experience the truth about our shared human condition in a way that is mysteriously universal and objective.
Events at Howard University in the Early Years of the Civil Rights Movement
The first time I reflected on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., I was hearing him in person. I was a college junior at Howard University sitting in Rankin Chapel in the spring of 1960. As an exchange student from Whittier College in California to Howard University in Washington DC, I had the unexpected opportunity to be a participant in early events of the civil rights movement.
King explained to us how the courage of young people at Fisk University in Nashville was being tested. Students were “safe” up in Washington DC he said, while their fellow students at Fisk were putting their safety and even their lives on the line at “sit-ins” at lunch counters in Nashville. In a now famous exchange, Fisk University student Diane Nash had confronted Nashville’s mayor during one of the sit-ins just a few weeks earlier. King urged Howard students to take a stand.
A few days after King’s visit to Howard, a handful of my fellow students took up King’s challenge. They chartered a small bus to go down to the Eisenhower White House and march peacefully in front of it for about an hour. I still remember crossing the campus near the chapel and noticing a bus parked beside it. Several students who knew me called out from the bus and challenged me to join them, which I did. But it was not courage or determination, but sincere friendship and solidarity that were in play. I learned an unforgettable lesson that day: friendship and solidarity make up the glue that holds us together in the cause of justice. Consider again Martin Luther King’s statement: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” This wisdom is evident in the final scenes of No Way Out. Sidney Poitier’s character says: “I can’t kill a man just because he hates me.”
When we hear these words in the film, we recognize them as morally binding for all of us. We thus recognize the universal nature of human dignity, not as members of a particular group but as members of the human race. No Way Out makes a statement on our present day civil and political divides. Onalee McGraw on Sidney Poitier’s First Movie, No Way Out.
Civil Discourse in the Public Square with 12 Angry Men
A healthy civil society needs people who have the capacity and the desire to form genuine and lasting friendships. True friendships are built on the virtues of trust, loyalty and generosity.
These virtues form the threads of friendship in our personal lives, and they also bind us together in the fabric of a healthy civil society; the stronger the bonds, the stronger the civil society.
When any of his fellow jurors try to diminish the importance of their deliberations to a merely personal level, Henry Fonda’s character skillfully admonishes them and brings them back to their duty. Gradually, over the course of the film, each member of the jury comes to recognize that they are called to make an objective assessment of the case. They are all participants in the essential enterprise of a free society, coming together to deliberate in search of the truth.
Moral Courage in the Face of Evil with Key Largo
Humphrey Bogart’s screen persona is remembered as a man who is reluctant to face up to the reality of evil in human life. His characters show the audience the face of cynicism and indifference but in the crucial moments of moral choice, “Bogie” comes through every time. Mapping out the geography of good and evil can never be avoided in life. Bogart’s character realizes: he can no longer distance himself from human tragedy. Self-knowledge builds moral courage.
The 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Moral courage is the action in the human soul that gives the person the strength to face life on the dark side. Moral courage is the engagement of the human soul in the cause of our common humanity.
Civic Virtue and the Common Good in The Big Country and Bad Day at Black Rock
The Big Country portrays the essential link between personal virtue practiced by individuals and the civic virtue required for the common good of a community in civil society. Fundamental elements associated with achievement of the common good are seen in the film’s events.
The triumph of good over evil in a desert town depends on one man and his capacity for moral action.
By practicing the cardinal virtues – courage, prudence, temperance and justice – Spencer Tracy’s character engages the men of a corrupt town and overcomes a terrible injustice committed in secret.
He must have courage to face up to his own weaknesses and stand his ground at the same time. He must exercise prudence and good judgment to know when and what to say to men bent on his destruction. He cannot survive without maintaining the virtue of temperance, the self-control that enables him to keep his cool in the moments of confrontation and great danger. Integrating all of these virtues, he finally persuades the men in the town who still have a conscience to act for the sake of justice.
“It is nonsense to imagine that a free political community can survive without citizens who pursue lives of virtue.”
~ James Madison
The preamble to the Constitution clearly presupposes a people who comprise a civil society rather than a collection of isolated, autonomous individuals. What does genuine community look like?
Can we have fruitful public conversations about community, culture and the ties that bind us together in civil society, even in our fragmented post-modern world? In Liberty and Justice for All, we chose films that seamlessly connect the life of the individual to community and society.
The preamble states:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The word “We” as opposed to “I” is used in the language of the nation’s founding documents. Our citizenship in a free society is forged by our lived experiences in family and community.
The Frank Capra masterpiece, It’s A Wonderful Life, helps us to explore more deeply the foundations of civil society that underlie the phrase: “We the people.”
It’s a Wonderful Life presents characters that are living in the three spheres of life which human beings universally experience: family, community, and society.
Authentic Love in Black and White versus Fifty Shades of Grey
by Onalee McGraw
How can we define love between a man and a woman that is “authentic” compared to the “love” that is presented in Fifty Shades of Grey? In a recent New York Times article, educator and author Mandy Len Catron offers a refreshing description of authentic love: “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.” Her contemporary account reflects the nature of authentic love expressed by leading couples in Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday” (1953).
