Great Art and Great Messages Make Great Films

“I have a dream!”

Of course you know I just borrowed those four famous words from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during this, the anniversary month of his birth. But it’s true, I do have a dream. As a film critic, I have aspirations of a day in which filmmakers in Hollywood would only release movies that would make our country better. Motion pictures that would inspire a deeper desire for us to grow in greatness and the service of others.

A few of this year’s Oscar-nominated films do just that. Selmas one of them. American Snipers another. But why not all? For that dream to become a reality, Tinseltown will have to quit giving itself accolades for films that promote hopelessness and glamorize behaviors that are counterproductive for living a successful and fruitful life.

Yesterday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put out its 2015 list of “bests” (for the films released in 2014), and it’s painfully clear that encouraging us to be better people is not a determining factor in their selection. I can hear members of the Academy declaring that it should be all about the art. While important, I’d argue that art without positivity can never be truly excellent.

For instance, not surprisingly but certainly disappointingly, Golden Globe winner Boyhood makes the list of Best Picture nominees. By film’s end, Boyhood would have us believe that every American child will need to experiment with drugs, alcohol and porn, lose his virginity during the teen years, and have no real reason to live outside of the world of video games. Mason, the main character, sums up the film’s entire premise with, “What’s the point?”

Contrast that message to the ones in Unbroken, a film that didn’t get nominated for Best Picture. Angelina Jolie’s flick reminds us that service to country is noble while concluding that perseverance and the forgiveness of one’s enemies are healing forces. I have a dream that someday Hollywood would take themes such as this into account. On one hand, you have a dreary, demoralizing film that wallows in hopelessness. On the other, you have a truly uplifting film that inspires viewers to contemplate how to be more heroic. Really, can there be any doubt as to which film is superior?

Oscar-blog2Birdman is another Oscar contender that has me shaking my head. Story center Riggan believes his life is of no value unless others applaud him. Is he a tragic example of what we shouldn’t aspire to? Or will throngs of moviegoers just take him at face value? I hope it’s not the latter, because that’s about the last thing we—especially teenagers—need to hear these days when Facebook likes (or the lack thereof) and YouTube views define our self-esteem. Compare Birdman to Selma, which clearly inspires us to take a stand for what’s right even when naysayers disapprove. The latter is the kind of film that should be the rule come awards season, not the exception. One more example. While The Theory of Everything is a certainly a mixture of inspiration and frustration, the overall point might be summed up when Stephen Hawking boils life down to this: We’re just advanced primates circling a minor star in a backwater part of the universe.

My hat’s off to Time magazine for recently designating the Ebola fighters as its annual Person(s) of the Year. People like Katie Meyler and Dr. Kent Brantly motivate me to look for ways to make a difference. And films should do the same! What’s more, they can do the same. And sometimes, they already do the same. But my point is that they should always do the same. Hollywood can be on the front lines fighting for a better world. Its filmmakers just need a dream of their own.

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.

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