BARS at the Movies: ‘Heroin(e)’

Photo courtesy of Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Psychologists, doctors and more have spent years and years studying addiction: the condition where someone can’t live without something so much that it drives them over the edge sometimes.

Of course, that’s a rough, brief, basic definition of addiction. It’s much more complex, and takes different forms. But one of the most common in America right now is addiction to opioids.

I just watched the Netflix documentary “Heroin(e),” which follows three people regularly doing life-saving work in the small town of Huntington, West Virginia.

In Huntington, the drug overdose rate is 10 times the national average and at least five people every day overdose and are treated by first responders. The film, which runs around 40 minutes, follows Fire Chief Jan Rader, county judge Patricia Keller, who runs the drug court, and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministry, which delivers food to women who turn to prostitution to support their addictions. They are the title “heroines.”

I won’t do a deep dive into the documentary and the filmmaking itself, but want to cover a couple takeaways I had and what it means for Christians.

People Who Save

There are a lot of people at a lot of nonprofits and organizations and churches across the country that help others, selflessly and sacrificially. And all of them deserve recognition for their work. But “Heroin(e)” stands out because of its heroes.

Rader, who in the course of the film becomes Huntington’s first female fire chief, is not a desk jockey chief. She routinely goes out on overdose calls, even once interrupting a television interview because, as becomes routine, there’s an overdose to go to. She helps apply naloxone, a drug designed to help people recover quickly from overdoses, and develops close relationships with addicts who are progressing and growing in sobriety.

Keller’s drug court is an opportunity for addicts who are caught with illegal substances to have a different interaction with the judicial system. One former addict who graduates from the program says Keller is the first “public official” he’s ever befriended, something he never expected. She’s tough, not taking crap from anyone and even sending people to jail for short times if the situation calls for it. But she displays a compassion for those she’s overseeing that’s refreshing and Christ-like.

Freeman is a Christian whose ministry includes handing out gospel tracts to prostitutes. She does the work that Jesus did. The film shows Freeman interacting with the lowest in society and offering more than just spiritual things: food, hygiene products, assistance in finding recovery options for these women. She’s not judgmental or over-spiritual: she’s a helping hand who loves people enough to go to the shady parts of Huntington and be a friend.

They’re people who save lives. It’s in different ways, but they’re people who have seen a problem and are doing something about it. Them being the focus of the documentary was a crucial part of its development, according to director Elaine McMillion Sheldon.

“Heroin(e) examines an epidemic that many communities are struggling with, so for this topic to have captured the attention of the Academy means so much to us, as filmmakers, and to those on the front lines,” Sheldon told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph after the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. As native West Virginians living in the midst of this public health crisis, we believe the stories of these three tenacious and resilient women are what this country needs — a message of hope and survival to show us a way forward.”

The Addictiveness of Addiction

About midway through the film, Freeman is speaking about one of the people she helped, a girl named Hope. Freeman said she asked Hope why people get hooked on heroin.

“She said, ‘The only way I know to explain it to you is that getting high on heroin is what it would be like for you to kiss Jesus.’ She said, ‘That’s how powerful it is.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s probably pretty daggone powerful.'”

It was a powerful analogy. For a Christian, that could ring strong.

I’ve been working on a series for the newspaper where I work about opioids and opioid addiction, so this topic is fresh on my mind.

Opioid addiction starts when someone begins taking opioids, usually prescription pain killers, to deal with pain from surgery or an injury or even cancer. When the pills are taken, the brain begins creating receptors, which take in the opioids. It creates pain relief, which is what they’re supposed to be doing, and sometimes a sense of euphoria.

However, the receptors created are like hungry dogs. One treat isn’t enough. So even when the pain is healed, the opioids have created an addiction inside the brain that needs to be filled, and the withdrawal is horrendous. So people will do whatever it takes to find something to fill that gap. If they can’t get prescription pills, they just might turn to heroin, which is stronger (three times stronger than morphine) and more deadly.

It becomes a neurological change that needs treatment and sobriety to fix. And “Heroin(e)” captures that well: showing interviews with some recovering addicts who speak about how bad their situation was, that they would overdose or turn to prostitution to feed their addiction.

We Need These Films

One thing we can learn about the life of Jesus is that He was not ignorant of people’s issues. Whether it was poverty, sickness, adultery, premarital cohabitation, theology, government policy, church giving, He knew what was happening and offered a lending hand.

Christians watching “Heroin(e)” may or may not resonate with Freeman. Her faith being a central part of her ministry is admirable and it’s what we as Christians should aspire to. But she doesn’t go around sharing the gospel with everybody the first time, or trying to convince them to leave prostitution. It’s about handing out food and hygiene supplies, asking how people are doing, helping them to recovery clinics and homeless shelters. She’s an embodiment of what Jesus was.

I strongly recommend this documentary for a couple reasons: 1) to learn more about how the opioid epidemic can affect one town and 2) to see what real heroism, real Christ-driven heroism, looks like.

Judge Keller and Fire Chief Rader are admirable people as well. They may not profess Christ in their work — they may be Christians, I don’t know — but their attitudes and actions should be appreciated and reflected as well.

We the church need to be aware of this addiction, this issue, so we can be a place for help and aid. And I think “Heroin(e)” is a good place to start.

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BARS at the Cinema: CAPTAIN MARVEL and Changing Your Mind

NOTE: If you have not seen Captain Marvel yet, it might be best for you to avoid this piece. It has significant spoilers for the movie, which is fun and worth a watch.