Each of these couples – Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, and Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck – give us indelible images of authentic love in black and white. In dialogue, performance and story, we see essential components of real and lasting love – two people knowing, choosing and acting for each other. These classic film images are unforgettable and compelling; they represent our cultural legacy of cinematic excellence. In striking contrast to the reception given Fifty Shades of Grey, these films are universally celebrated by audiences and critics alike.
In our culture today, we are desperately in need of in-depth conversations about the meaning of authentic love. For many years it has been my privilege to share classic films, mostly black and white, with high school and college students. Some amazing conversations have followed these screenings. When I asked one young person to give his opinion on classic and contemporary films, he said, “Classic films are like plays that invite us in as participants, the newer films are more like productions and we are just observers.” This remark struck me at the time as a major starting point in any conversation in the public square about love, art, moral truth and classic films.
Authentic love happens in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953). Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, and Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck give us indelible images of the “big picture” meaning of authentic love. As I will argue here, the reasons why the images of classic film couples remain ingrained in our national imagination while most films in our postmodern era do not, go much deeper than critical assessments that measure any film in terms of character development, dialogue, and production values.
The genius of Howard Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings is that we as the audience become a part of that remote village in the Andes Mountains where Cary Grant and Jean Arthur finally resolve their issues and decide to commit to one another. Invited by Frank Capra to be members of the community of Bedford Falls, we discover along with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed that It’s a Wonderful Life. In Roman Holiday, we are a part of the press conference when Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann tells Gregory Peck’s Joe Bradley in special language for them alone that she will love him all her life.
Skeptics will argue that we live in a different time and authentic love is only a romantic ideal, seldom attainable in our postmodern culture. Yet there remains abundant evidence of a universal and timeless yearning for authentic and lasting love in human hearts. Consider evidence of this yearning given by two young men in a detention home who participated in our Love and Life at the Movies project several years ago. One 16 year-old male, after the viewing of Roman Holiday, said: “How do you spell phenomenal? This program has changed the way I feel about girls. I now have respect for them. I learned also what it means to be a real man from watching Joe Bradley and how I should act in any situation.” Another commented: “I’ve learned the character traits of a real man. I think the program has a lot to offer young men of color. It helps you build integrity and gives us a sensible definition of right and wrong.” Keep in mind that these young people were seeing a black and white movie for the first time and only knew Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck as “Princess Ann” and “Joe Bradley.” For the full story, visit “Rave Reviews” at Educationalguidanceinstitute.com.
Hearing these compelling testimonies, skeptics who dismiss the intangible language of the heart will still be saying, “Today the world is a different place.” To this argument I respond, the norms and customs in culture and society may change, but what it means to be a human person does not change. The lasting appeal of great classic cinema lies in its enduring power to reach the human soul. Cinematic art touches us deeply when, in the words of legendary actor Edward G. Robinson, the drama is powerful enough for the audience and the performers to be “playing together”. Film fans know “Edward G” as one of the few actors of the Golden Age who could play a deranged gangster or a sainted good guy. As Edward G. Robinson explains in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays, “The audience must participate in the play to bring about the true art.”
Following Robinson’s insight, with Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, we are in Barranca, the remote spot in the Andes Mountains he created on a Hollywood set. We encounter Cary Grant’s ‘Geoff’ and Jean Arthur’s ‘Bonnie’ as whole persons and we are connected to them in friendship and community. When the film’s action becomes more romantic, we do not feel as if we are intruders or voyeurs, we are invited guests. By contrast, the audience watching Fifty Shades of Grey, is reduced to the role of observers of sexual adventures. Jean Arthur says to Cary Grant, “I am not hard to get Geoff, all you have to do is ask me.” By the time Jean confronts Cary, we know these two people very well because director Hawks has skillfully revealed their characters. In the final scene, they show their mutual commitment, not in the usual familiar screen embrace, but with Jean Arthur’s joyful smile as she watches Cary Grant’s plane take off.
Frank Capra dramatizes the authentic love of George and Mary Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life with a whole series of images that weave their courtship and marriage into the life of Bedford Falls. Capra starts with George confronting the loss of his dream with the marriage of his brother Harry, moves to George kicking open the gate in Mary’s front yard, and then the crucial love scene begins with George and Mary on the phone with his rival, Sam Wainright while Mary’s mom eavesdrops on the upstairs phone. George grabs Mary and says: “I don’t want any plastics. I don’t want any ground floors” and they embrace. Cut to the front of the church after the wedding. In the very next sequence, George and Mary give up their honeymoon money to save the Bailey Building and Loan. Capra has added a brilliant sequence on a healthy civil society that wins us over left, right and center. We catch Capra’s vision that love, marriage, and family are deeply connected to community and society.
The lovers in Roman Holiday illuminate the timeless qualities of authentic love. Perhaps more than any other romantic comedy of Hollywood’s Golden Age, we are invited guests who witness how they come to know, choose and love one another. It is evident from the many experiences I have had sharing Roman Holiday with high school and college students, that young people today will, if given the chance, readily and intuitively catch the images of authentic love it portrays. When we see Audrey Hepburn saying, to Gregory Peck as if they were the only two people in the room, “I will hold my visit here in memory as long as I live”, we are witnesses to a declaration of a woman to the man she has chosen to love. With this film today’s generation can discover the “big picture” meaning of authentic love that is our cultural legacy in classic film.
