(ZOMFG, SO MANY SPOILERS. Also: Racism, domestic violence, religious idiocy.)
We’ve been talking lately about the shitball movie God’s Not Dead. We started with a review of the movie itself, then a summary of why I hate this movie so much, an overview of the four romantic relationships in the movie, and most recently a close look at the female characters in the movie.
For some reason this movie makes me think of sharks on a beach. (Candiche, Flickr, CC license.)
By the way, if you didn’t notice already, one of this movie’s serious shortcomings is that it crams entirely too many characters and subplots into one little space. I can tell they were shooting for a Magnolia or more probably a Love, Actually, where tons of characters and subplots that seem completely unrelated collide at the end and tangle together. There aren’t many movies that do that very well–Pulp Fiction to an extent is probably the best example of the type–and those movies are tighter than a hummingbird’s tweet. This movie is not made by people anywhere near that competent. If Christian creeper Nicholas Sparks tried to write Crash, God’s Not Dead is exactly what would spew out of his word processor. And this movie is as stuffed full of pride and hubris as Sparks is, so there’s that. And one character gets cancer and another dies in a car accident, plus the two central couples in it both break up because of the unstoppable force of religion, so yeah, I’m just going to leave this here.
In the same way, the person who wrote the script for this movie seems like one of those folks who doesn’t understand why a particular comedy routine is very funny and thinks if he says the exact same things that he too will be very funny, but lacks the nuance and self-awareness to make the routine work so he comes off as weird and offensive instead. This movie tries to do so many things, but it fails every one of them so grandly and roundly that one almost feels bad hating it so much. It’s like criticizing a seven-year-old putting on a show in the living room for not emoting enough.
But I said “almost” there, and I want you to remember that.
Today I want to talk about how this movie presents non-white and/or non-Christian characters. As you might expect of a movie that is made up 100% of wish fulfillment fantasies, fundagelical/Fox News talking points, and the sort of memes your racist cousin keeps chain-emailing everybody, we’re not talking about nuanced, sensitive, sophisticated portrayals. We’re talking about the kind of situations and characters that you’d expect out of a movie aimed squarely at a crowd furious about having to “press 1 for English.”
This movie perpetuates stereotypes, and moreover it finds the worst possible stereotypes to perpetuate. This movie hates everybody who ain’t a nice white evangelical TRUE CHRISTIAN™. It’s not just atheists it rags on.
1. The Weirdly-Upbeat African Guy.
There’s a major streak of racism in evangelical Christianity, largely because of its adherents’ belief that societies work best if everybody in them knows his or her place and doesn’t try to buck the system or change it–and their naked longing for “the good ole days,” which includes a hefty dose of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and pretty much every other -ism and structural bias available, is one thing that baffles outsiders considerably but which makes perfect sense to them (“structural” means that society is built around the -ism and is largely blind to the -ism’s existence; it isn’t so much a person vs. person thing like personal race-based prejudice). So when evangelicals–like Franklin Graham, one of the religion’s Big Name Fans, did recently–decide to tackle race, generally the situation blows up in their faces–and their reaction is usually total indignation and astonishment. By the way, remember this reference because we’ll be coming back to this blithe racist coot soon.
And, too, when it comes to missionary work there’s also a major streak of colonialism and imperialism in how it’s done. By that I mean that when a missionary comes into a foreign culture it is with religion tucked under one arm to civilize and tame the savages there, and makes them into a mini-me of the originating culture. As it is, modern evangelical kids go off on these “poor-ism” tours that are now a USD$1.6 billion enterprise from just our country alone. It’s downright weird to consider how often missionaries come here from other countries considering how deeply religious this country already is. But if they didn’t, then we wouldn’t have the African caricature character in this movie, now would we?
The African missionary (AM) reminds me a lot of the character Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide. Did you have to read that in high school too? Pangloss always thinks that whatever happens is the “best of all possible worlds.” Even when he’s sick and hurt, even when he’s lost everything, Pangloss continues to maintain this overly-optimistic belief.
