I’m as willing as any other socialist to declare myself okay with religion, especially when it comes to liberation theology. Also, I do understand that when Marx likened religion to opium, he did not expect his followers to declare war on it like the DEA war on drugs. He said in the 1843 “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”: “To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” Yet after watching “God Loves Uganda”, the documentary that opens today at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas in New York today (nationwide screening information is here), I was reminded why I became an atheist if not a god-hater. “God Loves Uganda” is a scathing exposé of the evangelical missionaries who make the priests who accompanied Cortés and Pizarro look benign by comparison.
The documentary is focused on a mega-church that operates out of Kansas City, the city of my birth, called International House of Prayer (IHOP). Like the pancake empire, this is an outfit that views Ugandans as their “market”. You see the missionaries being trained at church headquarters as if they were expected to open franchises rather than save souls. Like many of the evangelical hustlers, IHOP operates a vast electronics empire dispensing its sermons across television stations worldwide as well as the Internet. The head bible-thumper shown in the film is one Lou Engel, a bald, middle-aged father of seven who has the muscular neck and growling delivery of a professional wrestler. Engel organizes the missions to Uganda but it is up to younger acolytes to actually go over and do the dirty work. We meet Jesse and Rachelle Digges, a husband-and-wife who pepper nearly every sentence with “Jesus” or the “Lord’s work”. The smiling couple is thin as models and pretty as a picture but radiate an aura of pure toxicity worse than a puff adder’s.
In 1985 Uganda became targeted by a number of these vampire denominations, IHOP being one of the more egregious. Using their pocketbooks, they opened clinics and orphanages (an obvious need given the devastating wars that were visited on the nation) all over the country. Like such outfits from time immemorial, you had to put up with the sermon to get served. Before New York’s Bowery turned into a pricey and trendy neighborhood, missions catered to the alcoholics. You went there for a bowl of soup and put up with a sermon about going to heaven.
In Uganda, the bargain was a lot tougher. In addition to the sermons, you had put up with a sexual-political agenda that was murderous. Uganda was one of the countries in Africa hit hardest by AIDS. George W. Bush worked hand in glove with the evangelicals to make abstinence the tool of choice for preventing AIDS. Condoms were seen as the devil’s work. The net result has been a continued and costly epidemic.
Just as sickening has been a campaign of homophobia that has been endorsed by both the Church of Uganda and the government. The film shows David Kato, a father of the nation’s gay rights movement, speaking out against legislation that would make homosexual behavior punishable by death. For his efforts, he received a death sentence but one carried out by a vigilante who has never been identified.
Against the truly poisonous missionaries and their flunkies inside Uganda, a number of whom have grown wealthy from pay-offs by their American sponsors, there are a couple of men who deserve Nobel Prizes. One is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an elderly man who studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He turned to religion after a poisonous snake killed his wife. Late in life he has to deal with a new set of vipers, who have made it impossible for him to carry out his clerical duties and who would probably not stop short of martyring him given the opportunity.
A younger Anglican priest named Kapya Kaoma is also featured in the film, although in Boston rather than Uganda. His courageous stand for the LGBT community in Uganda has made it impossible for him to remain in the country.
There is always the question of what makes a documentary entertaining. For those trying to figure out whether a Saturday night is better spent by watching a powerful film on the colonial conditions of a supposedly postcolonial Uganda or a baseball game on television, I can only tell you that it is very important for Americans to get up to speed on a terrible injustice being meted out to a long-suffering people. I don’t know about you but this description from the press notes is a pretty good description of what awaits you. Entertaining may not be the right word, but compelling surely is.
Perhaps the damage that enforced “traditional” sex roles does to innocent human beings made me ill-disposed to anything with even a fleeting resemblance. It took me a while to warm up to “Cooper & Hemingway: The True Gen” that also opens today at the Quad in New York (and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on December 3rd). The machismo of these two American icons hit me in the face like a clenched fist at first.
