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.
The pillars upholding civil society are symbolized in the image of the city hall appearing in the opening scene of 12 Angry Men.
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
Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Smith contemplates the words of Abraham Lincoln in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
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.
We see the making of a statesman as Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff Smith stands in the United States Senate proclaiming the truth against the manipulative forces of power and corruption.
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
The final scene in which Henry Fonda (Juror #8) helps the now broken Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3) on with his coat is one of the most compelling and memorable classic film images depicting civil discourse in the public square.
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