Teri Orr: Social justice in film
January 10, 2014
I don’t know when I was first aware of the power of the arts to shine light in dark corners. It feels like it must have been in my high school AP English classes, where we took books that you could just read for story and starting dissecting them to read for meaning. "All The King’s Men" was a powerful work we took apart, page by page, to understand the corruption of politics, matched by the corruption of the soul. "To Kill A Mockingbird" was about so many topics it was difficult to separate them all. About the rights of a man and how they changed with the color of his skin. About reluctant heroes and understanding The Other. About who could walk or worship on which side of town.
Television started to create shows with more layers about the same time and the miniseries "Roots" burst on the screen. I remember the horror of watching Kunta Kinte receive whiplash after whiplash until I started to feel them somehow. The movies were bringing us Midnight Cowboy where we saw the horrors of male prostitution and the strange male bonding and dependent relationships that can carry right to death.
So the idea of social justice, as explained by the arts, as advanced by the arts, as elevated by the arts, became as natural to me as reading, breathing, speaking my mind.
I spent a bit of work time in the south and brought back a tattered copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One of the first works in this country to draw attention to a wrong the author thought should be righted. I read Tony Kushner’s play "Angels in America" as my friend Tommy lay dying in Southern California from AIDS. And when it became a miniseries on cable television I urged my friends to watch it. Because a handful of us were fortunate enough to see the series premiere in Salt Lake City in one marathon viewing session, only broken up by a lunch break. We were exhausted and flattened by the end of the eight hour presentation. We cancelled our dinner plans and quietly drove to our individual homes to process the totality of lies and AIDS and politics and religion, and ultimately of God. Or at least, of a pretty hot angel, as portrayed by Emma Thompson.
Funding for AIDS and inclusion for gays started on a more dedicated path with the introduction of that work into the social fabric of conversation and awareness.
In the next few weeks we will have laid at our feet, films and forums to trigger discussions and movements aplenty. Women’s rights, still a topic the world over. Climate change, yet again. A focus on human trafficking, and sex crimes ignored in every corner of the world.
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The first Sundance film I remember from the early ’80s playing here was the very, very slow work called "Heartland," and I just remember the scene where the cow gave birth. It seemed we watched in real (excruciatingly slow) time.
The second was a documentary I took my pre-teens to see, called "The Life and Times Of Harvey Milk." A gay city commissioner from the Castro District in San Francisco, close to where I grew up. The whole incident of Harvey being shot to death by another commissioner was sad but frightening. In the City of Love, different meant death. And having a creative defense attorney, meant you could say sugar, more specifically that spongy cake with the creamy center, had tipped you over and made you murder a man because he was different. The Twinkie defense, it was forever labeled, and my children were horrified such a thing could have happened. Both the murder and lack of a conviction.
So I kept educating my kids thru the arts. By the time my daughter appeared in "A Chorus Line" in high school in the ’90s, she was shocked her drama teacher wanted to take out the role of the gay dancer and the Puerto Rican dancer and change the song, "Tits and Ass" to "This and That." Those changes to the author’s intent became a story in The Salt Lake Tribune and an editorial in this paper.
Tough topics may be debated in hallowed halls of government and get stuck in the machine of governance, but real change, immediate change, comes from making the topic weave into the arts and the conversation becoming part of the social fabric of the day. In the past few weeks, performing artist after performing artist have responded to petitions from fans, not to appear in theme parks where whales and dolphins are being abused. And those performers canceling those anticipated shows have done more to draw attention to the problem of captive sea creatures than a bucket of smelly fishy conversations in rotunda-ed buildings ever did.
Social Justice issues of every size and color will be revealed in the next two weeks on screens and in discussion groups all over town. Yes, there will be premieres with known talent who entertain us with a story, perhaps even enlighten us to the messy group known as your family of origin. But those films are somewhat predictable. Take a chance and watch a film where you don’t know a single cast member or even vaguely know about the issue being discussed. Your opportunity to expand and question and reflect, firsthand, is envied the world over. For two weeks the world of questions and occasionally answers, is centered in this town.
And if someone in person or on the screen says something that makes you uncomfortable, examine it. Chew on it. Ask yourself tough questions and be grateful we are ground zero for the intersection where conversation can question conversion. Where social injustice can be revealed and possibly reproached. Where learning is available to everyone with a ticket. Grab a program and figure out which theater space you will be in next Sunday in the Park….
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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