A movie that’s stuck with me for a long time is Come Sunday, a Netflix film about preacher Carlton Pearson. I wrote about it here.

I referenced it the other day in conversation with a film critic about the movie First Reformed. In both movies, a preacher who’s done things the same way for a long time is challenged with a negative truth and is forced, either by rational thinking or a spiritual experience, to change what they believe.

In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Ernst Toller is shaken by the suicide of a congregant’s husband. The man loses hope in the world, despite having a wife and a child on the way, due to growing climate change and impending environmental disaster. Toller pastors a small, traditional church that receives support from a megachurch led by Cedric the Entertainer’s Rev. Jeffers. Toller and Jeffers butt heads over how much the church should do about environmental change.

In Come Sunday, based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Pearson sees a news report about the 1994 mass genocide in Rwanda and has what he deems to be a spiritual epiphany: there is no hell as commonly defined by the church. This puts him in direct conflict with the stated theology of his denomination’s elders and his spiritual mentor, Martin Sheen’s Oral Roberts.

Both of these films explore what happens when someone learns something new and it changes their world. Both also have a significant Christian/religious bent to them, which is probably why I like them.

But another movie, Captain Marvel, explores a similar theme, and while it doesn’t do it as well as Come Sunday or First Reformed, it makes you think about what it’s like to learn something new.

I won’t give the customary plot summary here because this part of the movie (SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!) comes in the second act.

Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel learns that the Kree race she has dedicated her life to — thanks to a plane crash, some brain-washing and super science — have misled her on the threat of the Skrulls, and that her people are the real villains. It shakes her world. All the while, she’s dealing with the fact that while she thinks she’s always been a Kree, she was actually an Earth-dwelling human for most of her life.

The movie does a half-decent job of exploring how these major shifts in thinking affect Carol. I think the filmmakers could have done more, but the theme is at least introduced, and I think it has a lot to tell us about living the Christian life.

The Bible is chock full of people who lived their entire lives thinking one thing and then changed in the blink of an eye when they got new information.

The disciples were just fishermen, doing their thing, when Jesus comes up and radically shifts their worldview and their profession. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:19.

Saul was a Jew of Jews, zealous, imprisoning and killing Christians, when Jesus stopped him on the road to Damascus and changed his life. Eventually, his name was changed too, to Paul. He went from killing Christians to trying to recruit people to be Christians.

That’s a significant shift. We don’t know exactly how long it took Paul, Peter and Andrew to make that change in their minds. The Bible presents them as just changing their lives almost immediately. We do see that all of them have to take some time to adjust — Paul learns from the apostles for a time, and the disciples clearly didn’t get it for a long time.

When we become Christians, we make a similar shift, a similar change. We go from death to life, from condemned to saved. We learn a lot more about ourselves and who we were and who we are going to become.

Just like Carol Danvers, Carlton Pearson and Ernst Toller, our allegiances shift and we begin fighting and living life for a new purpose. That can be hard. Some of our friends and family will resist that change, wondering why in the world we’re investing in this new thing, thinking we’re losing our minds. Your brain has to create new ways of thinking due to this shift.

Clearly, this is a film trope that’s been around for a long time, but it’s a reflection of real life.

I want to end this reflection on Captain Marvel with this encouragement: there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, your mind is shifting on something. It’s part of life, and evolution is critical to humanity existing. If we didn’t change our thought processes and create telephones, vaccines, automobiles and more, we may not exist, or we’d still be like we were in the 1600s.

I believe your life of faith is the same way. Through reading man’s reflections on God and God’s words themselves in the Bible, we can learn wisdom and grow as Christians. By praying and seeking input and conversation with other Christians, we can change for the better to more reflect who Jesus is and what He wants for us.

But like Carol, Ernst and Carlton, we need to be open to it. I’m not writing this to pass judgment on their changes. But they set a good example for us to be open to being wrong and changing to reflect the reality around us.

Changing your mind isn’t an inherently bad thing. Sometimes, it can make the difference between following yourself and following Jesus. Give it a shot sometime.

Married to a New Master

I hate movies where a romantic commitment is violated.

For example, The Wedding Planner. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez in your typical romcom. It’s a perfectly fine romcom except McConaughey’s character starts pursuing Lopez’s character while he’s engaged to someone else. It takes McConaughey’s character to get to his wedding day before he confesses to his fiancée.

I know there are tons of movies like this. The man/woman who leaves someone else is excused because the existing relationship is bad and it’s “true love” they’re seeking after. It’s just not right.

Not that I’m perfect in this area. I can think of a couple times in my life where I accidentally (maybe?) led a girl on and wasn’t forthcoming with her. Perhaps it’s my experience in the pain of that which makes me abhor movies that glorify that.

It’s painful to someone when you’re committed to them and then you abandon them for someone else. However, in the grand scheme of our walks with Christ, there’s a situation where not only is that OK, but it’s desirable, joyful and freeing.

Romans 7:4-6 says —

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

There’s a switch in spouses here that’s beautiful. The prior few verses talk about how a woman is adulterous if she is with another man while her husband is still alive, but if her husband dies, she is not adulterous if she marries another man.

It’s the same way when we come to Christ. Prior to our salvation, we were married to the law, committed to following its ways. Because of that, we would always fall short because we can’t meet the strict requirements of the law.

But when we were saved, we were released from that commitment and to a new commitment to Jesus, to God, to grace. It’s a marriage to a new master, and it’s a healthy, vibrant and live-saving one.

So in this case, ditching a relationship as quick as you can for a new one is perfectly OK. In fact, if you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to do it as soon as possible.