Monthly Archives: May 2016

“We is Free!”

This Memorial Day, the remake of the classic 1977 miniseries, Roots[i], will begin airing on the History Channel. While Roots is not a movie in the traditional sense, I still remember the impact the original had on me – a white, middle-class American who went to high school with less than ten African Americans in a school of over a thousand. Roots showed me how cruel human beings can be to each other solely based on being unfortunate enough to be born with a different skin color in a time and place where slavery was common. But let’s save discrimination for another movie.

The title of this post is a quote from “Chicken” George at the end of the original Roots miniseries. George and his family pull their wagons into a beautiful Tennessee field and George announces, “We is free!” But was Chicken George really free? Are any of us? I don’t mean the political freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. I mean being totally free in the thoughts we harbor, the actions we take, or even in the persons we are or hope to become.

I was raised in a religion where agency, or freedom of choice, is an overarching principle. Whether you are good or bad or something in between is often seen to be purely based on the conscious decisions you make. You choose to be good and receive the promised blessings, or you choose to be bad, and end up in hell. I personally believe it is not quite that simple. No decision we make is made in a vacuum. Decisions are influenced by many factors, most of which are beyond our control.

One of the most gut-wrenching movies I have seen lately is a foreign language film entitled Run Boy Run.[ii]  It is the true story of an eight-year old Jewish boy in Poland during World War II. To protect him from being killed by Nazi soldiers, his dad sends him into the forest where he must learn to survive on his own, with the occasional help from a few sympathetic locals. Throughout the movie I was amazed at the lengths to which the Nazi soldiers would go in attempting to capture or kill this little boy, as if he somehow would make a difference in the outcome of the war. But, of course, the soldiers’ mission was not a military one as much as a social one, with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people. Here is the trailer from the movie:

That same week I saw another foreign language film entitled Labyrinth of Lies[iii], which tells the true story of Johann Radmann, a German prosecutor, who, beginning in 1958, seeks to bring to justice the German SS soldiers who committed grievous atrocities against the Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Radmann and his team focused on those who committed such atrocities on their own volition, and not those who were just “following orders.” Radmann and others were successful in convicting hundreds of SS soldiers, but a postscript at the end of the movie reveals that none of those convicted ever showed any real remorse for what they had done. Here is a clip from that movie where Radmann and part of his team learn for the first time the extent of what happened at Auschwitz:

            How could a group of soldiers have such hate against others, including children, to the point they would decide to commit such terrible acts against them? My father-in-law, who happened to have six children, liked to quote John Wilmont, who said, “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.” I have five kids and my wife and I learned, almost from the day our children were born, they came to us preprogramed. All were raised in the same basic environment, with the same family rules, teachings and opportunities, but each came with their own unique personalities, qualities and abilities. As we have learned in connection with a lot of things about life, genetics (our natures) are major keys in how we will turn out. But how we are raised (or how we are nurtured) also plays a major role in the person we become. Our religious and political views, our likes and dislikes, our professions, how we treat others, and even how we speak and act, are more often than not the result of the influence of our ancestors, parents, siblings, friends and associates. When you combine our natures with how we were nurtured, by the time we reach adulthood, can we really say that we are entirely free to choose who we are?

            Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying a person shouldn’t be held accountable for his or her actions. All of us should be. But perhaps how we treat people who do things that hurt others or themselves should be less about mere punishment and retribution and more about understanding, compassion, rehabilitation and prevention of similar acts in the future. Maybe that prevention should be centered in education and reprogramming. As we learn more and more about how our brains work – how our brains are constantly being rewired – I believe each of us can learn to better understand others and ourselves, and help others to change, along with ourselves. And maybe along the way we will learn a little more patience and understanding of those who aren’t doing anything wrong, but who choose to do things differently than we would.

            I am a big believer in the power of heritage – not just genetics, but understanding our own roots, and how our ancestors, although imperfect like us, accomplished great things. They might be our own direct ancestors or just other members of the human race. But in the final analysis, we are all one family, regardless of race, culture, sexual orientation, or economic standing. Alex Haley became a better person by learning of his roots. Here is a clip from the original Roots where Chicken George and his son, Tom, reflect on their heritage:

I hope all of us will learn from the character of our ancestors, share those heritage stories with our own children and grandchildren, and encourage them to do the same.

