Is UNPLANNED Just Pro-Life Propaganda?

Filmmaker and human rights activist Jason Jones recently wrote the following:

When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, could she have guessed its impact? That slavery would die less than fifteen years later? . . . Unplanned can be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the abortion issue. And today’s pro-life movement can be the movement that drives its success.

That’s a bold statement, especially when considering the artistically-checkered past of Unplanned’s filmmakers. Conventional wisdom would lead even a pro-lifer such as myself to receive such a claim with at least a grain of skepticism.

At the same time, comparing Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Unplanned isn’t entirely without merit. While far from identical, these two stories have some striking parallels. I want to specifically address the similarities between the criticisms they have received from their contemporaries.

Consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one can accuse author Harriet Beecher Stowe of subtlety. Restraint and nuance weren’t exactly her tools of choice. While modern readers might be thankful for her stark and unflinching portrayal of slavery, many of Stowe’s contemporaries condemned her for it. They accused her of being slanderous and misleading, twisting the facts to fit her narrative. They accused her story of being wildly exaggerated, deliberately putting the institution of slavery in as bad a light as possible. They labeled her book as “propaganda, [and] an outrageous…and a blatant misrepresentation.”

These accusations are being echoed in some critiques of Unplanned. The Chicago Tribune says the movie is “absolutist and extreme.” The Hollywood Reporter belittles the film as being unbalanced and unfair, having “ham-fisted histrionics and oversimplifications.” Forbes says a “combative Twitter feed is a model of restraint compared to Unplanned,” which is “nasty propaganda.” And The Guardian calls it a “dim-witted Christian drama” that is “ham-handedly stitched together.”

Many film reviewers flat out question the validity of Abby Johnson’s story because of plot elements that they, with their pro-choice biases, can’t even fathom being real. For example, are we really led to believe that the protesters outside Johnson’s workplace are the same ones who helped her find a job when she left Planned Parenthood? Uh, yes. Because it’s true. Are we really supposed to accept the timing of Johnson’s change of heart—i.e., when she saw the ultrasound of an abortion and not earlier in her career when she saw dismembered fetal remains? Uh, yes, because seeing a corpse isn’t as shocking as watching a living fetus actively try to avoid the surgical instruments attempting to tear it apart.

One film critic goes so far as to decry the (imagined) hypocrisy of Johnson’s “I had two abortions, you can’t have any” attitude—even though he acknowledges elsewhere in his review that Johnson changed her views on abortion after she had her two abortions. (That’s like calling Jamie Lee Curtis a hypocrite for warning people against drug misuse since she herself succumbed to painkiller addiction in the past.)

These pro-choice “critiques” show a deep ignorance, not only of the pro-life movement, but of the critics’ own narrowmindedness.

MORE FIRE, LESS LIGHT

I am not one to reflexively defend Christian films in general, or PureFlix in particular. Far from it. In the past, I have specifically and pointedly critiqued the filmmakers of God’s Not Dead.

However, in the modern arena of the abortion debate, where the pro-choice side keeps changing the goalposts of the playing field, maybe a subtle, nuanced approach isn’t always the best option. Maybe the time has come for some storytellers in the pro-life movement to take a cue from abolitionist Frederick Douglass:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

It could be argued that Unplanned is more fire than light, more rebuke than entreaty. But maybe there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Maybe there’s an actual need for that.

Naysayers have every right to critique the movie on artistic grounds. They have the right to examine how the dramatization of Abby Johnson’s story compares to the historical facts. They have the right to challenge the moral/message of the movie itself. That is all well and good.

It is sick and bad, however, to take a cue from the critics of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and produce half-baked smokescreen sandwiches slathered in political posturing and slap it on the menu as “film criticism.”

In the history of film criticism, commentators have heaped praise on movies for promoting a controversial political or cultural point of view. In such praise, the word “propaganda” is not readily used—not because these acclaimed films don’t wear their biases on their sleeves, but because the critics agree with the biases (whether rightly or wrongly). The predominantly pejorative use of the word “propaganda” often reveals more about the pundit than the product.

Take, for example, the Rotten Tomatoes summary of Unplanned (based on the conglomerate opinion of contributing film critics):

A dramatic approach to a hot-button topic whose agenda is immediately clear, Unplanned will only reinforce the feelings of viewers on either side of the issue.

The same can technically be said about many other films—including popular and critically acclaimed films from the past few years. However, hot-button topic movies with a clear agenda are more readily put in a negative light when critics wish to marginalize an agenda they find disagreeable. Before so quickly slinging out clods of manure on Unplanned with labels like “hypocrites” and “propaganda” and “fabrications,” critics should take a long, hard look at their own stained hands. Some of them doth protest too much, methinks.

AUNT ABBY’S ABORTION CLINIC?

So, to come back to our original question, is Unplanned just pro-life propaganda? Well, first, we need to recognize that, as Dr. Nancy Snow has pointed out, while there are “connotations that have become associated with propaganda in modern times,” the word itself “is actually a value-free term.” It involves the dissemination of ideas or information that promote(s) a particular cause or movement. It can be positive (as when used by Harriet Beecher Stowe) and it can be negative (as when used by Adolf Hitler).

With that understanding in mind, we can conclude that Unplanned is indeed propaganda—something that is neither good nor bad in and of itself. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it may not be high art, and it may not try to find a “balanced” perspective on its subject matter, but those factors need not inherently be problematic.

Better questions to ask might be these: Is Unplanned an effective form of propaganda? Will the movie be this generation’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Can it help turn the tide of the pro-life cause?

The film has been out for just under three weeks, so it’s hard to adequately answer those question just yet. To date, Unplanned has garnered just under sixteen million dollars. That doesn’t come close to the current grosses of films like Captain Marvel, or Us, or How to Train Your Dragon 3.

At the same time, we can also consider the bigger picture: of the 205 movies released in theatres thus far this year, Unplanned’s current gross puts it in 23rd place. That’s the top 11 percent—not too shabby a number. This movie may provide a slow burn, or it may skyrocket in popularity, or it may soon fade away from public consciousness. Only time will truly tell.

In any event, there may still be reason to expect the elimination of abortion within the next few decades, and Unplanned may play a small, or a large role, in that process. As a pro-life advocate, I can’t help but pray that the movie will affect enough people (like Bridgette Bayley, for example) to promote real and good and lasting change in our culture.

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