Movie Review: ‘Courageous’ (Spoilers)

The most noticeable trait of the film ‘Courageous’ is it’s overwhelming sincerity. Despite the rather clunky script and the non-Hollywood cast, each scene earnestly strives to present a Hallmark moment and to convey a positive message. Most of the message is good; any film that wishes to emphasize the importance of fathers certainly deserves credit for such a worthy and bold undertaking. Yet, I can’t help but feel conflicted whenever I watch the film. Due to the obvious sincerity with which the film is made and due to the mostly positive message presented, I am concerned that the films more negative aspects may slip by unnoticed. In particular, the film’s handling of race, the attitude towards the role of women and the bad use of prayer, all strike me as more harmful than constructive. It is these aspects I shall critique.

It is not an overstatement to call ‘Courageous’ a racist film. But, it is not intentionally racist and therein lays the problem. I’ve always been more concerned about people who are accidentally demeaning, because they do so much damage without intending to do any. Each race presented in the film fits almost perfectly into the worst of racial stereotypes. The majority of African Americans in the film are members of a street gang. (Though I must say they have some of the cleanest gang language I’ve ever heard.) There is one African American police officer (Nathan) and he is an illegitimate son of a father who left before he was even born. From the point of view of the audience, every African American character seems to have some major issue. The police are almost entirely white, the gang is almost entirely black. If that particular arrangement doesn’t strike you as racially demeaning then we’ll have to sit down and have a chat.

Or take the character Javier, the only male adult Latino in the film. I was rather upset that his one continuous quest throughout the film is for employment. I know unemployment is a big issue in our modern times, but addressing the issue with the one Latino in the film only perpetuates the stereotype that Mexican-Americans are either unemployed or seeking after American jobs. In a film, characters also serve as representations of a community, by portraying African American’s as father-less and violent while portraying Latinos as being poor and constantly unemployed, the filmmakers unconsciously perpetuate and deepen racial stereotypes. In a film that seeks to speak the word of God, it is particularly unsettling to see so much passive racism.

If you are a woman watching the film, be prepared to not hear a lot of women talking. But when they do, prepare to not empathize with the characters. The film focuses on the importance of father’s yet it seems to do so at the expense of moms. Take for example Carmin, Javier’s wife, after he loses his first job and returns home to tell her about it, she yells at him. Reminding him, “We have rent due on Tuesday, Michael needs new shoes.” The nagging is not confined to one scene of frustration, rather she reminds him on every possible occasion about her needs and the needs of the children. In a particularly telling scene, when Javier has been asked to doctor the log book at work or lose his job-again, his wife demands that he do it because she, “doesn’t want to go back” to being poor.

Adam, the main character, loses a daughter in a car accident in the first third of the film. The only things we ever hear Adam’s wife say are (surprise, surprise) demands to her husband. Her first lines remind him of the piano recital he missed. When the daughter dies, she tearfully demands that he should “make sense of this for (her).” Shortly thereafter, we see Adam standing in the hallway looking at his wife crying on his daughter’s bed and his son playing video games. The visual cue sends the message that Adam is ultimately responsible to better the lives of these two people. Not once do we see Adam’s wife comfort their son Dylan without Adam initiating the action.

Then there is Nathan’s wife, Kayla. In her most extended scene, she portrays the perfect imitation of what is common known as ‘the saucy black mama.’ Her body language and tone of voice send two conflicting messages: She is a woman who is large (metaphorically speaking) and in charge, yet she never seems to have any input in the family decisions. She cheerily follows Nathan’s ideas for the family, while telling him “There are days I’m glad I married you, and there are days I’m really glad I married you.”

As far as the wives of the film go, I can isolate three main messages, women are: consistently nagging, emotional wrecks in need of fixing and yet, perfectly subordinate to their husbands. Growing up, I never saw these three ‘ideals’ in my own parents. Both of my parents had their strengths and both had their weaknesses, conveniently enough, the strength of one usually was the weakness of the other. Unlike the one sided ‘husband takes care of it all’ images in the film, my parents worked together as partners. Sometime my mother would remind my dad of tasks to be done, sometime my dad would remind my mother. The one thing they did was support each other and talk. The husband-wife relationships in the film strongly suggest that decisions belong to the husband and the wife ought to be the silent supporter. That model may work in some marriages, but portraying it as a universal ideal is irresponsible. But, the marriage chemistry of the movie is not nearly as jaw dropping as the movies treatment of teenage daughters.

