Is It Propaganda to Promote Goodness?

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A few weeks ago, Michael Foust of the Christian Examiner/Post asked me what I thought about the news that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be available as an R-rated film (in addition to PG-13) when it releases on DVD. I answered Mr. Foust this way:

Personally, I believe all films should serve the purpose of making us better people. Of course, I realize not all films do that. But really, why shouldn’t they? I believe a motion picture should encourage, inspire and uplift us, not degrade us, not be a stumbling block.  Because of this belief, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Batman v Superman—already a film too dark and joy-zapping, could become better by adding additional problematic content.

Before I go any further, I want you to know that this blog isn’t about whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea for Batman v Superman to come out as an R-rated movie. But Foust’s question made me consider a much bigger question: Should movie studio execs be asked to regularly brainstorm film ideas that would make us better people?

Does that smack of coercion? Put another way, is it better for Warner Bros. or Universal, for instance, to continue making movies using their current model (which we’ve all experienced the results from) or switch to one that self-regulates a “mandate” to produce films to make us better people, which in turn would make us a better nation?

This is, of course, not a question that studio executives are currently pondering. It’s just a dream of mine. Or more accurately stated, It’s just a dream of mine based on the way Hollywood used to make films.

USA Today writer Jim Michaels described it this way in a February op-ed:

When the military needed more recruits to man bombers during World War II, it turned to Hollywood. The movies had already glamorized pilots, and recruiting offices were flooded with young men eager to earn their wings. But the military also needed navigators …

Gen. Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, met with Jack Warner, the legendary studio head of that era, and described the problem. … Warner responded with The Rear Gunner, a 1943 film [pictured above] that showcased the heroics of a B-24 gunner who saved the day when he blasted a Japanese Zero.

Personally, I believe we would be wise to go back to this Arnold/Warner model from the 1940s. It seemed to work well then. And I can’t help but think it could work well again. For instance, I can only imagine what could happen if a studio intentionally set about tackling the egregious practice of sex slavery. (Yes, I know there have been a few films made on this subject, but I’m talking about one with major Hollywood actors and a powerful, true story brought to cinematic life with a huge budget). Or how about championing the plight of impoverished orphans? Or a film that highlights what can happen when Christians and Muslims actually care about one another, and seek one another’s well-being? Certainly, there’s a story out there along this line that would inspire some copycat acts of unity.

Some would argue, “Do we really need more message movies?” I’d counter with my belief that all movies are message movies. Some are just more positive than others. I’d just like to see an end to films that degrade us and nudge us toward being more “me” focused at the expense of making us “better” focused.

So, let me ask you, would you like to see Hollywood become more intentional about inspiring us and uplifting us? Or does that sound like too much propaganda? And if you think Hollywood should return to its 1940s concern for society, how in the world do we get there?

Of course, Hollywood execs would no doubt disagree with me completely. They’d argue that they’re already putting out a number of encouraging and inspiring films, movies designed to move the cultural needle to a more positive place. (Inspirational movies like Race or 42, for instance. They’d probably also argue that films like The Big Short, as profane as it is, would be important message movies, too, intended to inspire people to work toward change.) But are they really? And what about a film like Mother’s Day that admittedly has a lot of pro-motherhood sentiment? Doesn’t that help reinforce the idea that moms matter? Does it really matter that the film also contains a number of problematic messages? Doesn’t the positivity overrule any significant concerns?  My colleague, Paul Asay, will tackle these and other questions as he expands on my premise in an upcoming blog. Stay tuned.

Who wrote this?

Bob Waliszewski is the director of the Plugged In department. His syndicated "Plugged In Movie Review" feature is heard by approximately 9 million people each week on more than 1,500 radio stations and other outlets and has been nominated for a National Religious Broadcaster's award. Waliszewski is the author of the book Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids With Love, Not War. You can follow him on Twitter @PluggedInBob.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Alexis Lorvonna More than 1 year ago
Unless it's a religious film, Christian propaganda HAS NO BUSINESS in a secular film! Go make your movies and stop endorsing/watching films that were NEVER created with your target audience in mind to begin with!
Antilles58 More than 1 year ago
Nowhere did Bob suggest that promoting goodness meant anything like "Christian propaganda" - in fact, the suggestions he made (fighting sex trafficking, bringing attention to the plight of orphans, religious reconciliation and peacemaking) seem to be "good" that would transcend worldviews.  And I believe that was his point - movies can call us to a higher standard, religious messages aside, but most of what they do is seek to appeal to the lowest common denominator to make a quick buck.