Out of every single person this movie’s creators could have forced into the role of Pangloss in this shitstorm, though, they chose the African guy. AM comes off as provincial and not quite human because he’s just so unrelentingly optimistic and simple-minded. All we know of him is that he is very optimistic and fervent in his faith, and that he is African. He is supposed to be a missionary I think, but we never see him doing anything missionary-like. Nor do we ever find out what country in Africa AM is from. I’ve met plenty of people from Africa and generally they’re quick to say they are from Zaire, or Nigeria, or wherever; they tend to resent the idea Americans have that Africa’s all one big nation. But we never find out where AM is from, what church he’s with, or anything else specific about him.
When AM arrives in the States, he just wants to go to Disneyland to ride the roller coasters there, and his entire subplot revolves around his childlike goal. Whenever he’s thwarted, he has a mantra he repeats: “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good” to stop all thought. When told that the roller-coaster at Disneyland isn’t anywhere near the tallest, he says that in his mind, when he is on it then it will be–because what he feels and believes matters more than what is true and real.
When Professor Radisson is hit by a hit-and-run driver and is dying in the street, AM magically knows where Radisson got hurt and that it’s not fixable. And he doesn’t seem fazed at all by Radisson’s death, a particularly grotesque and creepy reaction. Hell, he’s happy about it. Hooray! Radisson is going to meet Jesus now! Let’s be happy!
I’m a white American and I’m already downright offended by AM. It’s mortifying just to think about what black people must think of him. Indeed, it wasn’t hard to turn up bloggers who were also offended by AM’s characterization–and that first particular blogger is also Christian. As he put it,
To say that this movie was over-the-top is a puerile understatement. Not only was this a propagation of bad theology, but it gave credence to bad social norms that the mostly white evangelical movement supports ad nauseum.
And nobody involved in the entire movie seems to have any kind of problem with this vague whiff of racism, and we’re expected not to either.
2. The Chinese Guy and His Father.
The second racist caricature is of Asians. Not content to have Sambo-ed up the African missionary, they go after Asians next.
You know who the Chinese guy really reminded me of? Takashi from Revenge of the Nerds. Like the Chinese guy in this movie and many others, Takashi was simple, childlike, overly-studious, and utterly naive–but shockingly competent at his chosen field. There was no nuance to Takashi; like his fellow nerds, he was a one-note character played for laughs. Exhibit A:
(The song is a Japanese rendition of “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)”, if you were wondering.
In the same way, the Chinese Guy (CG) is studious, quiet, disciplined, intelligent, and completely awkward socially. He has to explain in some annoyance to a registration lackey in the movie’s first few minutes that he’s from China, and that’s the last time we see him display any sort of humanity or three-dimensionality.
His father is a stereotypical super-duper-wealthy tycoon who has a chauffeur driving him around for most of his scenes. The two communicate via cell phones and apparently international calls are covered by their plan, because Junior calls Daddy several times in the movie. This movie seems to represent the first time CG has ever been away from home, which I question because I know how many Chinese kids go to boarding schools in their country. CG is intellectually advanced, we infer because of his studiousness, but emotionally he is a child; his worried father warns him to quit fussing about all that god stuff because eavesdroppers might report them to the Chinese government (oh those evil evil Communists! Boo! Hiss! Grrr!), but is otherwise not terribly paternal toward his son.
CG ends up in Josh’s philosophy class, so he hears about and is is appropriately convinced of “God’s” existence by the movie’s central debate. All that analytical power of his goes right out the window because of the power of Josh’s sincerity. CG has never heard about Christianity before heading to college, you see. When the class finally votes on who won the debate, CG is the first to stand and utter the words “God is not dead.” But weirdly, Josh doesn’t pounce on the guy at the first opportunity. This would likely be the very first time an evangelical hellbent on proselytizing hasn’t done so; it’s a strange oversight, but then, Josh is perceptive and opportunistic when the movie needs him to be so, and dense and lackadaisical when it doesn’t.
CG represents the godless heathens in countries that have never heard about the Good News, which is funny because Chinese Christian churches send quite a few missionaries around the world, including to godless America. He is overwhelmed and converted by the superior Romulan weaponry of the white guy and folds immediately.
One of the last things we see CG doing is bouncing around at the Newsboys concert as a brand-new Christian. When the folks there tell the audience to text “God’s not dead” to everybody, CG texts his father. Hooray! That’ll show the uptight old fart, right? The father gets the text and stares at it in irritated befuddlement. And that’s that.
