The History of EGI’s
Love and Life at the Movies Project
Our DVD highlights high schoolers discussing such well-known classics as: It’s A Wonderful Life, No Way Out and Key Largo. Young people are discussing complex issues such as conflict in family life, the bonds of community, and the common good in relation to their lives.
It’s A Wonderful Life and High Noon screened at a Detention Home
The human experience that links us all together
About fifteen years ago, when the Love and Life at the Movies Project was in its beginning stages, a teacher at a Virginia detention home provided the opportunity to pilot It’s a Wonderful Life with her students during the Christmas holiday. She described the young men in her group as angry and depressed with “the hand they had been dealt in life.” They were in no mood for a black and white film which, they told her, was older than she was! Undaunted by their deep hostility, she finally persuaded them to give the film a chance. As she related later that her students went from threatening to rip the video out of the VCR to declaring that it was one of the best films they had ever seen!
The turning point in It’s a Wonderful Life for the students was, as would be predictable, the fantasy sequence in which George Bailey learns the irreplaceable value of every human life through the revelation of what the town of Bedford Falls would be like without him. The students in the detention home in the Christmas of 1999 got it. At the close of World War II Frank Capra had convinced his old friend Jimmy Stewart to play the part of a man who is saved from suicide by his Guardian Angel, Clarence. Clarence tells George, “Don’t you see how precious life is and what a mistake it would be to throw it away?” The power of It’s a Wonderful Life inspired the young detainees’ moral imagination to see and understand their own value as human beings.
The second pilot we conducted at the detention home was High Noon. Gary Cooper tries to persuade his wife of one hour, Grace Kelly, to stick by him as he attempts to face the outlaws determined to kill him. Kelly’s character angrily responds, “You’re asking me to wait an hour to find out if I’m going to be a wife or a widow… I won’t do it.” The teacher told me that one of her students commented after watching this scene: “That’s just the trouble; there’s too much divorce in this country.” I was stunned, because these students were incarcerated delinquents and certainly they were not likely to have experienced any significant family structure. Yet, this student was able to make a coherent and correct assessment of the state of marriage in America, as well as discern the value of an intact marriage. High Noon is of course by any standard a classic.
Project Heart to Heart in Love, Life, and Marriage – 2004 – 2008
With a three year grant from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, EGI piloted films in both community settings and high school classrooms through Project Heart to Heart in Love, Life, and Marriage. High school students were from Maryland and Virginia. In the three year grant period, EGI focused on classic films that taught enduring lessons about personal life choices and the connection of those choices to community, culture, and civil society. The movies we taught in the project included: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Johnny Belinda and Key Largo (1948), No Way Out (1950), and Roman Holiday (1953).
A Two Year Course in an After School Program:
Learning Critical Thinking Skills with Johnny Belinda
In an after school course that ran for two years at Westfield High School in Northern Virginia, EGI was able to become part of the culture of a large and diverse high school. Students gained practice in assessing the quality and style of classic filmmaking as opposed to those of contemporary films. The course began with a showing of the 1948 film Johnny Belinda, featuring Jane Wyman’s Academy Award winning performance as a deaf, mute woman struggling against great adversity. With this film, as we observed in the discussion period, some of the students discovered significant differences in the style of classic movies as compared to the newer films they were seeing. One high school student commented, “We are somehow traveling alongside of the characters in the film, discovering with them, what will happen next.” She further clarified, “In the films of today the audience knows almost in the first five minutes what is going to happen.” Her insight reflects that the role of the viewer of classic movies was more participatory as opposed to that of spectator for many contemporary films.
Celebrating Black History Month with No Way Out
As the course continued at Westfield High School, the Love and Life at the Movies Project became a familiar fixture in the after school program mix. One very natural development was that we were able to celebrate Black History Month at the high school two years in a row by piloting No Way Out. In December 2008, EGI piloted
No Way Out in a required after school program [English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)]. With this film EGI was able to teach not only about the importance of character and wise personal choices, but also deep and compelling lessons about racial conflict.
A film that anticipated pressing racial issues in the 1960’s, No Way Out was written and directed in 1950 by Joseph Mankiewicz. No Way Out was a breakthrough film because it was a conversation about racial conflict in a period when American society was still reticent in having that conversation. Sidney Poitier starring in his first movie role, is a young black doctor persecuted by a white racist played by Richard Widmark. Richard Widmark had already played villains on a regular basis for the 20th Century Fox studio–ever since his debut as a sadistic criminal pushing an old lady in a wheelchair down some stairs in Kiss of Death. Mankiewicz challenged Widmark to once again play a bad guy, this time the near psychotic racist, Ray Biddle. Joseph Mankiewicz felt that this great actor was the only one who could play the role and he challenged him to do it for the greater good that would come of a first film to feature black people in more than merely stereotypical portrayals. Film buffs know that Poitier and Widmark became life-long friends from their time of making No Way Out. In fact there is a YouTube clip which features the 1992 American Film Institute tribute to Sidney Poitier with his friend Richard Widmark.
The student discussions we observed of No Way Out reflected the strong racial diversity present at Westfield. Wherever they go to school, students are very likely to be challenged by these issues. They know that racial conflict is probably a reality in their school and often to avoid worsening tension, they have a tendency to treat the subject in a very off-hand way, as if they fear the seriousness of the subject to disturb their peace.
Thus in viewing No Way Out students were able to benefit from the dramatic tension in the story and relate to it as they participated in a guided and reasoned conversation in a classroom setting. In other words, the film provided them with an opportunity to discuss this important issue without running the risk of the conversation becoming personal.
When Widmark’s character uses the ‘N’ word, it would normally be more shocking than thought-provoking, but in the context of the film its use allows the students to experience a compelling affirmation of the universal nature of human dignity and racial justice and thus to understand the horror of such language. Joseph Mankiewicz uses his art to carry the story to the finish. Sidney Poitier says in the film’s final scene, “I can’t kill a man because he hates me.”
Poitier’s character is teaching Ray Biddle’s former lover, played by Linda Darnell, that the value of human life is greater than our hatreds, no matter how much the viewer might think they are justified. No Way Out shows that human justice must be given to all, or their cause is weakened and moral truth obscured. The students witness racial hatreds vividly portrayed, but at the end of the film the greater lesson is that the principles of universal human dignity are absolute goods even when they must be affirmed for a psychopathic racist. Students told us after viewing No Way Out that they could understand more fully the reasons behind celebrating Black History Month. We see that Black History Month is not only for a particular racial group, but that it can represent the ideal of people working together to serve the common good and defending a noble and righteous cause in a free civil society.
Final Phase of Project Heart to Heart
In the final year of Project Heart to Heart, we came to the conclusion that creating a teen panel was most effective for programs being conducted as events in communities and churches. Conversations were more structured and fruitful when they were held in small discussion groups led by teens who had already viewed the movie and worked on discussion questions ahead of time. This was our experience with three films in particular; Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Key Largo and A Raisin in the Sun.
With Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the students focused on issues such as the moral responsibility of active citizenship in a self-governing nation. In Key Largo students grappled with the question of personal moral courage in the struggle of good over evil. A Raisin in the Sun teaches timeless truths about the meaning of the family.
With the state of our union as fragile as it is, the lessons presented in these films make a compelling contribution to our national conversation about who we are and where we are going as Americans. In every setting where these classic films have been introduced, we have seen that they carry a vital teaching component: We are hardwired as social beings and our lives are bound up with others in family, community and civil society. This is a message that can resonate with a generation hungry for more compelling and complete explanations of the mysteries of love and life.