The documentary is a parallel biography of the two men who became best friends. Born in 1898 and 1901 respectively, Hemingway and Cooper were both products of an age in which Theodore Roosevelt was a prototypical male. With his insatiable appetite for big-game hunting and a willingness to risk all sorts of danger, Roosevelt was an obvious model for Hemingway who was into hunting and bullfights. Although too young to fight in WWI, Hemingway signed up as an ambulance driver. After being badly wounded, he told anybody who would listen that the words patriotism and sacrifice were no longer part of his vocabulary.
Cooper was also an outdoorsman but mostly as a function of working on his father’s ranch, where he became an expert horseman. When he ended up in Hollywood, he got a job as a stunt man in silent pictures. When he saw men like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson “acting”, Cooper decided that he could do that himself. That is essentially how he became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
For reasons that are not fully explained, Hemingway became fixated on Cooper and worked on making a date with him. I should add that the film does not speak in such terms since it assumes that the “bromance” was purely based on admiration for each other’s work as a writer and an actor. While the film interviews a number of Hemingway scholars, none even begins to entertain the possibility that there was a homoerotic dimension. It is too bad that they did not broach this question with Nancy R. Comley, who was one of the co-author of “Hemingway’s Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text” along with Robert Scholes. In a 1994 discussion of the book in the NY Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote:
Here, in an exploration of transsexuality far more overt in the original manuscript than in the sanitized Scribner’s version — which, the authors say, “does its author a serious disservice” — Hemingway “has positioned his surrogate, David Bourne, in an intolerable double bind: the source of his creativity lies in what for him is the forbidden territory of the feminine.”
The film is a kind of joint project of the Hemingway and Cooper clans, with Patrick Hemingway—the sole surviving son—and Cooper’s daughter Maria serving as consultants and interviewees. Maria is married to Byron Janis, the acclaimed concert pianist, who wrote the film score.
The most interesting parts of the documentary dealt with two important Cooper films. The first was an adaptation of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, in which the political conservative Gary Cooper played a member of the anti-fascist resistance in the Spanish Civil War. It turns out that Hemingway had Cooper in mind when he developed the character Robert Jordan, long before the film was made.
The other was “High Noon” that was very much contested territory of the Cold War and the witch-hunt. Cooper had been a friendly witness in a HUAC investigation of Communists in Hollywood in 1947 but had not named names. This angered Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife, a lot more than it did him. Gellhorn was a famous war correspondent and very much part of the cultural front of the New Deal.
According to the film Cooper’s opposed the attempts to get Carl Foreman fired as screenwriter on “High Noon” when he was identified as a former CP’er, threatening to quit unless Foreman remained part of the team. Since Cooper’s daughter was a consultant, I am not surprised that she decided to leave out some uncomfortable details as found on the TCM website:
During production on High Noon, the House Un-American Activities Committee was creating quite a stir in Hollywood. Thousands of actors, writers, directors, and others in the film industry lost their jobs due to real or imagined affiliations – past or present – with the Communist Party. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was subpoenaed before HUAC during the making of High Noon to answer questions about his own past affiliations with the Party. As was his right, Foreman pleaded the Fifth Amendment. But after he returned to the set of High Noon, Foreman knew his days in Hollywood were numbered. Hedda Hopper and John Wayne both launched public attacks on him in the trades, trying to force him out of the industry. Even Foreman’s most loyal supporters like Fred Zinnemann were threatened because of their association with him. Just like in the film, Gary Cooper seemed to be the last man standing in supporting Carl Foreman. But once threats ensued from MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and the powerful independent producer Walter Wanger, even Cooper had to relent, fearing an end to his acting career. When the actor called Foreman with the news, the writer sympathized. “I know. Nobody can hold up against this…not even you.”
Cooper’s character in “High Noon” never backed down but the actor turned out to be made of less sturdy material. But then again that’s what you’d expect from someone who makes a career out of pretending to be someone they are not.