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Concussion

The risk and perseverance portrayed by the main characters in Concussion are mirrored in its journey as a film. Who would greenlight a movie which 1) thoroughly disdains the most popular religion in America, accusing its highest leadership of fraud, criminal injury and even murder, 2) presents a significant proportion of its priests and clergy as either ignorant or complicit in these crimes, 3) places a Nigerian doctor in the lead role as the often lone voice against the abuses of that religion, 4) includes, as its love story subplot, a chaste, loving extended courtship between the doctor and a Kenyan nurse, and last but not least, 5) portrays as the major device for battling the “evil” religion a mixture of an ancient religion and pure fact, acquired by rigorously applying the scientific method?

Yet Concussion has made $31M at the box office to date and with a budget of $35M is likely to make plenty more before it is through. The performances of the stellar cast anchored by Will Smith and including Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin and David Morse, and Peter Landesman’s writing and direction are more than up to the task of creating a believable and interesting film from a true story of recent vintage, which has no gun violence or sex to move it along. The film is a wonderful achievement, and is being seriously discussed for Oscar recognition. Just as important for the believer, Concussion is the best Christian movie in years.

Perhaps I should explain a few things. First, the most popular religion in America is football, and this film is about a doctor who takes on the NFL, its doctors and its Commissioner, Roger Goodell. As one of the characters in Concussion says, “You want to go up against a corporation that owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.” The movie shows what by now everyone knows, that many knew there was a problem before Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, did, and either turned a blind eye or actively sought to cover up the evidence. Omalu, a pathologist from Nigeria who is working as a coroner, had neither the credentials nor the power to make such a challenge, but he was driven to do so because he had done the research and the research was valid. He wanted to tell the truth and save lives. The NFL wanted to continue its money machine. Omalu perseveres because of both an obsession with scientific truth and a conscience driven by doing what was right, and he does so clearly because of his faith in that ancient religion: Christianity.

No, Concussion wasn’t made by Purity Pictures or FaithStep Films or Sherwood Productions or Pure Flix Entertainment. It was produced by little-known Elizabeth Cantillon and distributed by Columbia Pictures. Neither is known as particularly “faith based”. And the plot is not directly about the faith like so many of the “inspirational” films of recent years, such as God’s Not Dead or this year’s War Room. So what do you mean by “best Christian movie”?

I mean it is the movie from last year which most powerfully displays the faith as what it is, an energizing, all-consuming, motivating relationship with a living God, and does so within a story that takes place in the midst of American society and not in a Christian bubble. This does not mean that the faith is talked about a lot in the movie; it isn’t. But signs of the faith are everywhere from the worship service portrayed early in the film to the crosses on Omalu’s apartment and office walls to the Bible on his bedside table to his discussion with his child in utero to the questions he asks his “patients” who of course are cadavers. Clearly Christianity is what Bennet Omalu is all about.

And that’s not all. Omalu’s girlfriend and later wife, Premu, played by the wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw, plays a sort of guardian angel role, urging him to keep going and reminding him regularly of two of the deepest truths of the Christian faith: providence and faith in hardship. These conversations, as well as a third—the tender conversation Bennet and Premu have as they are beginning to realize they are in love—breathe an atmosphere of Christian ethical and moral stance unknown in our larger society. God is assumed, and honored, without thinking, and so there is no reason to preach, and the film doesn’t. Concussion just shows the normalcy of a world where God is assumed to be at work in relationships, in science, in politics—everywhere.

In deliberating on Concussion, I couldn’t help thinking about a recent Philosophy Bites podcast, which discussed the differences between western philosophy and African philosophy with Katrin Flikschuh of the London School of Economics. At one point she mentioned that African philosophers, when discussing human nature, are quite happy to include categories that westerners would not consider useful. One of those was the common idea for Africans that their ancestors are not dead to them, even though the ancestors are dead physically. In Concussion Dr. Omalu, a coroner, talks to his “patients” who of course are cadavers. He asks them to help him understand why they died. The dignity, the nobility, that this practice gives the dead person in the eyes of the viewer is extraordinary, and though the philosophy here need not be exclusively Christian, the Christian view of the dignity of the human being, flowing from humankind’s bearing of the image of God, fits this practice very well.

Perhaps Concussion is ten minutes too long. Perhaps there are one too many autopsies, one too many thoughtful ruminations. But for my money, Concussion in addition to being one of the best films of the year, was the best Christian movie of the year.

Drew Trotter

December 26, 2015

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