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The two most important films at the Oscars

Both movies affirm something important and rarely seen on the big screen

Jude Hill and Jamie Dornan in a scene from Belfast (left) and Will Smith in King Richard Associated Press/Photos by (Belfast) Rob Youngson/Focus Features and (King Richard) Warner Bros. Pictures

The two most important films at the Oscars

Conservatives are good at criticizing Hollywood. They are adept at pointing out that the film industry is, by and large, a church of progressive orthodoxy. Conservatives are also skilled at observing Tinseltown’s moral sicknesses: childless, airbrushed sex, and cynical violence on the big screen along with #MeToo predators often in the executive producer’s chair.

Yet, amid all these legitimate confrontations, conservatives could afford to be better at identifying and celebrating films that get something right, even unintentionally. And on Sunday night, the Academy Awards will recognize two movies, both nominated for best picture, that do get something right. Think of these films not as conservative political vehicles but as humane stories that celebrate and beautify something fundamental to a conservative outlook.

Belfast, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is a semi-autobiographical story of the director’s childhood years in Northern Ireland. This beautifully photographed film takes place almost entirely on one block of a family’s neighborhood during the late 1960s. The movie’s cloistered sense of space is deliberate. “Belfast is all I’ve known,” the child’s mother tearfully says as the family debates escaping the Protestant-Catholic violence gradually swallowing up their community.

The choice is agonizing for the family in a way that few modern viewers can fully comprehend. This is a story about the intrinsic preciousness of place. Paternal grandparents share the family home. All the kids on the street know and play with each other, and the adults call each child by name and watch over them. This kind of belonging is unfathomable for many of us today who rely on technology and expressive individualism to make us feel at home anywhere, anytime, with anyone we choose. But Belfast is a vivid reminder that there is a kind of knowing and being known that is exclusively the reward of commitment to place, to land, to community, to family.

Yet, this commitment can be sorely assaulted by social unrest. In the story of Belfast, the family is held together by the father (played by Jamie Dornan), a flawed but courageous man who trains his two sons to resist the temptations of mobs. Belfast contains one of the more uncompromisingly positive and beautiful portraits of fatherly leadership in any film this year. He’s a strong-willed, emotionally in-control patriarch. As the threats and pressure come in from multiple directions, he shepherds his wife and children toward the only decision left to make. It’s a deeply compelling exemplar of Christ-shaped masculinity.

Both films portray masculine leadership as something life-giving, rather than an obstacle for enlightened society to overcome.

Keeping with the theme of fatherly strength, King Richard, starring Will Smith, is a film that likewise deserves conservative attention. Smith plays Richard Williams, the real-life father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. While most of the marketing and reviews of the movie have focused on Richard’s relentless (and sometimes overbearing) drive to see his daughters become professional athletes, the film is really about the power that a father has in leading and protecting his family.

Living in the impoverished Compton community south of downtown Los Angeles, Richard makes constant sacrifices. He physically defends his girls from lecherous gangs, and he works the graveyard shift as a flea market security guard. Richard also leads the way in catechizing his family, though in a decidedly self-help, achieve-your-dream faith rather than a meaningfully Christian one. It’s not the content of Richard’s encouragement that stands out in a Hollywood film but the weightiness of a father intentionally directing his children’s outlook.

Some critics have complained that King Richard focuses on the elder Williams’ story at the expense of Venus and Serena’s, in a misguided or even misogynistic way. Such complaints unwittingly prove a profoundly Christian observation: The modern sense that individuals are alone masters of their fates and the proper center of their stories is divorced not only from Christian belief but also from reality itself. King Richard is, of course, based on a true story. Resentment from secular culture toward a film that wonderfully dramatizes a father’s care and determination on behalf of his children is another illustration that we live in self-deceived times.

Neither King Richard nor Belfast is a perfect example of conservative storytelling. Belfast subtly expresses resentment toward religion, while King Richard’s vision of the good life is materialistic. Yet, both films portray masculine leadership as something life-giving, rather than an obstacle for enlightened society to overcome.

More than that, they offer true-to-life stories of fathers whose families utterly depend on their strength and love. Contrasted to recent Netflix productions that go out of their way to vilify men, these two best picture nominees are vital reminders that ideology is one thing, and real life is something else.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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