Nathan’s daughter Jade, is fifteen years old and drawing the attention of every boy in the world. Early on we meet a 17 year old (who later turns out to be a gang member) who wants to take her on a date. Nathan is shocked at this and takes his daughter out for a special meal. At this meal he makes a deal with her that she will “trust (him) with (her) heart.” He says “One day I will give you over to another man. Jade, trust me with your heart and let me select someone who will cherish it.”

Whenever I watch this scene I get the image of a baton being passed off, as if the daughter lacks any sort of ability to discern which guys are right or wrong for her. The film unconsciously gives hints that Jade is smarter than her father gives her credit for, she notices her 17 year old’s scares from his gang initiation almost immediately. But, don’t expect Nathan to try and cultivate this intelligent and inquisitive side of his daughter, he’s simply going to make he decisions for her.

I am not suggesting that parents ought not to have any input in their children’s dating lives. But I am suggesting that the film get’s the involvement all wrong. Return to my own upbringing, my parents had a rule that I couldn’t date until sophomore year. Hindsight being 20/20, I can say that I wouldn’t have been capable of dating before that. I wasn’t the suave, intelligent gentleman I am today. (For those of you who missed it-that was sarcasm). But instead of make my decisions concerning women for me, my parents taught me what sorts of things to look for in a girlfriend. And what about when I ignored their advice and went out with someone they didn’t approve of? They kept it to themselves. When I eventually broke it off, they would always have a very satisfied look on their faces. But the point is they taught me how to make decisions and then let me make mistakes. In the movie, the parents (or rather, the fathers) don’t enable their children to make any decisions at all. They’re content to make all the decisions until the poor girl can be passed off to another man who will tell her what to do.

The core issue I have with the women in the movie is this: they are all portrayed as incomplete. The wives are subordinates rather than equals in their marriages, and the daughters are portrayed as unthinking, completely oblivious women who need to have their decisions made for them. What’s worse is that these attitudes are given as being as being holy, scripture based attitudes and roles. The film completely ignores the countless scriptural references to very powerful women. Choosing an obvious example, Mary didn’t ask Joseph for permission to conceive Jesus and it was she who stood resolute through all of her emotional trials. To summarize, the film treats husbands as sufficient rather than necessary components of a marriage. Rather than being a partnership, men are held as being the ultimate leaders, while women are there as more of an adoring assistant.

Lastly, the role of prayer in the film is rather bland. While keeping notes on the film, I began to notice that every prayer was simply a request. Each dad when he prays, begs for God to get him out of his present situation. Javier prays for God to give him a job. Adam prays for God to help him (he does this repeatedly). To my knowledge we never see Nathan pray, but it is evident from his testimonies given throughout the film, that God seems to be the great card-dealer in the sky who can stack the deck in your favor if only you request it earnestly enough.

Yet, making requests is only a very small part of prayer. The film is a Protestant film and as such I am not sure of their being any Protestant mystics, so please bear with me while I return to my Catholic heritage for some material. Through the writings of the great mystical Christians, there is an emphasis on losing the self to find God. By self, the mystics mean those desires and vices, which all humans have, yet which get in the way of our spiritual growth. In the Our Father we have those towering words “Thy Kingdom come,” which has the unavoidable corollary, “our kingdom go.” A man cannot focus on the will of God, if he is demanding that God focus on the will of the man.

The only prayers in the film are prayers for God to make easier the plans of these men. Yet, it is undeniable that those who have progressed the farthest on the spiritual path have instead prayed for themselves to make easier the plans of God. The film has prayer backwards. Not only does it confuse whose will is important in prayer, it gives a reward system that any Christian can see is superficial. As soon as Javier begins an earnest prayer life, everything suddenly goes well for him. The suggestion is that prayer is the one ticket to worldly prosperity and happiness. Yet, that is Biblically untenable. The Apostles were some of the most prayerful people ever to live and most of them ended up being killed. The letters of Paul remind the Christian church to persist in living the will of God through difficultly and trial. The Christian life is not one of blissful ease with God handing out blank checks, rather it is a life of difficultly and persistence that tests a person’s character. The film says I ought to hand God my wish list, the Bible and every Christian mystic says God ought to hand me his.

This extended essay on my grievances with the film may lead some to believe that I see nothing redeeming or worthy in the film. That is untrue. The only reason I have written this criticism is because I care enough about the film to critique it. G.K. Chesterton was right when he noted that the only way bring about positive change is to love something enough to hate it. If I did not see anything worth protecting or affirming in the film, I would not have opened up this word document. But, because I have an interest in the correct portrayal of marriage and of fathers, I am compelled to criticize that which I find to be wrong. In closing, the film’s main conclusion: that husbands ought to be good fathers, is spot on. But the methods prescribed to become a good father are way, way off.

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