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[i] Roots

Production: David L. Wolper Productions; Warner Bros. Television

Directed: Marvin Chomsky; John Erman; David Greene; and Gilbert Moses

Screenplay: William Blinn; M. Charles Cohen; Alex Haley; Ernest Kinoy; and James Lee

Starring: LaVar Burton; John Amos; Leslie Uggams; Ben Vereen (and many others)

[ii] Run Boy Run

Production: Bittersuess Pictures

Directed: Pepe Danquart

Screenplay: Heinrich Hadding, Pepe Danquart

Starring: Andrzej Tkacz; Kamil Tkacz; Elisabeth Duda

[iii] Labyrinth of Lies

Production: Claussen Wőbke Putz Filmproduction; Naked Eye Filmproduction

Directed: Giulio Ricciarelli

Screenplay: Elisabeth Bartel; Giulio Ricciarelli

Starring: Andre Szymanski; Alexander Fehling; Frederike Becht

 

He Laughs Best Who Laugh Lasts

 

When it comes to movies, I generally prefer a good drama to a comedy, although I enjoy a good laugh as well as the next person. But sometimes I struggle with what’s really funny. Several years ago my wife and I went to see the musical, The Color Purple. I vaguely remembered seeing the movie several years previously, but I had never seen the stage play. I couldn’t remember much about the movie, other than it was directed by Steven Spielberg, and was a heavy drama. One of the characters in both the stage play and the movie is an African-American named Alphonso, who beats and rapes his daughter, Celie – repeatedly. Although a despicable character to me, the audience at the stage play, which was at least three-fourths African-American, continually burst into laughter at some of the things Alphonso did and said. I didn’t know what to do. Should I laugh along with the audience (although I didn’t find Alphonso the least bit funny)? If I did laugh, would my African-American neighbors find my laughter offensive since I “was not one of them.” And if I didn’t laugh at Alphonso, would those same African-Americans think we were racist? My wife and I left at intermission.  I don’t consider myself racist. It could have been any group regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or political views and I would have felt the same.

I had a similar experience but from the other viewpoint a couple of years ago when I first saw the musical, The Book of Mormon. I happen to be a Mormon, and Mormons, for the most-part, have stayed away from the musical. So I was amazed at how the crowd around me laughed loud and long throughout the entire production. My first thought was, how could they even think this is funny when, being non-Mormons, they probably don’t even get most of the jokes? My second thought was, as non-Mormons, what gave them the right to laugh at me and my fellow Mormons?

I learned a great lesson about laughter from one of my favorite romantic comedies, Roxanne*, a modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac starring Steve Martin. The lesson: learn to laugh at yourself, and encourage others to laugh right along with you. Notice I said laugh along with, not laugh at. In Roxanne, C.D. Bales, our modern-day Cyrano, has the long nose, a gift for prose, and a great ability to laugh at himself. In a barroom confrontation, a man tries to insult C.D., but all he can come up with is “big nose.” C.D. then takes the challenge of coming up with twenty different insults about his nose, all of which far surpass “big nose.” Here is the scene from the movie.

 

Rather than hold a pity party because of his nose, C.D. Bales embraces his unique physical trait. And that made all the difference. And in the end, Roxanne falls in love with C.D. because of the complete person he is, despite his nose getting in the way – literally.

My father-in-law, Don Harris, was a remarkable man with a story remarkably similar to C.D. Bales. Rather than an extra-large nose, Don was legally deaf, the victim of swine flu when he was about two years old, when he lost about 90 percent of his hearing. Growing up without much hearing was not always easy, but Don always figured out how to get by. But as Don started those awkward years of puberty, his self-esteem, like so many other teenagers, was put to the test. In junior high, with different teachers for each class, Don found himself giving the right answers to the wrong questions. Whenever he did so, everyone thought it was funny. Everyone except Don. One day in gym class the teacher asked each student to repeat back their locker number. Don thought the teacher asked how tall he was. “Four foot eight,” he replied. The class fell apart with laughter. Don got mad. He stomped his foot. He cried. Finally he yelled, “Goodbye! I’m never coming back to this school again.”

Don ran all the way home. Fortunately, his mother was there. “Don, you’re home early.” He explained to her why. “Son, you’re going to have a lot of people laugh at you before you leave this life. We’ll take you to every doctor we know to try to get you some help for your hearing, but I suggest the next time you give the right answer to the wrong question and everyone laughs, you laugh right along with them. I’ll be hard the first time, but from then out, you’ll have it made.”

Don decided to give it a try. The next day at school a teacher asked a question and Don gave the wrong answer. Everyone burst into loud laughter. This time, instead of getting mad, Don laughed along with them. “That sure was a dilly, wasn’t,” he said, and everyone laughed again. And Don spent the rest of his life laughing at life’s hard knocks, and encouraging those around him to join in.

Whether we have a physical deformity, a character flaw, or just do silly things from time to time, being able to laugh at ourselves sometimes takes great courage. But the rewards are worth it, if only in the growth of our own self-esteem. As Ethel Barrymore once said, “You grow up the day you have your first real laugh – at yourself.” So go ahead. Take a look in the mirror, and let the good times roll.

 

*Roxanne

Production company: Columbia Pictures

Directed by: Fred Schepisi

Screenplay by: Steve Martin

Starring: Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah