4 Stars – Powerful
It is unusual for a film to portray the healing we experience through the love of Jesus Christ and His sacramental presence. To do so requires the story to also show the sorrows and sins that are in need of healing. It is this compelling juxtaposition that is masterfully joined in this film by acclaimed director and writer Robert Benton. Having already received an Academy Award in 1979 for both writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramer, Benton received his third Oscar in 1984 for the original screenplay of Places in the Heart. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film’s lead Sally Field also won an Oscar for Best Actress.
The setting of the story is central to its focus as we enter the Texas town of Waxahachie in 1935. Brutally offensive, the racist and sexist language and themes are difficult to watch. But it is the authentic confession that allows the movement toward redemption in the final scene.
The central character is Edna Spalding (Sally Field) whose husband is Sheriff of their small town outside of Dallas. A deeply religious family, they are introduced to us on a Sunday as they return from church to share their Sunday dinner. Sheriff Royce Spalding (Ray Baker) only gets one bite of his fried chicken before a deputy calls him out to calm a young black man who is both drunk and has a gun. Knowing him by name the sheriff is not afraid nor does he expect to be harmed when Wylie (De’voreaux White) accidentally shoots and kills him. It is this loss of her husband and provider that begins the journey for Edna into a world she had not known and into which she was not readily accepted.
The journey reveals the best and the worst of humanity. The best is shown by Sheriff Royce when he is shown to know every child of his town including the black children and treats them with respect only to have his death avenged by the lynching of Wylie by a white mob without protest. Similarly, an intelligent and capable Black man named Moze (Danny Glover) becomes the foreman of her farm only to be beaten down and eventually physically beaten by the racist Klan members. Her banker and deacon of her church comes by her home to allegedly comfort her, but only reveals his greedy hypocrisy and financial coercion when he tries to force her to sell her farm or to take in his blind brother-in-law, Mr. Will (John Malcovich). We see Edna’s kind and loving sister, Margaret (Lindsay Crouse), join her to prepare her husband’s body for burial only to realize that Margaret’s handsome husband, Wayne (Ed Harris), is cheating on her with her best friend, Viola (Amy Madigan).
But the most powerful juxtaposition is Edna herself as we see her courage, tenacity, intelligence and drive face the superficial compassion of the business people in her small town who act kindly but use her circumstances against her in order to make a profit. Since everyone attends their small town church together, it is the confrontation of faithful hope with religious hypocrisy.
Though we won’t spoil the way this all works together in the end, it is a powerful parable of the words of the Scripture where John tells us in his first letter: “ If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but closes his/her heart against them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
In the final scene we experience one of the most powerful statements on film when we these broken and hurting people who hold a “place in Edna’s heart” enter into the sacramental moment together. Both the living and the dead share communion as we see her husband offer the forgiveness of Christ to the young man who took his life. It is in that moment that the healing love and power of their mutual savior comes to completion.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
- As director and writer, Robert Benton was born in Waxahachie, Texas where he placed his story. Growing up in the Bible belt where Christianity is culturally expected but can often become distorted or even betrayed, he ended the film by having the pastor read Paul’s words on the primacy of love in 1 Corinthians 13. How have your early experiences in life affected your spiritual journey?
- The recognition that celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion joins us with both the living and the dead is powerfully presented by Benton. When you celebrate the Sacrament, are you aware of these connections? Why or why not?
- Though Edna shows her grit and succeeds in saving her farm, what do you think happened the next season without Moze? How much of your success is based on the partnership you have with someone else? What would be an appropriate and clear way to affirm and support your partnership?