I was young when I first saw the Academy Award-winning film, “To Kill A Mockingbird” on VHS. I certainly didn’t understand every aspect of what was happening in the story, but what I picked up on had me in tears. It was my first encounter with real injustice. The book has since become my favorite novel of all time.
Stories have always connected with people. This is likely one reason why Christ so often spoke using parables. He could have told his audience how bad they were and how much God loved them, but to hear of an ungrateful son who wished his father dead and squandered his wealth leaves a much greater impact when the jilted father comes running to embrace his son and welcomes him home.
Themes at the Oscars
Whether the themes of a story are specific or universal, they are what draw an audience in, create empathy, move us, and at times, even promote personal change. This is part of what makes movies so popular and influential in our society. So what are some of the themes of this year’s Oscar nominated films?
“Arrival” expresses our desire to communicate and be understood. It also touches on grief and the difficult choices we make and must live with.
“Fences” rails against racial injustice while also giving us a protagonist who struggles deeply with his own vanity and selfishness.
“Hacksaw Ridge” shows a man persecuted for his beliefs as he tries to honor God.
“Hell or High Water” laments human poverty, unfair lending practices and the irony of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel.
“Hidden Figures” puts on display the ugliness of racial inequality and misogyny, while also promoting the dignity and worth of every image-bearer.
“La La Land” is a testament to joy and love. It reminds us to dream, hope and create, with the knowledge that the pursuit of dreams often involves difficult choices.
“Lion” shows us the beauty of different people and cultures, while also causing us to long for our true home.
“Manchester by the Sea” puts us in the middle of a man’s unrelenting grief and regret. And though forgiveness and grace are available, they are often difficult to accept.
“Moonlight” touches on what it is to be poor, gay and a minority. Life can be incredibly difficult, but when we look back we can all find glimpses of grace and moments of kindness.
Relating to themes as a Christian
We may not be able to relate to every single theme that comes up in each of these nominated films. But the ones that have played out in my life cause me to look higher. We should go to God with our pain and grief. We can lament the injustice of the world and cry out to him. We can forgive others as we are forgiven by him because of Jesus’ sacrifice. We can love those who are different than us because Jesus calls and empowers us to do so.
The nine Best Picture nominees may not be for everyone. As with all forms of art, believers are to be discerning when choosing whether to view them. There are themes and worldviews in some of these films that we won’t agree with. But part of the audience’s role is simply to listen. We can hear an argument for an opposing worldview without agreeing with it, and in doing so, perhaps we are opening more doors to conversation and empathy. We can recognize and lament the effects of beliefs contrary to scripture. Ultimately, we wrestle with these themes and worldviews. We accept what is honest and true and discard what is not.
In his forthcoming book Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, film critic Josh Larsen assumes every cinematic story is a way of communicating to God about this world. Whether the filmmaker intends it or not, they are communicating things such as lament, thanksgiving, praise, yearning, confession, reconciliation or joy, to name a few. As viewers, understanding and wrestling with these themes can better help us understand the art we take in. These themes can help us understand ourselves. They can help create an empathetic space in which to better love and care for those made in God’s image. And though we may not be able to see all of the themes playing out in our personal stories, we can certainly trust the One who leads the way into our next chapter and point others to his story.