• Onalee McGraw

Taking the Higher Road to Civic Friendship with Classic Films in a Broken World

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

We explore how three classic films integrate justice, friendship and moral truth - Remember the Titans, (2000), No Way Out (1950) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Along the way we discover pathways to civic unity while working to overcome racism and political tribalism. Our mission is to encourage teenagers, college students and young adults, as well as parents, grandparents and educators, to utilize the great art form of classic film to understand the human condition we share.

Hope in a Divided World: Remember the Titans

Through the leadership and friendship of two football coaches, a high school football team learns solidarity and finds common ground, Learning and practicing civic virtues like courage and true justice, they help to heal their racially divided community.

Here are three reasons why watching and discussing films like Remember the Titans can help us rebuild social, cultural and moral capital in our fragmented communities. We can:

1. Rediscover our common humanity

2. Recover cultural memories of higher goods we can share together

3. Prioritize civic friendship over group identity politics

Rediscovering Our Common Humanity

Our classic film project began in the early 1990's when my discovery of "moral energy" as explained by Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles in The Moral Life of Children. In Chapter Two, "Movies and Moral Energy," Coles wrote about how great movies have the power to give a mysterious gift of "moral energy" to each of us. Seven-year old Ruby Bridges, then facing angry white mobs as she walked to her newly integrated school, explained to Coles how watching A Raisin in the Sun could work on the consciences of the hateful people spitting at her. The concept of "Moral Energy" is difficult to pin down because the subjective and personal element in its expression is often overwhelming.

The great classic films give us moral energy and a higher level of connectivity to explore together the meaning and truth of our common humanity. The best classic films that we share and discuss together across generations and political divides can help us grasp intuitively the better side of our human nature. Each of us is an irreplaceable member of the human race. Only secondarily are we members of a racial, ethnic or political identity group. Rediscovering our common humanity is ultimately a quest for solidarity in friendship over personal autonomy.

This quest is not a journey that we take by use of our reason alone. It is a journey best guided - not by politicians, intellectuals or an academic treatise - but by poets, artists and storytellers. We can rely more on the great classic movie storytellers to be trustworthy companions on our journey and as reliable sources for gaining moral energy. They are artists who want us to join them in their quest for the transcendent. The very best film stories tell the truth about our human condition. Our accompaniment as members of the audience grows into friendship. We cannot undertake this journey alone. Friendship by its very nature is one of the highest goods of life as seen in this little known quote from Thomas Aquinas:

"A moralist should be more profoundly concerned with friendship than with justice."

Recovering Cultural Memory

Made in 2000, Remember the Titans gives us a turn of the 21st century look at our human nature with a film based on actual events from the 1970's in Alexandria, Virginia. What are the ways that Remember the Titans works on our cultural memory in such a positive way? It conveys a sensibility that allows both our emotions and our reason to grasp vital truths about the human condition "all at once." Coach Boone gives his team a vital lesson at the beginning of the film, showing us at the same time how deep cultural and moral memory develops.

“You listen... and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don't come together... right now, on this hallowed ground... then we, too, will be destroyed, just like they were. I don't care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other, and maybe... I don't know, maybe we'll… learn to play this game like Men.”- Coach Boone at Gettysburg

Prioritizing Civic Friendship Over Group Identity Politics

The measure of our character, as Martin Luther King said, is not where we stand at moments of comfort and convenience, but how we act in "times of challenge and controversy." One of the greatest challenges we face in this time of deep cultural breakdown is the temptation to give into Fatalism, the negative philosophy of life that has plagued humanity since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Fatalists believe that the moral choices human beings make are really insignificant or even non- existent in human affairs; fatalists hold that events in life are ultimately driven by forces beyond human control.

In Remember the Titans, we see characters walking the rocky road to enduring friendship in a a community torn by racial strife. Along the way, tutored by their coaches, the players develop civic virtue and self - knowledge. The film's narrative is driven by the anthropological assumption that human beings have free will to make moral choices in life. If we are to live in a moral order and not chaos, we who are members of the human race must have the courage to engage in fraternal correction. Fatalists don't bother with fraternal correction. It's just too hard, especially in today's world when so many of us just seem to give up on people who have a different opinion than our own. To engage in fraternal correction is to believe in the existence of the human powers of thought and free will. Another reason why fraternal correction is so rare today is that, culturally speaking, we have lost a working objective standard for what is good and what is bad behavior. Remember the Titans, No Way Out and Bad Day at Black Rock teach timeless lessons in how we need each other every day to live in moral reality.

