Exploring Morality in Feature Films

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A film story is an argument that is expressed within its 2-hour time constraint. The stronger the argument, the more compelling the film becomes in changing culture. This power is seeded within a moral argument and is demonstrated by the main character, thereby impacting the audience’s perspective on the topic.

Understanding the morality at the root of the story helps the filmmaker develop threedimensional characters, define core conflicts that drive the story, empower a unified theme, and assert a subtext that thrusts the audience to the filmmaker’s conclusion. These elements seed the audience’s decision to not only consider change, breaking up their ill-patterned behaviors, but also inspire the viewer to take action toward implementing their version of the main character’s solution in their own life.

But how does the filmmaker define his morality?

Morality is that set of behaviors that the average person would label good or bad. The good being socially acceptable or positive in nature, and the bad being harmful to a person or immoral. This definition causes filmmakers to pit a good person against a bad person throughout the story, allowing the exploration of both sides of a given argument. The filmmaker’s view on what is considered good and bad is endeared to the audience for consideration within their own life.

Obvious protagonistic battles against the antagonist might show up in the form of spy/crime stories like James Bond or Batman. Within these overt stories is a character who decides to be selfless on behalf of another, revealing the power of grace bestowed upon those in need. In subtle stories, a fine line might separate the good guy from the bad guy, especially if the good guy has to cross a moral line to do what is “good” for others.

An example of a subtle line between good and bad showed up in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The story was about the fine line between blindly trusting the local police and holding them accountable for their biased treatment of others. Within the story the audience witnessed a demonstration on how those who suffered a crime should behave when treated poorly. It further explored how others should treat those who have been injured by anger, vengeance, and abuse.

The mixing of the various emotional responses to the moral dilemma gives plenty of fuel to the writer. By having a character facing each angle of the issue, the filmmaker is able to bring full consideration to bear for the audience’s enlightenment. The screenplay can also reveal how the good guy can all too easily cross the moral line in the name of seeking unfulfilled justice, making him just like the bad guy.

In Batman, the caped crusader breaks the law by becoming a vigilante in order to capture the infamous bad guy. In Back to the Future, Marty convinces his dad to punch Biff and right history. The Equalizer commits crimes to save others from injustice and death.

On the other side of the coin, especially in more subtle stories, the bad guy appears just like the hero with one slight difference—his morality. The Joker in The Dark Knight made it clear to Batman that they were cut from the same cloth, giving the filmmaker a range of emotional challenges to share how different moral and immoral choices might play out, revealing that self-sacrifice is the ultimate demonstration of love-based morals.

Subtle films can also reveal truth by choosing the opposite. When we watch immorality on screen appear to win, the moment typically illuminates the good that lost. We can look to religion for an example of immorality winning in the death of Jesus. His death gave all appearance that he lost, but his real goal was to die for the mistakes of others, covering our behavioral errors with his moral goodness.

Our movie theaters are loaded with sacrilegious humor these days, but most of it points clearly to the opposite being the right choice in life. When we laugh at the political incorrectness or immoral behaviors, it is due to our recognition of what we know to be right that causes the laughter. In other words, laughing at the immoral during the exploration of morals is a sign that we know what a moral life looks like, forcing us to consider if we need to tweak our own life to the good.

I’m amazed at how every true exploration of morals points the audience to what is right, regardless of their background or original beliefs. I’m convinced this is possible because the moral will always win over the immoral.

So, why is it that faith-based films avoid showing both sides of an argument that morality will win?

The answer is easier than you think. Faith-based films aren’t created to reveal truth through all sides of an argument, but are designed to avoid arguments and conflicts in order to demonstrate what utopia looks like through the eyes of the filmmaker. Unfortunately, I know few people who can relate to such unrealistic stories because their lives are far from ideal. This results in them avoiding that genre of film.

It’s a shame because filmmakers who have lived both immoral (before their spiritual awakening) and moral (after their awakening) lives would be able to better reveal the truth and consequences of all sides of an issue for our community at large. Every member of the audience would be able to watch the pros and cons demonstrated by characters and be able to make a wise decision concerning changes in their own life for the good.

I believe filmmakers do a disservice to the general public when they don’t show all sides of the good and bad within the form of a film’s argument. After all, morality wins over immorality whenever placed side-by-side for an equal comparison. Since morality always wins, you’d think filmmakers would embrace all controversial subjects knowing that the film would guide the audience to make healthy decisions for their future.

Let me summarize things in this way… Film story is an argument that directly impacts the viewer, but a movie made without anything argued ads nothing to our culture.

© 2018 by CJ Powers
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