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What “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Milk” taught me about “Us and Them”

In A Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on the book by John Boyne, a boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) finds himself bored and isolated after his father, a German officer, is assigned to a new position that takes the family away from their friends and relatives in the city. Soon after arriving in their new home, boyish curiosity causes Bruno to question the origin of the “people in the striped pajamas” that he observes from his window. His parents assure him that they are workers of a local “farm,” a place he is forbidden to go.

His questing spirit compels him to sneak away from the house, and his adventure leads to the “farm” fence where he meets a boy his age. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the boys develop a relationship that is constantly put on trial as they navigate the realities of living on opposing sides of barbed wire. In their own ways, Bruno’s family members, their household workers and the military personnel all deal with the two sides of the fence by making choices to support what they believe is “right,” a term with contrasting definitions for each one.

This film differs from most Holocaust works in that it does not just focus on the Jewish point of view of oppressions and uprising, but rather depicts the progression of how well-meaning Germans’ decisions lead to atrocities, all the while defending what they believe is right. While most Christians would agree that the Holocaust was unjust and detestable, it is interesting to watch how Bruno’s family justified their opinions and involvement.

Pajamas calls viewers to examine how people decide what is “right,” and how they react to those who they consider “not right.” By pondering both sides of the fence represented in the film, the audience is asked to consider the juxtaposition of “us and them.” The ending leaves viewers aware that the act of taking a side is hardly clear-cut.

Gus Van Sant’s recent release, Milk, likewise challenges viewers to consider the contrasting relationships of “us and them.” The film is based on the true story of Harvey Milk, who after turning forty, moves to the Castro district in San Francisco and runs for several city council positions. Despite numerous losses and campaigns that cost him relationships and bring threats, he continues to run.

Harvey Milk is eventually elected as a city supervisor in 1977, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office. He uses his platform to support the rights of homosexuals who have become victims of hate crimes, and to champion the causes of neglected minorities such as the elderly and the homeless.

Using real TV news footage and Milk’s voice from tape recordings as a compass through the film gives the biographical account a documentary feel and shows the progression of Milk’s career in office, very accurately played by Sean Penn. While the film highlights many conflicts that surround Harvey Milk, there are three that drive the plot: his opposition to Anita Bryant (as herself through archived footage), his opposition to Proposition 6, and his complicated relationship with Dan White.

Anita Bryant, a musician turned anti-homosexuality advocate, works to repeal city ordinances in several states that protect homosexuals. She becomes a motivational speaker who lectures on the evils of homosexuality and the threat it poses to the family unit and Christian principles. The film highlights her considerable influence in encouraging Christians to rally behind her and repeal the ordinances.

Harvey Milk’s centerpiece is opposition to Proposition 6, a law that would prevent homosexuals from teaching in public schools. Milk debates conservative state senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) across California. He argues that gay rights are a human rights issue, and that homosexuals are not individuals hated by God or in need of being fixed.

The film explores the story of Dan White (Josh Brolin), another city supervisor from San Francisco who often takes the opposing side of issues that Milk endorses. Their relationship not only explores their political opposition, but also illustrates the values that define both, and the results that follow them.

It is evident that through these conflicts, Milk believes he is fighting not only for his own life, but also for the lives of those he advocates. The film portrays him as a scrappy, relentless politician who sees it as his duty to bring hope to those who have been told that there is no place for them in this world. In every rally he holds, he sees it as his mission to recruit and educate everyone he can, and bring attention to the fact that since America was founded on the idea that “All men are created equal,” homosexuals should have the right to be included in that reality.

Here, Milk and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas converge thematically.

Among Christians, there is consensus that the Holocaust was wrong because Jews were persecuted and segregated based on religious principles. We take note that Jews were not afforded the equality enjoyed by other German citizens. However, Pajamas does not directly speak to whether the Holocaust was right or wrong, but rather explores how an individual can come to an arguably wrong decision through an earnest journey influenced by what they would consider to be “right” choices.

Milk also reveals that strong convictions are almost always argued on the basis of what one believes is “right.” Milk’s political career was dedicated to the belief that it is right to grant homosexuals equal treatment while his opponents argued that they were “right” in denying Milk’s beliefs based largely on biblical reasoning. In the end, tragedy and triumph become blurred, as people on both sides earnestly believe that they are the “right” ones and that the “wrong” ones must be corrected.

Both films ask viewers to consider the fences, the opposing positions, and encourage us to not only view arguments involved, but also to consider the consequences of creating “us vs. them” situations.

As Christians and citizens, we seek to understand what is right and we strive to follow the truths we believe in and stand for. Yet on this quest, when we choose a side that we identify as “right,” inevitably there will always be an opposing “wrong” just over the fence. When grappling with how to live with this reality, both films call us to consider the other side and look at things through a point of view other than our own. It might be uncomfortable and we still might not want to leave our side of the fence, but these films beg us to consider that being right could come second to being compassionate.

After all, when Jesus was asked about what was “right” in regards to inheriting eternal life he relied, “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Maybe Jesus wasn’t into choosing sides of fences, but rather in the business of building bridges.

Lauryn Wild is a 7th grade English/World History teacher and a native of Southern California. She enjoys the color blue, nomadic travel and passionate conversations.

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