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Resources for Teachers

Feature Films Set in American Religious Communities

This page will introduce you to feature films set in American religious communities -- including critically acclaimed works of cinema, light romantic comedies, and everything in between.  These films can help you teach about the everyday lives of diverse religious communities, but they cannot be mistaken for non-fiction portraits of these communities.  In order to teach effectively with these films, you'll need to help your students understand and critique their genre conventions.  Perhaps even more than literature, the visual imm­ediacy of film prom­ises us access to other people’s lives and experiences -- teachers should work to realize this promise with their students, while maintaining a critical awareness of its limits.

As with our bibliography of novels set in diverse religious communities, it is important to note that this is not a comprehensive or carefully curated list.  We have included films that speak to diverse traditions, but we certainly haven't covered everything.  We would love to hear your suggestions of additional films to include.  And we have not watched or taught each one of these films.  We would love to hear about your experiences teaching them, and to hear your concerns about any film that offers a biased or disrespectful portrait of a religious tradition or community.  Please help us maintain this list, and make it a powerful tool for teachers.

For more resources and films, see this helpful list of films for the religious studies classroom, and especially the website of The Journal of Religion and Film.  The site offers a wide range of materials that can enrich your students' interpretations of religion on film, including an extensive bibliography of scholarly articles and film reviews, all available in full-text on line. 

 

Buddhism and Buddhist Communities:

 

Little Buddha 1993 PG

In a big American city, a boy and his family discover the story of a prince in a land of miracles. But the miracle becomes real when Tibetan monks appear, searching for their leader's reincarnation, who they believe to be the boy. Suddenly, their worlds meet, leading the Americans on an extraordinary adventure.

 

Chinese Folk Traditions and Immigrant Communities:

 

A Great Wall 1986 PG

This humorous story depicts the culture clash that occurs when Chinese-American computer exec Leo Fang brings his family to Peking to visit his sister and her family for the first time. American customs and more are pitted against traditional Chinese ones, but in the end, each family finds itself enriched by what they've learned from the other.

 

The Joy Luck Club 1993 R

Based on thenovel by Amy Tan, Wayne Wang's drama follows four Chinese women living in California -- Suyuan, Lindo, Ying-Ying, and An-Mei -- who gather weekly to play mahjong and share stories about their lives. They also enjoysharing stories about their daughters and lamenting some of theyounger generation's choices.

 

Long Life, Happiness, and Prosperity 2004 NR

Determined to improve the romantic prospects of her lonely single mother, quirky but well-meaning 12-year-old Mindy resorts to Taoist magic to do the trick. Although the spells and potions seem to miss the mark, Kin finds her humdrum, unfulfilling life given a fresh spark from her daughter's good-intentioned charms.

 

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers 2007 NR

Director Wayne Wang returns to his indie roots with this moving film about an older Chinese man who comes to America to visit the recently divorced daughter he barely knows. Making unwelcome efforts to become closer with his daughter, Mr. Shi snoops through her belongings and forces her into uncomfortable conversations in an attempt to piece together why her marriage fell apart.

 

Christianity and Christian Communities:

 

The Apostle 1997 PG-13

Sonny responds to his wife's infidelity with a crime of passion that sends him on a new and uncharted quest for redemption. Under the assumed identity of "The Apostle E.F.," he settles in a tiny Louisiana town to revive an old church, where he undergoes a transformation of spirit and purpose that enlivens his community. But will the law catch up to him? Does he deserve to be punished?  The answer is left to the viewer.

 

Blood of Jesus 1941 NR

Spencer Williams’ drama about a dying woman’s test of faith is considered by many film scholars to be among the finest films from the African-American “race film” genre.

 

But I’m a Cheerleader 1999 R

In this hilarious satire, Megan Bloomfield lives a "normal" teen life as a cheerleader dating the captain of the football team. But her parents and friends suspect Megan is gay because of "clues," such as her distaste for kissing her boyfriend. Shipped off to True Directions -- an Evangelical Christian camp designed to shove her back in the closet -- Bloomfield meets tomboy Graham Eaton, who helps her recognize her sexual orientation.

