This is a guest essay from Jason Smith. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from Vanderbilt University and, by his own admission, writes about sports, theology and philosophy on the internet sometimes. He teaches at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Earlier this year, he explored the morality of college football returning to play during the pandemic.
When I was a sophomore at the University of Georgia I decided, like a lot of nerdy sophomores in college do, to watch all of the 1001 Movies You Have to See Before You Die. I realized pretty quickly this was a terrible idea because I did, in fact, have to attend class and read books.
I settled instead on the 100 Greatest Movies from the American Film Institute since 100 is less than 1001 and got to work filling in the gaps of my cinematic knowledge.
One of the movies that has stuck with me is On the Waterfront, the Elia Kazan Best Picture winner starring Marlon Brando. You’ll know it as the “I coulda been a contender!” movie, if you know it at all.
The only thing I knew about On the Waterfront going into it was that line. I had no idea that the plot revolved around a mob boss taking over a longshoreman’s union and black balling a washed-up prize fighter — a prize fighter whose career he himself soiled after convincing him to throw a fight.
I’m not sure I would’ve found that all that interesting but for the inclusion of a priest — Father Barry, played by Karl Malden and his legendary schnozz.
Father Barry has stuck with me because he was the first time I saw a fictional representation of a Christian minister advocating for economic justice. I was used to priests and pastors in movies symbolizing a hypocritical hyper-morality that had to be sloughed off, institutional corruption that had to be fought, or a benevolent yet myopic concern for the soul and the soul alone.