Monster’s Ball

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The academy awards are just a few weeks away, and I must say that I’m disappointed that Monster’s Ball wasn’t nominated for best picture.

The location is Georgia, Billy Bob Thorton plays a death row corrections officer. Oscar-nominated Halle Barry co-stars as the widow of a prisoner who’s executed at the start of the film. The two come together out of coincidence and profound grief.

It’s a dark and troubling movie that touches on many themes – racism, misogyny, the death penalty, the working poor. It’s also about the loss of fathers and, hence, the loss of children.

In the movie, Barry’s 11-year-old son loses his father to the electric chair, and Thorton’s young adult son comes to realize that he lost his father’s love years before.

Director Marc Foster’s understated commentary on fatherhood is compelling, and got me thinking about something other than the Oscars.

The almost eerie absence of fathers is not just something that haunts the movie’s characters. Too many young people have lost their fathers, either literally or figuratively. Although its hard to know just how many, some studies suggest that nearly half of all children will reach adulthood without knowing the unconditional love of an adult male.

And there are consequences to this. For example, a recent bipartisan study by Vermont legislators found that the vast majority of boys and girls in the juvenile justice system lack a safe male role model in their lives.

Not only are fatherless kids at higher risk for delinquency, they’re also more likely to suffer sexual and physical abuse, to drop out of school, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to suffer depression.

Admittedly, the trend of fatherlessness can be an explosive political issue. It touches each of us personally, and doesn’t divide neatly along political or gender lines. By simply suggesting that it’s a topic worthy of discussion, one can simultaneously be labeled a “right-wing social conservative” who thinks the traditional family is the only real family, and a “femi-nazi” who blames men and their irresponsibility for all that is evil in the world.

It’s a no-win topic.

The truth is, just as too many filmmakers spin mass appeal plots, too many politicians propose mass appeal programs. The fewer people you offend, the more votes you get.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend more money on juvenile programs. But lawmakers, like filmmakers, can do better. By shying away from the uncomfortable topic of delinquency and dads, they might also be avoiding some of the hardest, and most meaningful, issues of all.

In contrast, Monster’s Ball avoids nothing, nor is it afraid to offend. It will likely make you uncomfortable because it requires you to reflect on some deeply controversial issues. It’s a movie that bears witness to the darker side of our human spirit, and still manages to have a happy ending. So even though it won’t get the Oscar, it still gets my vote for best picture.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

–Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.

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