 

Doubt 2008 PG-13

Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the rigid and fear-inspiring principal of the Saint Nicholas Church School, suffers an extreme dislike for the progressive and popular parish priest Father Flynn. Looking for wrongdoing in every corner, Sister Aloysius believes she's uncovered the ultimate sin when she fears Father Flynn has taken a special interest in a troubled boy. But without proof, the only thing certain is doubt.

 

Elmer Gantry 1960 NR

Glad-handing, soul-redeeming charlatan Elmer Gantry is a huckster who spins his talent for preaching into a métier behind the pulpit. Hopping aboard the barnstorming evangelical crusade of Sister Sharon Falconer, Gantry moralizes his way to fame and fortune till an erstwhile ladylove threatens to expose his shady history as a skirt-chaser and scam artist.

 

God’s Army 2000 PG

Brandon, a 19-year-old Mormon missionary in Los Angeles, has to confront the harsh challenges of his life with the help of his unrelenting mentor, Marcus. Brandon soon realizes that his first convert just might have to be himself. Can he overcome the collapse of his family? His story is examined as well as others in this inspiring drama.

 

Household Saints 1993 R

Saints are a great inconvenience. They interfere with the plans of ordinary people. When a modern family finds itself with a saint in its midst, there is a tendency to send for the psychiatrist. Household Saints is about Italian Americans in New York City who begin with a form of madness they are comfortable with, and end with a madness only a saint could understand.

 

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2002 PG

Toula Portokalos is a single Greekwoman who falls in love with a non-Greek, which is a no-no for members of her strict family -- particularly her traditional father, whose Greekpride knows no bounds.

 

Witness 1985 R

In this tense thriller, cop John Book goes undercover in an Amish community to protect a boy who witnessed a murder. Once inside, the faux-Amish Book must adjust to major culture shock while cautiously romancing the kid's mother. Suspense and romance intermingle memorably in this airtight script.

 

Hinduism and South Asian Communities:

 

ABCD 2001 NR

When Anju moved her kids from India to New York CIty, she hoped they would still accept their Hindu roots. Instead, she wound up with sarcastic teenage daughter Nina, whose promiscuity and aloof nature are tiresome. Anju's only hope lies with her son Raj, who seems to embrace an arranged marriage. But when Raj is let down at work, will he give up on his new bride and respond to a co-worker's advances?

 

Islam and Muslim Communities:

 

American East 2007 R

Mustafa, a widowed Egyptian immigrant who runs a popular Los Angeles café while trying to find an acceptable suitor for his unmarried sister, must rethink his traditional values when he has the chance to open a restaurant with a Jewish partner. His belief system is further shaken when his sister reveals that she's fallen in love with a handsome American doctor who is not a Muslim.

 

Malcolm X 1992 PG-13

Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated drama illuminates the life of black nationalist Malcolm X, following him from his early days in prison to his conversion to Islam, marriage to Betty Shabazz and discovery of Elijah Mohammad's Nation of Islam writings. When Malcolm turns his back on the Nation of Islam (following a pilgrimage to Mecca), he becomes a murder target.

 

Mooz-Lum 2010 PG-13

Thanks to a strict Muslim upbringing that largely shielded him from the outside world, Tariq's first year of college proves transformative. That is, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks invite growing suspicion and distrust from his angry classmates.

 

My Name is Khan 2010 PG-13

Rizwan Khan, a Muslim man with Asperger syndrome, lives happily with his wife, Mandira, in San Francisco until a tragedy drives her away after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now he is on a quest to recapture the heart of the woman he loves. Traveling across America, Rizwan faces prejudice because of his religion and unusual behavior, but he also inspires the people he meets with his unique outlook on life.

 

The Taqwacores 2010 NR

When Yusef, an engineering student of Pakistani descent, moves in with a group of Muslim punks in Buffalo, N.Y., his new pals introduce him to the hardcore punk values of the Taqwacores -- young Muslims questioning their roles in American society. Based on a novel that was a huge hit with Muslim youth, the film spotlights the paradox of disaffected youth still trying to maintain a connection with traditional forms of faith.

