A Response to the L.A. Times Article about “Virginia”

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I usually don’t draw attention to this type of material, but I feel that this can be both instructive and enlightening. This morning, an article from the L.A. Times showed up on my Google feed on the topic of “LDS Film”.  Then the name “Dustin Lance Black”  showed up in the short blurb afterwards.  I have a business associate friend by the name of “Lance Black,”  so for this reason, and none other, my interest was peaked.

(Now kind reader, perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “Does this guy live in a hole? How can he pretend to be a filmmaker and not know who Dustin Lance Black is?” Well, I’m not ashamed to say that yes, my poverty and personal choices have caused me to live in something of a reclusive seclusion from modern culture. It’s a lifestyle choice: No TV. No radio. Only the Internet. Just so you know who you’re dealing with.”)

So if you’re still reading at this point, there’s an important conversation that I’d like to have with you. But to preface it, you would be benefited to read the L.A. Times article about Dustin Lance Black’s latest film “Virginia”.  I read this article in its entirety this morning, and then proceeded on with my morning study of the scriptures. I was impressed to review a blog post that I had written just a few months ago on 1 Samuel 2: 1-10 from the Old Testament.

I follow Hollywood only distantly and then, only on occasion. So perhaps some of my assumptions are misinformed, but the point that I care to focus on presently is in defense of traditional family units and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The juxtaposition of the two articles shed some important light on many things beyond just LDS Cinema in our current social and political climate. There may be some action items relative to media entertainment that  may also help us along.

With the recent announcement from President Obama that he is in favor of gay marriage, he’s played a tricky card — one that Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, will naturally have to take the other side to.  It is also curious that Obama appears to be using the entertainment industry as his political sounding board (such as a recently highly publicized dinner with George Clooney in L.A.). The take-home message is something like this, “I agree with these entertainment folks.”  Now this isn’t a discussion on politics but on media entertainment, yet nowhere are the ideas that are becoming President Obama’s political platform more freely expressed than in Hollywood. (Yes, I voted for Obama four years ago, but on a much different platform.)

Back to the L.A. Times article, let me note some points that I feel are key to this discussion: writer-director Dustin Lance Black came out of a broken LDS home raised by a paralyzed mother, abandoned by his father.  Black has writing credits for “Milk” and “Big Love”, among other films. (None of which I’ve seen. I can’t say much about them, can I?)  His new film “Virginia,” of which he directs,  is told as something of a memoir of his childhood.  Here’s some quotes from the article:

Black chose to focus on his complicated upbringing as the second of three boys in a Mormon household near San Antonio.

“A lot of it was exorcising my demons as a child,” said Black, who was raised by his paralyzed mother after his Mormon father abandoned the family when he was a baby.

So that’s the background. Then in next paragraph, there is a character who is described as: “a married Mormon sheriff with political aspirations who may or may not be the boy’s father.”

Then, the article continues:

[Black] even used his reunion with his birth father as a movie moment. When the sheriff tells Virginia that they can’t be together, he says: “This life is a grain of sand in time and it’s the next life that counts. Then we’ll all be together.” That’s what Black’s father uttered when Black asked him how he could have abandoned three young boys with a paralyzed, unemployed mother.

Let the meaty discussion flow, right? I’m not going to dispute the apparent stab at LDS (Mormon) church doctrine that this was very craftily set up to be.  Clint Eastwood did it to the Catholic church (“Million Dollar Baby”); let Dustin Lance Black  take case with the LDS church(or maybe it’s just way the article’s author framed it). If we’re willing to take doctrine as presented to us on the silver screen without any further research, then we’re not going to get the whole picture. The LDS church does not teach anything remotely close to what  is spoken by Black’s father.  Lets move on.

What is interesting to note from this same selection of quotes is that this celebrated filmmaker might have been carrying a much different banner of ideas had his home life not be shattered by what appears to have been some very poor decisions by his father. What has really given me pause, is the thought that there may be some deprived 2-year-old in my own congregation, growing up in a broken family home, that could be the next Dustin Lance Black. What if I reached out to help his mother and make a difference? Could things be different? Maybe.

Now I briefly mentioned earlier that Black has “Big Love” and “Milk” to his credit as a writer, for which he has received Oscar status for his work on the latter. This makes Black not only a key player for the GLBT movement, but with his hand on “Big Love” (remember: I’m a remote third party making sense of the situation), there’s more of a feeling that he’s promoting alternative lifestyles in general, whatever form that may be. Is it too cynical to think that maybe this is a direct assault on the traditional family model and its chief proponent, the LDS church? Perhaps it would be too cynical to suppose this. Even if it is true in part, I think it is not with the negative spirit that we would attach such cynicism to.  Please keep reading, make sure you understand what I’m saying.

