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Three Movies That Shaped My Moral Vision

March 5, 2018

Last night I, like millions of Americans, stayed up till nearly midnight to watch the Academy Awards. And this past week I used my MoviePass card for the first time (I saw I, Tonya) which allows me to see a movie every day at just about any theater for $10 a month. As you might have guessed, I love movies.

Movies are primarily entertainment for me. But of course, they are much more than that: they are explorations of our culture and investigations into being human. They are art. As such they probably affect us much more than we realize.

As I was watching the Academy Awards, I wondered to myself: which films have affected me the most deeply? Some are deeply embedded in my imagination, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) which I watched repeatedly on TV as a boy. Some made me want to be a debonair spy, such as Sean Connery’s James Bond movies. Some gave me thrills, such as North by Northwest, and others gave me chills, such as Alien. 

But there’s another class of movies that did more than make an imprint on my emotions and imagination–they actually shaped my moral sensibilities. These are the movies that have the power to change our choices, shape our virtues, and give us an ideal to pursue. Three movies come to my mind as ones that have done this to me.

While growing up, I watched Casablanca (1942) several times on TV with my siblings. We thought it was funny and thrilling; and as we got older, we appreciated its romance. I bought it on VHS, and then as a DVD. I have watched it at least a dozen times. This film is widely considered the greatest romantic movie ever made, with as many iconic lines as you’ll ever hear in a movie.

But underneath the poignant story of love lost, love found, and love surrendered is another story of moral redemption. Rick owns a cafe filled with shady characters and crooked gambling in the midst of the moral decay caused by war, desperation, Nazi power, and French collaboration. Rick himself is portrayed as a slick, tough guy who puts his own survival first. “I don’t stick my neck out for anybody,” he says early in the film. And yet, time and again he is faced with a difficult moral decision, and each time he chooses the act which puts himself at risk or at a loss for the benefit of someone else with whom he sympathizes. The movie is about cynicism versus principle, advantage versus compassion, compromise versus integrity, and self interest versus sacrifice for the greater good. In a muddled world, this movie taught me right from wrong, and to always choose the right.

I remember watching West Side Story (1961) on TV with my family when I was about nine. At the end of the movie my dad said, “That is the best movie I have ever seen,” and I felt the same way. Within the exuberance and passion of all of the amazing music and dancing was a story about desperation, hope, love, and tragic prejudice. Before this movie, I knew nothing about prejudice; I knew nothing about race; but in this movie I learned that people could be divided and intensely hostile to one another based on where they came from and the complexion of their skin.

Two gangs, one white, one Puerto Rican, compete for turf and dominance in the streets of New York. Each side has its own songs expressing its frustrations and desires; each side is sympathetic, even beautiful, through their music and dance. Thereby, this movie enabled me to root for both sides and yearn for an overcoming of their violent conflict. I learned that race prejudice is tragic and stupid, and this influenced my life commitment of working toward understanding and overcoming racial division.

One song in particular startled me: “America.” The song is a debate between the male and female Puerto Ricans as to whether America has been good or bad for them. I had never heard a critique of the United States before, and for the first time I realized that not everyone in our country was enjoying the American dream of equality and opportunity. So not only did I decide to be against prejudice after watching this movie, I also decided to help make America a better place for all.

Another musical, which I watched at the theater with my family when I was a teenager, moved me deeply. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) portrays a poor Jewish village in Russia shortly before the Russian Revolution. The movie is about the deep need for tradition–religious tradition–to give a community stability to survive in the face of severe oppressive forces and rapid cultural changes. And yet tradition, in order to be compassionate, must be flexible as it responds to these challenges. How far can tradition bend without breaking?

This is the perennial question of every community, every congregation, and every family. Tevya, the main character, talks out loud to God throughout the movie, trying to figure out the proper course as each new challenge threatens the stability of his family. Tevya is every believer and every person who is deeply concerned with the health and wellbeing of the community. This movie taught me not only to love Judaism, which it portrays so wonderfully, but the necessity of tradition and community. Somehow we must find a way to keep faith, love, and community together.

As I think about the influence these three movies had on my moral vision as it was forming in childhood, I wonder which movies are shaping the moral vision of children and youth today. Perhaps Black Panther is one of them (I haven’t seen it yet). Most movies simply entertain, giving us thrills and chills and adventures. But I hope that our children (and we adults!) are seeing movies that are doing more: shaping the moral imagination of the next generation in a way that will truly benefit us all.


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