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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
16 May 2006

Magnanimity Comes to Hollywood

by Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.

As I write, all the attention of the cinematic world is focused on the most anti-Catholic movie in many years to come out of Tinseltown — and that, of course, is saying a lot! I refer, of course, to the tissue of blasphemies and calumnies against our Lord and the Church that calls itself The Da Vinci Code. (One can't help wondering whether those making and promoting it so avidly are seeking a certain revenge for the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson's masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, two years earlier.)

But in the midst of all the hype over the way Dan Brown's warmed-over gnosticism has now been spewed onto celluloid, a sparkling little gem of a film that has opened just a week earlier seems in danger of being overlooked. Once again Hollywood surprises us by reminding us just how much truth and beauty can be conveyed through the film-maker's art — with another surprise consisting in its rather unlikely source. Would you believe Starbucks (yes, that's Starbucks as in 'tall', 'grande' or 'venti') is making its debut in movies? And quite a debut it is. There are no special effects in this movie, no action spectaculars, no scintillating computer-generated stunners. Just a whole lot of goodness.

I refer to Akeelah and the Bee. Since you probably haven't yet heard the buzz about this particular bee, be advised that it's 'bee' as in Spelling Bee. And it represents another memorable and impressive debut — that of a little black girl (about 11 or 12 years of age) named Keke Palmer, whose performance as Akeelah Anderson can only be described as totally convincing and captivating. Keke is a hitherto unknown child whose acting combines wonderful spontaneity with a marvellous range of compellingly real emotions. As one of a three-star team, along with Angela Bassett (Akeelah's mother) and Laurence Fishburn (an English professor) Keke succeeds in conveying the way in which something great can come out of ordinary, seemingly nondescript, rough-edged human material.

Indeed, greatness arising from littleness is what this film is all about. It includes no specifically Catholic or even Christian content; but the natural virtues, which are perfected — but can never be replaced — by the grace-infused theological virtues, come through loud and clear. And God is by no means absent from the movie; for in a key scene which reveals the underlying value it seeks to promote, little Akeelah, at the insistence of her English tutor, reads and absorbs a literary quotation framed on the wall of his study that speaks of God as the source and inspiration of something she finds in her heart and which she comes to realize needs to be nurtured and developed.

That 'something' is in fact a very special virtue (though that 'old-fashioned' word is never used in the movie). A virtue which seems to be in very short supply today. Indeed, it is one which most people today have really never even heard of; for even though they have probably heard the word, they now nearly always understand it today in a sense which is either too vague or too restricted. I refer to the virtue of magnanimity. (Neither is that word ever mentioned at any point in the movie!) My Oxford Dictionary defines "magnanimous" simply as "high-souled, above petty feelings". Well, that sounds pretty vague: it seems to me that any number of attitudes or habits of mind, of both natural and supernatural origin, could plausibly be described in those terms. But in practice, when the word "magnanimity" is used today, it nearly always means something much more restricted and specific: generosity, graciousness or courtesy on the part of a conqueror or victor toward those he has defeated, whether on the battlefield, the sporting field, or any other field of rivalry.

However, in its classical philosophical and theological sense, which St. Thomas Aquinas expounds deeply in Question 129 of the IIa IIae of his great Summa Theologiae as well as in the preceding and following Questions, the virtue of magnanimity is something which is neither so general nor so specific as the two modern meanings just mentioned, respectively. The Angelic Doctor defines it, more or less following Aristotle, as "a stretching forth of the mind to great things", that is, as a habit of mind which aspires to achieve, through arduous effort, difficult things worthy of great honor. He considers magnanimity a virtue closely allied with, or subsidiary to, fortitude (or courage), which of course is one of the four cardinal virtues. Now, the immediate reaction of many modern minds — especially Christian minds — to this idea is likely to be that is doesn't sound like much of a virtue at all. After all, doesn't the idea of 'seeking after honors' sound quite opposed to the Gospel values of humility, unworldliness and poverty of spirit? Aren't we all fed up with politicians, movie stars, rock stars, and sporting stars and endless other 'celebrities' who dedicate their lives to ego-tripping in the pursuit of glory, power and worldly 'honor'? Surely we don't want these as role-models?