Moreover, given your apparent distaste for Christian perspectives, I'm curious as to how you found yourself here, and what you expected to find. You're welcome of course, but I don't understand the hostility.
Kal El More than 1 year ago
I'd say BvS is very edifying, considering how many references (both overt and symbolic) there are to God and Jesus. The movie has a running narrative that has Lex speaking as an angry, confused atheist, Batman as a broken and world weary agnostic, and Superman as a persecuted and ultimately self sacrificial Christ figure.

I wish PluggedIn would realize what a huge faith building opportunity they have in movies like these if they'd just come up with 'movie Bible study' material for them instead of the knee jerk condemnation they usually come off as having. I get really excited to dig into allegory and talking points in popular films, and it just depresses and alienates me to see a site ostensibly designed for building faith in Jesus Christ become more obsessed with tallying cultural no-no words as the yard stick for what makes a film acceptable, basically never respecting its readers enough to say 'we trust God's got your back. We recommend you pray about what your standards should be and what films He does and doesn't want you to watch personally.'

As for propaganda and message movies, I think having good messages is extremely valuable, but the hazard with message movies tends to be that they construct themselves as 'message first, art and quality second', which leads to hokey filmmaking with a well meaning but ham fisted and often generic message.
This is especially true of church group movies, in my experience. That's why even the best of them have the short term effect of leaving me saying 'wow, that was really inspiring', and the long term effect of 'it was a movie with good intentions, but the artistry was so lacking I can't remember most of the script or performances that well', which ends up diminishing its message and the sticking power of that message.

Conversely, I can watch The Matrix Trilogy, The Book Of Eli, Superman movies, The Middle Earth franchise, etc. over and over (and have them stick in my head better afterwards) because the message and Christian symbolisms are woven into the art, instead of having the art sacrificed for the sake of pushing the message harder.

Some people will probably read thoughts like this and think 'well, the message is more important than the art', but that mindset misses a powerful truth: art IS spiritual. Everyone I've ever really known has had at least one genre of music that moves them, or one medium of art they take pleasure and refreshment from (be it painting, film, music, games, books, the list goes on). That's because God is in art: He is a creative God and He made us in His image and His likeness, meaning He gave us a curious and creative nature. For some that means becoming a mechanic or an engineer, for some a songwriter or a director, but however it looks, we are wired to be creative just as God is creative. So is it any wonder that the movies that move and excite us (meaning the moviegoing masses) are movies that are really well made, and manage to excite and inspire us simultaneously? Church group movies aim to inspire, but they never really excite our sense of wonder and adventure (a deeper topic for another day). Conversely, something like The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy captivates us with powerful storytelling loaded with Christian themes, but also appeals to our deep desire for adventure and beauty and creativity, because they didn't ditch the artistry.

So that's where I think Christian film needs to go. Stop writing only real world style stories about a semi flawed or broken person who finds Jesus and instantly becomes a regular Charlie Church in a three piece suit. Start telling stories with the artistic value in mind and not just what message you want to feed your audience. Use your imagination! Give us a sci-fi film with a Christian twist, for example. I know budgets tend to be tight for these films, but you can definitely start somewhere with this and as these movies improve, so will their budget allotments, building to where we can maybe have a full blown blockbuster with Christ follower artists at the helm.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

Well said. You make many excellent points there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by First Comment Guy

Kal El, I wholeheartedly agree with you about BvS. The movie is Indeed very edifying, with all of its Christ parallels and such.