Shared Experience and Cultural Memory-The Friendship of Coach Boone and Coach Yeost

With the deepening and alarming loss of civility our society is experiencing, the modelling of ordinary people making moral choices in racially torn Alexandria is inspiring.


"It's Not Color, It's Culture"

In 2016, Denzel Washington on a Sirius radio show led a group discussion on cultural realities and differences. Denzel gave examples from the film world and from the black experience to illustrate that "It is culture, not color" and that cultural memories are paramount. The memories that we have of the ordinary things that make us human are fundamentally cultural by nature. This is why growing our moral imagination by viewing and discussing films like Remember the Titans can bring greater understanding and solidarity across political, cultural and racial boundaries.

Elevating Human Dignity with No Way Out

No Way Out is a film made in 1950 about racial justice when all of America was reluctant to have that conversation. We can salute the artistic genius of screenwriter/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz for this breakthrough film and the first movie made by Sidney Poitier. In the crucial scene, Poitier's character shines the light for the audience on what it means to uphold human dignity at the highest levels of human affairs. The psychopathic racist who has harassed and persecuted him throughout the film is now in danger of dying. Dr. Brooks (Poitier's character) knows that he has a moral responsibility to try to save the life of this man who has harmed him so deeply. He explains: "I can’t kill a man just because he hates me."

Some years ago, EGI had a federal grant that allowed us to implement our program, "Project Heart to Heart" in parish and school communities in Northern Virginia and Maryland. One of the most exciting of these project sites was our two-year stint at Westfield High School. Our after-school program at Westfield included the screening of such great films as Key Largo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Johnny Belinda and No Way Out.

Bad Day at Black Rock: Navigating the Geography of Good and Evil

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Edmund Burke

Bad Day at Black Rock, like Remember the Titans and No Way Out, centers around characters who must make a moral choice. What choice will be made?

Spencer Tracey's character, Macreedy, says: I was all washed-up when I got off that train. I had one last duty to perform before I resigned from the human race.

He talks about the deep gratitude that he has for Komoko’s son who saved his life. By admitting his own moral failings and weaknesses he is able to persuade others in Black Rock to take moral action.

Rebuilding Social Capital with Remember the Titans, No Way Out and Bad Day at Black Rock

Social scientist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone has documented our society's cultural and moral loss of human connection and community bonds. Cell phones and social media replace personal connection and face- to-face conversation. Postmodern philosophers tell our rising generation they are atomized radical individuals who must define themselves by their needs and feelings. Standing against this false view of human nature is our great cultural and moral legacy of classic films. These films were created in times when more individuals in our culture understood themselves to be part of the human family with the capacity to know and choose right from wrong.

In the classical worldview we are moral actors, not victims of fate: We are - every one of us - participants in a transcendent moral order. The enduring and transcendent questions like - “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” “How can we all live together in freedom and harmony? - are confronted in these films. They elevate all of us, left, right and center, giving us vital lessons in rebuilding social capital.

In his concluding chapter of Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam gives a call to his fellow citizens:

“To build bridging social capital requires that we transcend our social and political and professional identities to connect with people unlike ourselves...you and I, along with our fellow citizens [must] resolve to become reconnected with our friends and neighbors.” Putnam goes on to suggest that “art is especially useful in transcending conventional social barriers” and that “social capital is often a valuable by-product of cultural activities whose main purpose is purely artistic.”

Rebuilding Social Capital and Revitalizing Community and Culture: Experiential Learning with Remember the Titans.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains our challenge - to rebuild our nation's social capital by fostering “values, virtues, norms, practices, identities and technologies that increase it.”