Though the works of Dustin Lance Black are a direct a front to the teachings of the LDS church, especially in regards to family life, I don’t think he’s doing it intentionally. Call me naive. Call me ill-informed. Or you could call me full of faith.

Faith grows slowly. Nowhere does it have a greater likelihood of growing than in one’s home. It requires tender nurturing, consistent attention, and is not a chance undertaking. Faith is mostly successfully nurtured in the home environment over years of upbringing. When that doesn’t happen successfully, anything else can take root. Even in the best of circumstances, everyone is left to choice.

So am I faulting Black for telling stories that he feels to be true? No, I’m not. Is it any surprise that his films have found such a large audience and acceptance? No, it’s not.  Should Black just keep his mouth shut? No. He’s speaking out about something he feels personally and very deeply about. It strikes me that there are two of three things which have failed Black: his father and his church, but not the Lord. Ironically, when functioning properly, fathers and church can be  effective mechanisms that  help  us draw closer to the Lord. But clearly, neither of these were working in Black’s favor growing up.

This leads me to my morning scripture study from 1 Samuel 2.

Does Dustin Lance Black or anyone else in the industry of entertainment stand in opposition to my firmly held beliefs that traditional family life is God-ordained and the greatest form of happiness?  I think they do. That seems to be  the crux of what they’re trying to say.  That message may be twisted in a thousand different ways from.  “God is a liar.”  “Organized religion is the invention of corrupt, power-hungry rulers.” “The LDS church is the biggest bunch of liars yet.”  Does that make them the “enemy”? Maybe. If that is their twisted intent, then indeed, they are at odds with what I believe to be true.

But I’m too optimistic to believe that anyone, deep down inside, is that twisted and filled with hatred.  Consider this passage:

And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation.

Hannah says that her mouth was enlarged over her enemies. Borrowing from my own blog entry:

I keep coming at this verse with an angle of vengeance because of references to “enemies.”  “Horn” is a figurative reference to “power” or “capacity.”  Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we read of horns of the wicked being destroyed and the horns of the righteous being exalted. So where there is this comparison between the wicked and the righteous in the same verse, there is a natural tendency to assume that this is something of a call to arms against the wicked. I run through my mind a list of who my current enemies are and what I should do to destroy them. My tendency to do this is evidence then, that I am not yet of a mind to leave judgment to the Lord.

“Of you, it is required to forgive all men.” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:10) Judgment is the Lord’s and the Lord’s alone to make for all men. So where the Spirit of the Lord can confirm to my heart that actions are not to be adopted that I see in others, at the same time, that same Spirit teaches a man to love his neighbor as himself.

Let’s continue with the direct quote from my blog  for one more paragraph, for there is a similarity and a distinction worth making.

In Hannah’s instance, she was being afflicted by the comments of her husband’s other wife who was blessed with children. She states that “my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation.” Her strength to overcome her opposition was not to fight her opposition.  Her strength was in prayer (read the verse) and in looking to and rejoicing in the salvation of the Lord.

As an obscure, small filmmaker, do I draw any strength from trying to oppose those who messages are direct opposition to my values? No. My strength comes from having my eyes set upon the Lord Jesus Christ and looking forward to the promises of salvation that he has given me personally. It is because of this that my horn (read: strength or power) is exalted.  My mouth is enlarged against my enemies, not because I am trying to oppose them, but because I can pray to God. I bask in sunlight day after day that comes from a loving God. Does the tinsel and limelight that the world offers to those who agrees with it hold a candle in comparison? Not even for a moment.

So do I condemn Dustin Lance Black or other filmmakers?  Do I belittle or speak poorly of them? Do I think less of them? Do I hate them?  No, I do not.  I especially do not hate anyone that has had to struggle with gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual feelings.  Do I have to make judgments? Only in so far as I need to get my bearings straight, but all other judgment is left to the Lord, who only is  ” angry… with this people, because they will not understand [his] mercies which [he] hast bestowed upon them because of [his] Son.”  (Alma 33:16)

Where are the LDS filmmakers that have come out of successful LDS homes?

Why are we so afraid to tell the story of Mormonism, when it works?  For many thousands of us, it has worked in our families. I was by no means brought up in a perfect LDS home.  Yet, it sure was a good home.

My mother was a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). My father worked graveyard shifts at a cardboard box factory my entire childhood, except for a brief two year stint where he struggled and failed as a real estate agent. My mother baked and decorated cakes out of our home to supplement my father’s income.  We were nothing special. To this day, we are still not anything special, except for one uniquely special attribute: we’ve never given up on each other. My parents never got a divorce. My dad never gave up on my mom. My mom never gave up on my dad. Now each of their three children are married with families of their own, struggling, working to make this family thing a success.  For us, it was the core teachings of the LDS church that worked for us as a family growing up.

So why am I not telling my story?

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Brent is married to a very supportive woman, is father of a large family, and went into business for himself in 2006.

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