I'm pretty sure the only reason 21st century Superman movies get hated on is BECAUSE of all those Christ parallels (although BvS was also unfairly criticized for other things I. E. plot holes that are really just nitpicks).

The idea of keeping film as an art is very well put, and I certainly hope we get more movies like that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by First Comment Guy

Great post! Your blog is a bit of a two way cut.

On the one hand, Facing the Giants, one of my favorite films, is a very uplifting movie that never gets old because of how it encourages me to never give up, even if the ending is a bit cliche.

On the other hand, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is my favorite movie of 2016 so far (I know, sue me) because of how it is set in a universe like ours, and shows us what happens if we live too long in the darkness.

All in all, great post!
Charles Scheid More than 1 year ago
Well, yes, you've hit the nail squarely on the head.

What is better, seeing the world "correctly" or learning to see the world in all the different ways that other people see it? Should movies promote "correct" thinking or should they promote empathy?
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
I supposed you would also prefer to go back to the Hays code?

I think people should be able to make movies for whatever purpose they want, and there should not be any kind of "mandate" that movies have to be a particular thing or serve a particular purpose, especially as we're never going to be able to agree what that purpose should be.  I mean like, what if some studio mandated that all their movies promote "diversity", or political correctness.  Of course, they're seems to be almost an unspoken mandate about that already, lol, but if it was actually an official policy for it you would see a lot more restriction on creativity, I think.  And how can you declare for sure that BvS isn't edifying or uplifting??  I have a couple friends who loved the movie and thought the Christ allegory of it was very powerful.  Certainly their are content issues that most Christians can generally agree on (I don;t think most Christians would seriously call 50 Shades of Gray edifying, for instance) but beyond that everyone has different tastes and preferences and interests.  You can;t say definitely that a movie like BvS is absolutely not uplifting to anyone, because it probably WAS to some people.  

Hollywood already makes lots of message movies, as you mentioned in the blog, and it seems like the number of "based on a true story" films is only going up.  Hollywood is constantly trying to make us "better" it's just that often Christians don't agree that what Hollywood wants really is "better".  When I saw the title for the blog post, I actually thought of something else.  I have a few friends who are constantly complaining about Hollywood "propaganda" when it comes to stuff like politics and "tolerance" and such things, but I know that they wouldn't consider a christian film like "God is not Dead" to be Christian propaganda.  Because we tend to only use propaganda to mean things we disagree with (though I think the term also usually implies deception and a one-sided biased presentation of facts).  If it happens to be *our* personal belief; something we actually believe in and think is important, then its not "propoganda" it's just truth.  But someone else on the other side might not agree.

I think we're back to the age old question; Is it ok for movies to "just be entertainment" or "art", or should movies (and everything else) be judged on how "useful" they are, essentially.  Is the primary purpose of "story" to "entertain" or to "teach", or both?  Should movies and art "reflect the reality around us", or "show us reality as it should be."?  Realistic or idealistic?  Batman or Superman? ^^.   The  question keeps coming up constantly, behind a lot of topics and discussion, but my response is always basically "Why not just "All of the above"?"  Why can't their be room for both Superman and Batman?   Some obvious content boundaries aside, why can't we have artsy incomprehensible movies, AND dumb comedies, AND inspiring true story epics, AND scary suspenseful thrillers, AND cheesy romances, AND big budget action fests, and etc. etc. etc.  
Kal El More than 1 year ago
Good post!
For my part, I had the same thought regarding the article title.
Speaking for myself, I would still understand calling church group movies like "God's Not Dead" or "Courageous" propaganda movies, because they do essentially push a message in a pretty biased way. It's just that they are basically 'good propaganda'. But I agree with you, we usually only here 'propaganda' as a slur of sorts, but really, many old WWII era cartoons encouraged viewers to buy war bonds to help the allies fight the axis; those cartoons were totally propaganda, but they were good propaganda because what they prompted people to do was very much a good and important thing.