We have developed lesson plans using Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory for Remember the Titans, No Way Out as well as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These lessons are designed to accomplish the mission outlined by Robert Putnam - to bridge the political and cultural divides and rebuild lost moral and social capital.

“Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense...if you don't value moral capital, then you won't foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it."- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Can we begin rebuilding our broken communities with the aid of classics like Remember the Titans? What is needed is a focus in our local communities away from the hatreds and divisions of national politics. This films shows us how diverse members of a community can overcome their deep differences. Haidt presents six pillars of Moral Foundations Theory: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Each pillar of the theory has been validated by scientific inquiry. Liberals and conservatives alike can intuitively and reasonably assume there are no hidden political or religious agendas lurking beneath the surface of Moral Foundations Theory. Each moral foundation has an opposite that must be overcome. Care must overcome harm, fairness must overcome cheating and injustice, loyalty must be chosen over indifference and betrayal.

Care vs. Harm

Haidt has found that the moral emotions of human beings are deeply sensitive in the sphere of Care vs. Harm. It is in our nature as human beings to become deeply disturbed and sorrowful at the sight of a person suffering from harm. Deep moments of love and care shine through in the winning of the state championship in spite of the tragic accident that paralyzes team leader Gerry Bertier.

Fairness vs. Cheating

Coach Yoast has been told by prominent members of the community that he will be chosen for the Hall of Fame. The price of this award is for Yoast to look elsewhere when unethical moves are made that will cost Coach Boone his job. The second sequence depicts the decision made by Gerry Bertier, with Coach Boone’s permission, to drop Ray from the team. Ray has been “cheating” by refusing to cover black players in strategic plays where their safety and the outcome of the game are at stake.

The Liberty Foundation

In several key scenes players make strategic moral decisions in favor of loyalty to the team instead of loyalty to their tribe. Alan makes the choice under authority of Coach Yeost to put Petey into the vial spot that will maximize the team's chances for victory. Coach Boone refuses the intervention of the police when a brick is thrown into the window of his Alexandra home. He intuitively knows the deep importance of letting the team members themselves work for unity.

Loyalty vs. Betrayal

Emma sees the friendship between Julius and Gerry as a betrayal of their white social group. Later, Emma has gained understanding of the deeper loyalty we owe to each other in authentic justice. She greets Julius warmly at the championship game.

Authority vs. Subversion

In discussing the Authority Foundation, Jonathan Haidt gives good advice to people who want to live in a free society:

“If authority is in part about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station.”

Coach Boone knows that he must establish his authority with the white members of the team through Gerry Bertier who is their captain. Boone takes a direct and personal approach by asking Gerry in front of the others: “Who is your Daddy?”

The Sanctity of our Common Humanity vs. Degradation

“You listen... and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don't come together... right now, on this hallowed ground... then we, too, will be destroyed, just like they were. I don't care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other, and maybe... I don't know, maybe we'll… learn to play this game like Men.” - Coach Boone at Gettysburg

Watching this sequence mysteriously triggers a strong sense of Sanctity - the Sanctity of our common humanity. Somehow the postmodern reduction of our human nature down to "bodies and brains" does not make sense here. And with the power of the visual image and shared experience, the reduction of our human identity down to membership in a tribe defined by racial identity does not make sense either.

Renewing Solidarity over Self-Interest and Division in Our Society

Solidarity can be defined as unity and agreement of feeling and action among people with a common interest; mutual support within a group. From beginning to end, the story of Remember the Titans compellingly depicts the human struggle for solidarity within conflicting groups.

People say that it can't work, black and white. Here, we make it work every day. We still have our disagreements, of course, but before we reach for hate, always, always, we remember the Titans.

- Sheryl Yoast

Resources for Further Study...

To explore further the integration of Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory with classic film, see our blog post: Seeking Moral Truth For the Hard Questions in the World of Classic Cinema-No Way Out

To utilize more classic films to teach civic unity and solidarity in a broken world, check out EGI's study guide: Liberty and Justice for All: Classic Movies and the Things that Matter Most in a Free Society

Onalee McGraw's Author Page on Amazon

Jonathan Haidt's: The Righteous Mind

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's: The Coddling of the American Mind

646 views0 comments