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Monster's Ball

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Monster's Ball
from Film Forum, 02/14/02

Monster's Ball is a drama directed by Marc Forster, filmed with quiet grace and a naturalistic style, like Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. It stars the fantastic Billy Bob Thornton as Hank, a corrections officer carrying intense racial prejudice in one hand and a sidearm in the other. Hank's aging father Buck (Peter Doyle) constantly reinforces the family's race-hate. For example, he calls his grandson, Sonny, "weak" because he befriends black neighbors. Halle Berry plays Leticia, the wife of a convicted killer, who is trying to raise her son right and survive as a black single mother in the middle of the South's racial tensions. Hank is deeply shaken after a confrontation with Sonny (Heath Ledger of The Patriot), and his raw emotional wounds open the door for a new and unlikely friendship. When Leticia gets a job pouring coffee at Hank's favorite late-night diner, they become friends against all odds.

Make no mistake: This is a story about unbelievers, behaving in sinful, reckless, dangerous ways as they nurse their particular needs for love, understanding, and intimacy. People are killed. Men lash out in racist hate. Father and son use prostitutes to find fleeting satisfaction. A mother beats her son. Lovers fall into hasty sex while under the influence of alcohol. It is not a pretty picture, and definitely not a film for younger viewers.

But the story's theme comes across loud and clear: love and compassion can overcome hate, even hardened racism. Hank is growing into a healthier perspective in the way that a toddler learns to walk—by making every variety of mistake, fumbling his way through hard lessons of love and loss, gaining wisdom inch by inch. His errors are clearly portrayed as missteps. (Hank's interaction with a prostitute is not glamorized, but shown as the joyless, empty, and contemptible exchange that it is.) Thus, when he finds true love, the revelation is all the more meaningful. The Bible itself tells us stories of men more evil than Hank who learned about love the hard way. Hank's evil is hard to look at, but his slow awakening to acceptance and love is quite beautiful.

Mainstream critics are highlighting the movie's strengths, and some are quite moved by its portrayal of love's power. A. O. Scott (The New York Times) raves, "The characters and the bond that develops between them are too complex for words, and the writers use very few. Their economy and the eloquence of Mr. Forster's unshowily beautiful images give Monster's Ball the density and strangeness of real life." And Moira Macdonald (The Seattle Times) writes that it gives us "a low-key gift of redemption and love."

But in his Chicago Sun-Times review, Roger Ebert writes, "The movie is not about redemption, not about how Hank overcomes his attitudes, but about how they fall away from him like a dead skin because his other feelings are so much more urgent. The movie then is not about overcoming prejudice, but sidestepping it because it comes to seem monstrously irrelevant. The movie has the complexity of great fiction, and requires our empathy as we interpret the decisions that are made."

The story may have an honorable theme. But is it a movie worth seeing? Should a Christian critic praise a movie like this? What sets apart a "Christian movie review" here?

Some focus on both the craftsmanship and the story's profound meaning. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic reports, "Forster's quietly intense film is difficult viewing, yet its core message that love can conquer prejudice and lead to redemption is ultimately hopeful."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "The real strength of Monster's Ball is in its well-drawn characters and the actors who play them. The script … tries to take on too much, and some of the plot threads get lost in the shuffle. But … Forster is more interested in atmosphere and characters than linear narrative." He suggests "the two explicit sex scenes … serve the characters well even if they do go on too long."

In my own review, I agree: the performances of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are excellent. And I agree that Forster makes us too intimate with these characters. When two of them get drunk after a devastating day, they rush into sexual activity that changes the course of their lives and their story. These scenes are entirely necessary for advancing the plot, but they're filmed too explicitly. Forster wants to show us subtle changes of heart that take place during private sexual interaction. But these scenes go beyond informative to become inappropriately provocative, transgressing a primary rule of art: Less is more. Still, the film's strengths outweigh its flaws. Although it is heavy-handed, it strikes some resonant chords about forgiveness, compassion, and doing the right thing.

Other Christian critics use their reviews simply to point out what might offend viewers, suggesting that portrayals of sinners should forgo any portrayals of graphic sin. John Adair (Preview) writes, "Vulgar dialogue and pornographic sexual content take the air out of Monster's Ball."

Yet another critic goes to an extreme. After praising certain technical aspects of the film, he condemns those who appreciate the film, making a scapegoat of the mainstream media's most prominent and popular critic—Roger Ebert. Why?