Indeed, such corruptions of true magnanimity are all too easy to fall into, and all too common. Perhaps it's because the 'real thing' is so rarely found that we don't have any other modern word which exactly expresses it! In differentiating true magnanimity from the vices or sins which oppose it, including false counterfeits, St. Thomas goes on to explain that these sins can vitiate true magnanimity by either excess or defect. The vice of ambition, he explains in Question 131, errs by excess, in the sense that as well as seeking to achieve that which is great and honorable for its own intrinsic worth and value, the ambitious person adds the element of wishing to dominate other people, to rejoice in defeating them, thereby satisfying his personal pride or vainglory. But as Aquinas goes on to explain in Question 133, the opposite error, this time by way of defect rather than excess, is also very common: pusillanimity. The vice bearing this name, which literally means "puny (or petty) of soul", is that of the person who underestimates or even despises the talents or capacities God has given him, and has too much timidity, slothfulness, or lack of trust, to achieve the level of excellence which he can and should achieve. St. Thomas points out that, far from being opposed to Gospel values, magnanimity is the very virtue which our Lord extols in the famous parable of the talents (cf. Mark ch. 25 and Luke ch. 19) in contrast to the pusillanimity of the bad servant who merely hid in the ground the talent entrusted to him by his master. Indeed, without magnanimity in the highest and holiest sense — the firm aspiration to do great things for God and for souls — no one ever has become, or will become, a saint.

Now, I am pretty sure that the Starbucks Coffee folks and their people in Hollywood never for one moment consulted the Summa Theologiae (or any other works of the Angelic Doctor) in making Akeelah and the Bee. Nevertheless, the film has turned to be a marvellous visual and verbal illustration of the virtue and opposing vices I have just been talking about. (I fully intend to recommend to my Moral Theology students from now on, when teaching the cardinal virtues, to see the DVD of this movie in order see what St. Thomas is really teaching.) Akeelah is a cute but ordinary kid at a run-down school in a black neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Far from being especially virtuous, she is rather surly and lazy, cuts a lot of classes, doesn't have great rapport or communication with her hard-working, widowed Mom, lacks self-confidence, and doesn't like her school one bit. However, it is soon discovered that 'ordinary' Akeelah has one extraordinary talent: she has a great memory for learning words and being able to spell them. That's the basic premise of the story, and the movie's plot, as well as its moral value, consist in showing how, in gradually developing the virtue of magnanimity in responding to this talent with the help of Laurence Fishburn's character, the English professor who specializes in coaching aspiring spelling champs, Akeelah's personality begins to blossom — albeit amid ups and downs! — with other virtues as well: generosity, courtesy, community spirit, and filial respect and affection. Not only that, but her example has an effect in healing the pusillanimity that has been cramping the lives of both her own mother and the English professor. The latter has become rather a recluse, in deep depression after the death of his own little daughter (of whom Akeelah reminds him).

The vice of ambition — phoney magnanimity — is also represented by another character, a boy who rivals Akeelah in his talent for spelling. I don't want to give away the movie's plot, with its delightful and somewhat surprising ending, so I'll just limit myself to saying that little Akeelah's true magnanimity finally shows its healing power — quite unintended and unselfconscious — over this vice as well. Please don't get the impression from all my talk of virtue triumphing over vice that this is some kind of 'preachy', sermonizing, movie. These values are presented with delicacy, good taste, humor, subtle artistry, and excellent acting. As an illustration of greatness of soul unfolding through trial, conflict and perseverance in little and ordinary people, this is a movie exalting timeless, traditional values. It belongs in the same quality bracket, and the same heart-warming 'dramatic comedy' genre, as Catholic director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart.

Best of all, perhaps, the virtue this film extols must almost certainly be there in reality. I have no idea how good at spelling Keke Palmer is in real life. But competition for leading roles — even child roles — in Hollywood is certainly at least as tough as that among the thousands of young contenders for the National Spelling Bee championship; so I'll bet it took a pretty good dose of magnanimity for this sweet grade-school girl to have come straight from nowhere to the top, with acting of this quality in her screen debut. Don't miss Akeelah.


Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S. is Associate Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico

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