3. The Muslim Girl and Her Family.
If you’re not already pissed off by the other two stereotypes this movie offers, this is likely going to do the trick.
Ayisha is an Arabic-looking Muslim girl (not all Muslims are Arabic; I kept wondering what would have happened in this movie if this character had been a blonde, blue-eyed white girl rather than a POC). I am guessing she was raised in the United States. She lives with her father and young brother in a walkup apartment; she has her own room. She somehow talked her very strict Muslim dad into letting her attend college and get a job on-campus in the cafeteria. That’s basically what we know about her for the entire movie.
Before we go further let me mention this: the super-pretty white girls in this movie don’t seem to have jobs at all (Mina, Josh’s girlfriend). One of the not-so-pretty white girls has a job in the library on-campus. But the person of color gets a job in the goddamned cafeteria?? And nobody saw anything wrong with this? Why didn’t they just make her a hotel maid and have done with it? That’s not even taking into account why Ayisha’s dad allowed his daughter to have a job at all. He’s incredibly controlling and over-protective, which this movie goes to pains to demonstrate. But the plot needs Ayisha to be in a position to eavesdrop on Josh as he’s talking about his debate, and the script’s writers couldn’t think of anything else besides making her a menial laborer.
Ayisha is, however, secretly subversive. Her father makes her wear a hijab and demands she cover her nose and mouth with the headscarf, but doesn’t seem to care about her wearing otherwise totally-Western clothes. She considers the headgear “old-fashioned” and clearly resents her father’s control over her, but doesn’t dare defy him.
When a so-very-sad white girl tells Ayisha that she’s sorry to see her putting her headscarf back on when Ayisha’s father is due back to pick her up from school/work, Ayisha doesn’t get angry at all–in fact seems to welcome the casual racist intrusion. Privileged people have this idea in their heads that their opinions are needed, welcomed, valued, and desired every single moment of the day, and once an opinion or thought forms in their minds then those ideas must be released into the wild. You can almost hear them crying aloud to these ideas, like Mork from Ork throwing eggs into the air, “FLY! BE FREE!” Maybe the sad white girl thinks that Ayisha will gain courage or solidarity or something from the lame expression of sympathy offered. In reality, Muslim women don’t generally care what makes non-Muslim women happy or sad about their choice in clothing or hair coverings; even I could have told these filmmakers that. Whatever Western folks think of Muslim dress codes, however involuntary it looks to us, it’s not hard at all to find Muslim women fiercely defending their right to dress that way.
But in this movie’s universe, Ayisha cares very much what the sad white girl thinks and doesn’t seem to get piqued or annoyed at all about the unsolicited opinion being thrust at her. The movie’s creators think everybody cares about what white Christians think, and they want to depict a world wherein everybody actually does.
The movie asks us to see this small family as representative of Muslims. But watching their scenes, I thought often about Pentecostalism and its equally-severe control of young women’s bodies and lives. When I was Pentecostal, I knew lots of young Christian women who bristled just like Ayisha, and lots of Christian dads who were just this extremist! We’re supposed to forget that, though.
But her rebellion goes a lot deeper than just her refusal to follow dress codes.
Ayisha, you see, is a secret Christian. Not only is she tearing off her headscarf the second she escapes her father’s view, but she also listens to Christian podcasts in her bedroom! OMG! How shocking!
Of course, she’s listening to Franklin Graham podcasts. It’d be hard to imagine a preacher who’d be less appealing to a college-aged ex-Muslim convert than an elderly racist, extremist fearmonger, and political panderer. You’d sorta think she’d be looking for her spiritual direction from someone younger and more understanding of the struggles of non-white people in America. Did Mr. Graham pay for product placement in this movie? I’d like to know that, seriously, because his mention in this honker makes about as much sense, coherence-wise, as that of the Duck Dynasty stars. It’s done to pander to the movie’s audience, not because it makes sense.
While Ayisha is blissed-out listening to her guru with her headphones on, her little brother sneaks into the room, spies on her, and sees what she’s listening to because it’s got a picture of Jesus praying on the screen, and Ayisha freaks out and shakes him, telling him he can’t tell their father. She doesn’t say why or what will happen; the boy doesn’t quite promise, but she releases him. Now, it’s kind of a stretch to imagine a boy that young and that far outside Christian evangelical culture would know who Franklin Graham was, though he might know about painted representations of Jesus. I don’t know why he’d leap from that to “OMG my sister is a Christian now!” But the movie needs us to think he’s figured it out.