The writer points out that Ebert chose Monster's Ball as his favorite film of the year. The writer claims that Ebert was

obviously attracted to the steamy sex scenes in Monster's Ball. He also apparently didn't mind ogling the naked breasts of Halle Berry … he got to see similar sightings of a voluptuous nude black woman in Beloved [1998], it should be noted … or the breasts of the blonde prostitute who tries to satisfy both Sonny and Hank at a couple points in the story. After all, Roger used to write scripts for softporn movies early on in his career.

Is this the purpose and proper mode for a Christian movie review? To judge those who like the film, and to speculate on what sinful attitudes might have provoked a "thumbs-up"?

This critic—whose name I am not printing because I want to discuss philosophy, not people—simply guesses at Ebert's reaction to certain scenes. Ebert does not even mention nudity in his reviews, but remains focused on character and moral development. This critic implies Ebert is preoccupied with "ogling" naked women onscreen. Ebert and other critics—including the critic making the accusations—regularly see most movies that are released, even those prominent releases that contain nudity. It's their job. What has Ebert said in reference to the film that suggests he's moved by lust? Further, why does the critic emphasize Ebert's response to footage of black women, by making a connection to the film Beloved?

Finally, the review contains a nasty parting shot: the critic mentions Ebert's participation in production of some trashy movies. These allegations are true: Ebert worked with Russ Meyer, a notorious director of trashy movies—in the 1970s. Since then, Ebert has grown into an intelligent, important, essential writer of film criticism. His opinions are widely respected and valued, even among many of the widely published Christian film critics that Film Forum regularly quotes. (Check out his thoughtful archive of writing at the Chicago Sun-Times.) Although Ebert is more liberal than critics in the religious press are, he is quick to praise films with strong moral messages. Check out Ebert's review of A Walk to Remember—he goes against the mainstream backlash and praises the portrayal of a thoughtful Christian teenager.

Should Christians be publicly shaming Ebert for questionable choices he made two decades ago? Christ responded to such behavior quite intensely: Let the critic who has never sinned throw the first stone.

Christian moviegoers should exercise discernment and caution in deciding to whether attend Monster's Ball, which is indeed a flawed, volatile, troubling movie. But hopefully they will not rush to condemn it before considering its strengths, which are many.

Christian film critics often complain that Hollywood moviemakers portray churchgoers as condescending, judgmental, and legalistic. It is important, not just for critics but for all believers, to use caution and avoid behavior that reinforces such stereotypes. After all, Scripture assures us that all have sinned, and that the lives of most individuals deserve some pretty harsh ratings. God is indeed a giver of great grace.

from Film Forum, 03/28/02

After a year of national tragedy, mourning, and spiritual revival, you would think a glitzy, glamorous, self-congratulatory affair like the Oscars would ring hollow and seem inappropriate. Instead, this year's Academy Awards ceremony offered compelling speeches, moments of genuinely moving drama, and surprising displays of humility and sincerity. Humility? At the Oscars?

"This moment is so much bigger than me," said Halle Berry as she received her Best Actress Oscar on Sunday night. It was hard not to be moved as Berry—the first African American actress ever to win the award—wept with joy. She won for an emotional and powerful performance in Monster's Ball, playing a grief-stricken woman coping with the execution of her Death Row husband, struggling to raise a troubled son, working hard to pay the bills, and enduring the racism of the South. While her performance in the film was certainly Oscar-worthy, her performance on the Oscar stage will stand as a more memorable and meaningful moment in the history of entertainment. In an industry so fraught with dirty politics, it was wonderful to see something go so right.

As Berry fought to regain her composure, she named a few of the many wonderful African American actresses who have gone before her and were never properly acknowledged for their excellent work—from Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll to actresses working today like Angela Bassett and Jada Pinkett Smith—actresses whom Berry said were standing beside her in that moment.

Meawhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, criticized for so many years for neglecting to honor black actors, cast off the burden of its mistakes and demonstrated that, yes, the times have changed. Not only did it choose to honor Berry, but they gave Best Actor to a black actor—Denzel Washington, his second Oscar, but first for a leading role. They also handed a career achievement award to another black actor—Sidney Poitier. And the whole affair was hosted by African American comedian Whoopi Goldberg. These honors are evidence of a gradual revolution in the U.S. entertainment industry. As race becomes less a factor and new role models emerge, a new generation of young actors may be inspired by just how much is now clearly possible.