Also, this is a radically unconventional comment, but I would argue that "Fifty Shades Of Grey" (the movie, not the horribly written book) did in fact have some edifying spots. I can't comment on where the story goes (I refuse to read the book trilogy and the next movie isn't till next year), but just the first film by itself did include some healthy choices and examinations about what sexual abuse can do to a person (in a couple areas).
I will now await the masses so they can drag me out of town and stone me. :-P
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

Great topic! Yes, I would absolutely love more edifying, inspiring movies from Hollywood.

But preventing that, as I see it, is a two-fold problem: 

First, that big, dumb, gratuitous actioners make boatloads of cash, encouraging movie executives to push them. Ditto for crass comedies, and for trashy "romances."

Second, that most people cannot agree on what constitutes "edifying" and "inspiring." Can R-rated films be inspiring and constructive? Can G-rated films be bad for a viewer? Should films be limited to PG-13, or even PG, ratings to avoid problems? Where is the line? "Letters from Iwo Jima" saddened and challanged, but also edified, me; "God's Not Dead" left me cold, to put it mildly.

That said, I firmly believe that discussions about edification, inspiration, and the effects of content (in or out of context) are well worth having.
Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
You also face the problem- particularly with Hollywood- of what constitutes 'good' or makes us 'better people.' The church says 'it is good to strengthen marriages, to affirm the importance of their centrality to culture, to monogamy and a God-honoring covenant'; that's a positive message on sex and relationships. To the world/Hollywood, a 'positive' message on sex and relationships would be 'people need to get over their archaic sexual mores and be more accepting of all forms of sexuality, because it's saying that there is a 'right' or 'wrong' context for sex that's been causing problems since the Victorian era.'

Both want a 'positive' message on a specific topic, but both have VERY different visions of what 'positive' is. It's similar to the ongoing, growing schism between liberals and conservatives; especially in the social arena, one side's Utopia is the other side's DIStopia; they are direct opposites.

Sure, there are going to be instances- like sex slavery, impoverished orphans, etc., as you cite- where morality remains united between the world and the church; there are still a few universals. But generally, 21st century worldly morality has become so estranged from Biblical morality that those 'universal' issues are going to be more of the exception than the rule. (Part of the reason why I'm a little nervous about the upcoming Star Trek series, and just how 'message' it's going to be, because I doubt many of its potential messages, if it goes in the direction of a more socially-conscious show, will be ones I am comfortable consuming). and since Hollywood tends to showcase the worldlier side of the world, the basest and most self-focused center... I honestly think that if you were to ask them to produce more positive message films to make people better people, you would end up increasing the anti-Biblical propaganda Hollywood produces, because their idea of 'positive' is generally going to be 'oppose those narrow-minded religious views and promote increased approval of sinful, worldly practices, so that everyone 'gets along.''

When you recognize the need for more babysitters, you don't go and ask the wolf. When you recognize the need to promote positive messages, you don't look to the world. In both cases, that's not going to end well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

It might be helpful, I feel, to seperate obvious "messages" from our ideas of the art of movie making. If movies are indeed, as I have heard, "life as it is, and life as it could be," and since life rarely has obvious messages to give us (our learning often coming from painful mistakes -- our own, and others'-- and from communal wisdom), perhaps empathy, truth -- so far as we can reach it -- and human concern should be preeminent.

I have no use for a movie whose sole message is "traditional religion is bad." I also have no use for one whose entire theme is "homosexuals are evil," or that "atheists are corrupt, abusive, unlikable fill-in-the-blank's," (God's Not Dead, anyone?).

The worldview of the director, or the writer, is inimportant. What is important is empathy -- in fact, it's required. Here is the all-important question: can the movie maker walk in their subjects' shoes? Can they humanize them? Can they deal, in truth and in mercy, with the virtues and flaws of another?

These ideals are out there: one of the finest Christian films of the last decade, "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," was directed by an atheist; the secular morality of "Still Alice" treasures life, and familial steadfastness; the at-times-profane "Bridge of Spies" honors legal uprightness, and the value of lives and democracy; then there is the implicitly religious morality of the Coen Brothers, the small-town decency of Spielberg, and the spiritual hunger of Malick, to name a few.

It is out there, and it needs to be encouraged.