Onalee McGraw is Director of the non-profit Educational Guidance Institute which offers classic film study guides for high school and college students. Study guides include: “Men and Women in Love: The View from Classic Hollywood.” Onalee McGraw appeared on Turner Classic Movies with Robert Osborne to introduce “12 Angry Men” as one of 20 Fan Programmers for TCM’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, April, 2014. See Onalee McGraw’s YouTube Channel “Onalee McGraw with Robert Osborne”, “Onalee McGraw on Sidney Poitier’s first movie, No Way Out”, and “Love and Life at the Movies – Onalee McGraw”.
Onalee’s Personal Reflections and Life Perspectives
Classic Movies and the Mysteries of the Heart
Reflections on my visit to Turner Classic Movies
In January, I had the honor to be chosen as one of twenty Fan Programmers to introduce a favorite classic film with Turner Classic Movies host, Robert Osborne, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of TCM. Last year, TCM announced its “Ultimate Fan” contest. Like many others, I entered, not really thinking that I would be chosen as the “ultimate fan,” but for the sheer joy of participating in an event that stands for a remarkable cultural and artistic achievement.
I chose for my contest entry, No Way Out. This cutting edge film, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1950, features Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark. See my YouTube video: Onalee McGraw on Sidney Poitier’s First Movie No Way Out
My hometown paper, The Northern Virginia Daily, in its April 4, 2014 edition carried the story: Front Royal Film Fan Wins TCM Co-Hosting Gig
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”
“It is nonsense to imagine that a free political community can survive without citizens who pursue lives of virtue.”
Cinematic art we experience in great classic films has a mysterious power to move the human heart, across time, cultural eras, ideologies and individual differences. In a mysterious way, the enduring truths of the human condition are brilliantly portrayed in these classics. For over a decade it has been our privilege through EGI to share these films with high school and college students.
In EGI’s Study Guide, Radical Choices in the Crossroads of Life. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day must overcome their personal fears and enlarge their perspective on the common good in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The power of 12 Angry Men is in the universal ideals of justice and truth seen on the screen as persons in action and not just abstract ideas. The images are of persons struggling with one another to discover truth and work for justice as part of their job as citizens. To accomplish the daunting task of civic unity, certain private virtues must be brought into the public square, 12 Angry Men shows us the meaning of: justice and civic friendship.
The Inspiration for EGI’s Classic Film Programs
The inspiration for our EGI classic film programs came from this very source: Dr. Robert Coles. In “The Moral Life of Children,” Coles wrote about “movies and moral energy” – He wrote about Ruby and her take on “A Raisin in the Sun” – which came out a short time after the events in 1960.
Then eight year old Ruby told this eminent psychiatrist that if the people harassing her could see this film – they would understand our common humanity and change their minds. “A Raisin in the Sun” has been one of our most beloved films with young people. It is THE very best film that teaches in this era the meaning of the family.
The amazing story of this inspirational little girl is told beautifully by the Accidental Talmudist.
For one year, Ruby Bridges, 6, sat in a classroom alone. She was the first black student to attend a white school in New Orleans in 1960, and every morning she was escorted by U.S. Marshals past a crowd of 200 white adults, who screamed death threats and obscenities at her.
One morning, her teacher, Mrs. Henry, noticed that Ruby was speaking as she walked past the mob. She asked Ruby what she was saying. “I was praying.” “Were you praying that the people wouldn’t hurt you?” “I was praying that I would be strong and not afraid, and I was praying for them.” Later that day, Mrs. Henry mentioned the conversation to Robert Coles, a psychiatrist who specialized in assisting the children of communities under stress.
Dr. Coles asked Ruby, “Why would you pray for those people?” “Well, don’t you think they need praying for?” I heard this story from Dr. Coles 27 years ago, in a large classroom filled with students of all backgrounds. It is amazing to me that the events he described happened only 27 years before that. In many ways our world has been transformed, and in many others, not so much.
One thing is sure. Ruby Bridges’ prayer for strength was answered. May we all learn from the example Ruby set when she was only six years old. Forgotten heroes remembered every Thursday at Accidental Talmudist.
Memories of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s andLorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In the Sun
This picture of the Nashville student sit-ins in 1960 brings back incredible memories for me.
My friend and I were juniors from Whittier College. We participated in an exchange program that Whittier had with two Historic Black Colleges; Fisk University in Nashville and Howard University in Washington DC. My friend would write to me about the sit-ins taking place led by students at Fisk.
Martin Luther King came and spoke at Howard’s Rankin Chapel while I was there in that spring semester of 1960. King’s talk was about these very young people who were risking their lives.
Returning to Whittier for my senior year, I saw A Raisin In The Sun. I did not realize that this groundbreaking drama would prove to be a powerful force in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Years later this same film became an essential part of EGI’s Love and Life at the Movies program.