In complete contrast with American Sniper the new film McFarland USA is a Disney movie. It is also based on a true story. It is an against-all-odds story of the 1987 McFarland high school cross country team in an economically challenged community in the central valley of California. Some reviewers think the film is “corny” and hopelessly romanticized. I found it pure, unadulterated inspiration. Kevin Costner plays the lead role as a high school teacher and coach who is stuck in a small town with a largely Hispanic population of poor immigrant farm workers. (The issue of documented or undocumented people never arises in the movie but reality says both kinds of immigrants are in the story!) The story revolves around a family of four moving to this small California farm town of McFarland, which really is the name of the town. (McFarland is about ten miles from where one of my best friends lives, Rev. David Moorhead. David a Reformed Church in America church-planting pastor in Shafter.) Costner’s character takes a job as a science and physical education teacher at the local high school. He spots some natural talents and persuades eight boys to help him launch a cross-country team while he and his family adjust to the new town and life. (He desperately wants to get out of McFarland as soon as possible!)
Yes, McFarland USA is another Kevin Costner film about sports, though this film and his performance is nothing like Bull Durham, Tin Cup or Draft Day. This is another inspirational sports-minded film based on a true story which appeals to the entire family. This film is really worth going to the theater to see and feel. I dare you to not shed a tear or two.
So why do I review these two movies side-by-side?
- Many (the majority) of conservative Christians I know support almost all US combat missions while they oppose Hispanic immigration, especially if it involves poor Mexican farm workers. These movies allow you to see these two contentious issues without focusing on the issues per se.
- These films both work to tell powerful stories. One feels awful and the other inspires you.
- Neither film is overtly political in any way. Both contribute to our political and cultural dialogue about who we are as a people.
- I left American Sniper stunned into silence and deeply concerned. I left McFarland moved to joy by courage, grace, love and how community, and sport, can change lives wonderfully. McFarland shows the best of America. American Sniper shows the courage of many military people but it also raises a hundred questions about what we are asking of you men and women in uniform.
- Christians talk a lot about culture and culture wars. McFarland inspires us to see Hispanics as people just like us. We see immigrants as people who want to provide for their children, find true community, enjoy the basic parts of the American dream and achieve success. American Sniper portrays courage under fire but it celebrates our darker instincts to kill or be killed. It causes us to cheer, as I experienced in the theater when I saw the movie. McFarland made me call Pastor David Moorhead as soon as possible and thank him for his amazing work in Shafter, California, a town so much like McFarland. When David told me he saw the film on opening night and he and his wife were inspired and filled with joy it moved me. I told him, “David, you are my pastoral hero. So many pastors are lauded for great feats but you are living in a mostly Hispanic community and serving the poor and making disciples for Christ!”
I encourage you to see both movies. The American Sniper is not for the faint of heart of for anyone 12 or under. (Maybe even 16 or under.) McFarland USA is for the whole family. See it and tell your family why immigrants should be treated with love and respect and the issue is much more complicated than building a wall. Celebrate our cultural and linguistic diversity and then welcome the mission of Christ that friends like Pastor David Moorhead are sharing with the fastest growing (and largest) group of new immigrants in the USA.