Monday, February 9, 2015

Whatever Is... Right

It's been two months since my last Whatever Is... post (maybe I should just assume I'm going to have one of these every two months until further notice), but I'm finally ready to jump into the next one! Today's word is "right."

"Right" is kind of a generic term, and when I went to look it up I got the following commentary:
díkaios (an adjective, derived from dike, "right, judicial approval") – properly, "approved by God"; righteous; "just in the eyes of God". "Righteous" relates to conformity to God's standard (justice).
A good chunk of the times this word is used in the Bible, it gets translated "justice." So in my search for movies that fit the "whatever is right" profile, I'm looking for movies where justice happens -- the oppressors are toppled, the good guys win out, people get what they truly deserve. So... don't expect a lot of film noir in this list.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Truth be told, I could probably include quite a few of Frank Capra's movies in this list. Capra gets a lot of flak for being overly idealistic and sentimental, but, gosh, are his movies refreshing in the cynical 2000s. I couldn't decide between these two films, both starring Jimmy Stewart, so I'll be talking about both of them.

While the central conflict of It's a Wonderful Life is centered around the impact George Bailey has had on his world, that would be a slightly hollow answer if the movie didn't end positively. As the darker second half of the story unravels, the primary emotion (for me) is that this is unfair and unjust. George has spent his whole life helping people, often at his own expense, and now he's about to lose it all because of someone else's mistake. But because he has taken care of others, they are now willing to take care of him. Everything he poured into other people's lives is given back to him in his hour of need. This movie is all about celebrating the righteous triumphing in the face of despair and greed.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the very first movie I thought of for this topic. I'm not sure there's anything my peers are more cynical about than politics. While this movie definitely shows a more devious, underhanded side to the political world than was popular in the 1930s (and the film got a lot of criticism for it), it's also a beautiful story of someone who stands up to that corruption and triumphs. Jefferson Smith doesn't have much political experience and frequently can't recognize his colleagues' manipulative tricks, but he knows what is the right thing to do and he doesn't back down from it. I find it fascinating to compare this to House of Cards, which is like watching this movie told by the antagonist, who wins every time. That may be closer to reality, but it's a far cry from justice.

Hairspray (2007). While the original 1980s version of this story is OK, it's much less wholeheartedly invested in the emotional aspect of story. The movie musical version, however, dives right on into an unapologetically optimistic celebration of good defeating evil, of love and acceptance defeating hatred and shame. Our main characters are underdogs with big hearts who just want to cheer everyone on. It's impossible not to root for Tracy, whose joy in life and love for everyone cannot be dampened by those who see her as a loser because of her size. In the end, she's able to use the little bit of power she has to make a positive change in her world. She wins not only a civil rights victory, but the heart of the popular boy -- not by being beautiful or especially smart or talented, but just by being a genuinely good person, and she makes me want to be a better person and fight injustice too.

Newsies (1992). This is widely regarded as not a great movie, but I like it a lot (that music!) and it's an interesting one for this week since, since it's based on a real story but was altered to give it a happier ending. It's about a group of newsies in the late 19th century who go on strike, demanding a lower cost for the newspapers they had to buy themselves to sell to their customers. In real life, the opposing groups found a compromise that would convince the newsies to return to work -- the companies didn't lower the price, but they did agree to buy back unsold newspapers so the newsies weren't consistently spending more money than they made to do the job. The movie version grants them everything they asked in a big dramatic scene. Inaccurate? Yes. Unrealistic? Probably. Satisfying? Absolutely. We like to see the underdogs rewarded for their hard work rather than taken advantage of, and that's exactly what happens here.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). All right, I had to include a weird one in this list. This serves not to show us what justice looks like, but what happens when justice is perverted into vengeance. Vengeance is not about righting wrongs by liberating the oppressed, it is about punishing the wicked, which may not even happen at all in a story about justice. (As a side note, this is why I do not like Braveheart. It's a story about vengeance masquerading as a story about justice.)