 

Prince Among Slaves 2008, NR  

Historical docudrama recounting the true story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, an African Muslim prince who was captured and sold into slavery in the American South in 1788.  After 40 years of enslavement, he finally regained his free­dom, became a national celebrity, and dined in the White House. 

 

Judaism and Jewish Communities:

 

Avalon 1990 PG

Based on director Barry Levinson's memories of life with his immigrant grandparents, this nostalgic story follows Sam Krichinsky, who comes to America in 1914 and marries Eva.  Years later, this multigenerational Jewish family faces a culture clash amidst its own personal struggles and triumphs.

 

The Chosen 1981 PG

Chaim Potok's acclaimed novel is translated to the screen in this lyrical adaptation. It's World War II, and as battles rage in Europe and Asia, two young men -- one a member of the Hasidim, the other the son of a reformed Jew -- become friends in spite of their differences.

 

Hester Street 1975 PG

Joan Micklin Silver's film follows Gitl, a traditional Jewish woman who travels to America in the late 1800s to reunite with her husband, but instead is met with heartache when she discovers he's a changed man.

 

Native American Spiritual Traditions and Communities:

 

Older Than America 2008 NR

Rain has visions of a cruel incident suffered by her Native American ancestors. Afraid she'll be branded a lunatic like her elderly aunt, Rain fears telling even her policeman husband, Johnny, about the dreams. But as they intensify, she finds that they have eerie connections to her current life, in this mix of supernatural and historical mysteries.

 

Rain in the Mountains 2006 NR

Eric Smallhouse doesn't know the first thing about the traditions and practices of his Native American ancestors, but he's not going to let that little detail dissuade him from leading his people to a resurgence of cultural pride. Renaming himself "Rain in the Mountains," Eric sets out to inspire his people to deny the influences of the white man's world in an effort to recapture their true identity.

 

Smoke Signals 1998 PG-13

On a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, reservation, nothing ever changes -- until the estranged father of Victor Joseph bites the dust in Arizona, and Victor must go collect the cremated remains. The problem is, Victor can't afford the fare. But annoying nerd Thomas Builds-the-Fire will float Victor a loan ... if Thomas can tag along. This tender tale of self-discovery is based on acclaimed author Sherman Alexie's short stories.

 

Sikhism and Sikh Communities:

 

Ocean of Pearls 2008 PG-13

When young Sikh surgeon Amrit Singh senses that his outward appearance could cost him dearly when it comes to professional opportunities in America, he shuns his traditional family, takes off his turban and cuts his long, black hair. But shedding his religious convictions proves far more complicated in this penetrating tale about racism and self-realization.

 

West African Based Spirit Traditions and Communities:

 

The Color Purple 1985 PG-13

The Color Purple is a richly-textured, powerful film set in America's rural south. Whoopi Goldberg makes a triumphant screen debut as the radiant, indomitable Celie, the story's central character. Her impressive portrayal is complimented by a distinguished cast. The Color Purple marks a new, more mature color in Spielberg's artistic palette. It is an exquisitely crafted film that will be treasured and talked about for years to come.

 

Daughters of the Dust 1991 NR

Daughters of the Dust portrays the unique culture of the Gullah people by focusing on the extended Peazant family as its members struggle with the decision to leave their island and move north. On the eve of their departure, memories of their Gullah history and its African roots come rising to the surface.

 

Interfaith Relations, both Serious and Silly:

 

David: The Movie 2011 NR

As the son of the Imam of the local Brooklyn mosque, eleven year-old Daud has to juggle the high expectations of his father and his feelings of isolation and difference – even from his peers in the Muslim community. Through an innocent act of good faith, Daud inadvertently befriends a group of Jewish boys who mistake him as a fellow classmate at their orthodox school, in the neighboring Jewish community.

 

Keeping the Faith 2000 PG-13

Despite their different religious backgrounds, boyhood friends Rev. Brian Finn and Rabbi Jacob Schram enjoy working together to spread "the word," until beautiful Anna Riley enters the picture. As the men jockey to win Anna's hand, the resulting love triangle threatens to destroy their friendship in this divine comedy.