By the way, as one of our commenters, Glandu, has mentioned, Ayisha is also kind of an idiot because she is clearly technology-savvy but hasn’t researched how to deconvert from Islam safely. Many young women in her situation face similar risks in leaving their religion (so much for no compulsion in Islam), but they keep it on the down-low till they can get out of their houses. I’ve been reading up on this topic as well and it sure looks like people who leave Islam tend to be very careful about expressing their doubts at all. That Ayisha is so obviously contemptuous of her father’s demands and listening to Christian sermons in the family home makes her seem desperate get caught.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happens. The brother rats her out and the father beats her and throws her bodily out of the apartment building.
Yes, you heard that right.
This movie has a father beating up his own daughter and throwing her out of the house for being a Christian, because persecution reasons.
I was revolted by this scene, but not for the reasons the filmmakers wanted me to be so. Firstly, the stereotype of the abusive, misogynistic, controlling Muslim patriarch was downright disgusting to see from the get-go, but when his control-lust turned into physical violence I couldn’t even believe my eyes. (They have him crying afterward while his daughter pounds on the outer door, screaming and begging him to let her back into the building, but that doesn’t help at all.) Though most flavors of Islam demand that apostates be given time to repent or reconsider their decision, he throws her on the street with nothing but the clothes on her back! Hell, he doesn’t even talk to her about having deconverted–he just explodes into immediate violence, because ickie Muslims do that. And we never see him again; the movie has no interest in redeeming him. At least Radisson didn’t beat the shit out of Josh or Mina or slap anybody around, but Radisson gets a redemption. Not this Muslim dad. He’s just screwed. And Muslim.
Secondly, I know way too many ex-Christians personally who have been mistreated, disinherited, dispossessed, ostracized, abused, and even hurt for their lack of belief. But ex-Christians’ stories don’t fit as well into this movie’s framework, and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never do that ever.
So Ayisha goes to the college’s Pastor Dude’s office in hysterics. She has nowhere to go, is barely even started in her new faith, and obviously has no money or resources at all. All she has is her new Christian family.
And what does her new Christian family do? Well, Pastor Dude has to go take the African missionary to Disneyland, so whatever he does to help her it doesn’t take long. AM is a man, after all, and roller coasters are beckoning. The secretary lady tells Ayisha that “we’re here for you,” but then we never see exactly what the secretary’s idea of help looks like either. I can tell you from experience what a “Christian church family’s” help looks like, though: bup divided by kiss. Sometimes they’re wonderfully helpful; sometimes they’re maddeningly unhelpful; one cannot count on them at all. It’s almost as if there’s no Jesus making them do anything different.
The next time we see Ayisha, she’s bouncing around at the Newsboys concert behind Josh. She talks to him briefly and there’s a hint there that they’ll be getting together romantically. There’s no sign at all of her earlier distress, and no explanation at all of where she’s going to sleep tonight or do to take care of herself, and no sign of those she’s asked for help. For all we know, the secretary dropped her off at the concert and said, “Have fun!” (How did Ayisha get tickets? Does the admissions counter have a “poor abused recent convert” scholarship fund?) Like Job, she lost everything, but that’s okay because God is giving her a new family and a boyfriend maybe! Hooray!
It’s like this movie beat the crap out of her, then forgot all about that to show how triumphant she is in praising Jesus. And of her family we see nothing at all. They just vanish. She is completely disconnected from everything in her past; the movie implies that everything is going to be peachy-keen-jelly-bean from here on out, when in reality her struggles are only just beginning.
So there you have it: three different races, three different but equally offensive and one-dimensional stereotypes.
I’m seriously pissed at this movie because of how it treats its non-white characters. How hard would it have been to have made these folks actual people instead of walking, talking Fox News fantasies? And do the movie’s creators not realize that all the bad stuff they have non-Christians doing, Christians themselves do? Do they not realize how transparently they indicate their biases and prejudices?
No, they do not.
We’re going to look at that question next, because in the grand scheme of things, how this movie treats Christians may be the most offensive stereotype of all.
* Even diehard Creationists didn’t all like this stupid movie.