Just as Memento demonstrates what happens when truth is rejected, Sweeney demonstrates what happens when justice is rejected. Sweeney is released from wrongful imprisonment determined to take his revenge on the corrupt judge who put him there. [spoilers] As he descends deeper and deeper into his obsession, he tells himself he's doing it all for his wife and daughter, only to inadvertently kill one of them in his quest and very nearly kill the other. He finds no redemption or release after killing the judge, he destroys and traumatizes the loved ones he claimed he was avenging, and he ultimately brings about his own demise. [/spoilers] It's a bleak, ugly story, but a fitting and just ending for Sweeney himself. Jesus said, "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword," and that's how the story of Sweeney plays out -- a life of violence and vengeance that not only consumed him but the people he loved.

Readers' Choice

Well, my list consisted entirely of Frank Capra movies and musicals (that was unintentional). Let's see what my readers suggested, starting with the longest response I got!

I connect right/just with the following ideas: a) having a just *society*, b) standing up for the rights of the oppressed (and therefore, courage), c) rule of law as opposed to just having compassion or getting revenge.

Casablanca is the quintessential right/just movie. It's about Rick having to decide how important it is for him to fight for justice, and deciding that it is not only worth risking a lot but also setting aside his own desires and dreams.

1776 focuses on the struggle to pass the declaration of independence, but at the heart of it is the fundamental question of what kind of government is just, and when it is right to revolt to bring about that kind of government (and even the compromises to justice that occur over the issue of slavery and the South.)

Dead Poets Society, Hairspray, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Roberts have in common a focus on an individual daring to be different in the face of widespread accepted injustice. Mr. Roberts and DPS, like 1776, focus on being willing to challenge authority to win justice, while Hairspray and Mr. Smith focus more on changing the system from within.

Matchstick Men, Mystic River, and High Noon are different from the others in that they each subvert a genre to ask the audience whether they themselves have bought into an ideal of justice which is flawed. In heist / con movies, the heroes deceive everyone with no consequences; in crime movies and westerns violence and vengeance without rule of law are glorified. These movies bring out the real price we pay if we take those flawed ideals seriously.

I deliberately left out The Dark Knight, which asks the same questions but which is in my opinion and anti-justice movie. It subverts the ideal of justice itself, by asking whether it can really be distinguished from vigilantism and answering (IMHO) "No". It keeps the idea of compassion and sacrifice, but not that of justice / rightness. --Kevin

Maybe a little outside of what you want, but Shawshank Redemption always makes me think of justice and rightness. --Randy

Training Day. For me, this movie exemplifies the struggle between what is right and what is easy. The two main characters are flip sides of justice, one taking the high hard road, and one taking the quick and profitable road. In the end, though the better man has been bruised and bloodied, he is still alive and his integrity inspires other wrong doers to spare him. --Joshua

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. I know I have more recent examples, but I'm blanking out. A few episodes of Doctor Who. --Kellie

I thought American Sniper did a pretty good job with justice. Dallas Buyers Club... Sought out to give what society has shunned for a chance to live just a little bit longer regardless of what they do. --Timothy

American History X did that I think. Edward Norton's character had a major change because of the justice handed down to him from the courts and in prison. He learned a lot about the negative affects of racism. In the end, his brother ended up a victim of street justice. Powerful movie, but very sad. --Jen

I was thinking Doubt. I think it's a great illustration of how sometimes "justice" and "rightness" is skewed by our personal experiences and making snap judgements based only on what we've personally perceived and nothing else. Also that sometimes rightness and justice are not the same thing. --Sarah

I like how Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ended up being three different people's choice. It must be the justice movie winner. Disagree with any of these choices (mine included)? Want to include your own? Let me know in the comments!

Next Month

Next month's theme is "whatever is pure." Here's what I found when I did some scouting around for its meaning:
hagnós (an adjective, which may be cognate with hágios, "holy") – properly, pure (to the core); virginal (chaste, unadultered); pure inside and out; holy because uncontaminated (undefiled from sin), i.e. without spoilation even within (even down to the center of one's being); not mixed with guilt or anything condemnable.
That's translated pretty much across the board as "pure," though one translation uses "holy." My goal is to get the next post up March 9, although given my timing track record so far, it could end up in April. If you have a movie that instantly jumps to mind and you want to be included in the readers' choice section, go ahead and leave it as a comment here or post it on my Facebook page! Hope to hear from you all soon.

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