We’re big on Christmas movies and music, both of which are now prevalent and solidly welcome in our house. So naturally, The Grinch, (the original; no one replaces Boris) A Christmas Carol, The Bishop’s Wife, and Charlie Brown Christmas will get airtime in our living room, the premium spot on the 24th being reserved for It’s a Wonderful Life. I never get tired of these re-runs or, for that matter, all the other December rituals we repeat.
But it’s a special treat finding a new movie to add to our pre-Christmas viewing, and last night while browsing Netflix we caught one. It’s called The African Doctor, a French film with sub-titles released earlier this year, and I was so taken with it I thought it would be worth passing on.
Courage Under Fire
It’s the true story of Dr. Seyolo Zantoko, a physician from the Congo who was hired by the mayor of a small village in northern France to be the local, and only, doctor. Problem was, the village of Marly Gomont didn’t know what to make of an African man, much less one who was to be their personal physician, and their racism kicked into overdrive the moment Dr. Zantoko and his family of four arrived.
If all this sounds like a downer, it isn’t, despite the disgust you feel watching a good family have to prove themselves to people so comfortable with their cruelty. That this story works as a feel-good comedy is a tribute to its creators and, especially, to Dr. Zantoko’s son, who co-wrote the screenplay which is told from his viewpoint.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Zantoko’s son Kamini the screenwriter was first Kamini the rapper, whose 2006 song Marly Gomont – a musical telling of what life was like for the black son of an honorable doctor who faced then conquered a village’s ignorance – became a mega-hit on the French music charts, catapulting Kamini to the visibility which enabled him to get this film made.
Unpreachy Sermons are the Best
A Christmas movie about racism seems improbable. Then again, a Christmas movie about a suicide attempt must have seemed equally improbable to some of the investors Frank Capra pitched It’s a Wonderful Life to, and that didn’t come out too badly. So while the subject is ugly, The African Doctor’s approach to it is
Zantako is as gentlemanly as he is fearless, instilling his kids with a strong work ethic while not allowing the early rejection they all experience from their neighbors to become an excuse for either bitterness of passivity. The man isn’t weak or scared; neither will he give himself permission to retaliate. He models, instead, what Paul told the Romans: “Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
So when the villagers refuse to enter the clinic of the unknown African doctor, he goes to them, assertively introducing himself, joining their social gatherings, and making himself known as someone who’s available and undaunted.
Everyone benefits from his courage. Indeed, when a vocally bigoted woman in labor who he’s trying to help screams, “You’re not touching me!”, he calmly reminds her that she’s about to deliver, he’s the only doctor around, and if they’re going to make it, they’ll need to work together. The outcome of that event alone, both immediately and eventually, reminds you that by God’s grace people who’ve been afraid of each other just might be able to pull together.
While chronicling the doctor’s efforts at credibility, the film avoids the sort of preachiness or sentimentality it could so easily slide into. Group prejudice is shown plainly, without dramatic flair, and the familiar dynamics of it are all there: the overtly ignorant haters, the others who don’t hate but are too cowardly to take a stand, the sympathizers who make gradual attempts at changing things, and the cynics who aren’t necessarily bigots but are all too willing to exploit racism for political gain.
In other words, it’s a story we recognize in an America whose racial divisions seem unusually aggravated, making the fortitude we see in Zantako and his French allies something we hope to see more of in the States.
Nowhere in the film is that courage more joyfully displayed than in the Christmas Eve scene, when Zantako’s relatives come for a visit and decide to attend an evening Mass with him and the kids. The all white congregation is stunned to see a large black family join them; even more so when the in-laws, to Zantako’s dismay and everyone else’s shock, refuse to sit down and quietly sing “Silent Night.”
The joy of recounting Christ’s birth is, for them, something to shout and dance about, so they break into a rousing, up-tempo version sure to get you clapping along, even as you laugh at the parishioner’s stuffiness and appreciate the family’s resilience. They’re not naïve – they know these folks aren’t used to African rhythms in a white Catholic church. But they’re smart enough to know they’ll all come around, if not tonight, then soon. In fact, one of them, calming a distraught Zantako who fears they’ve just alienated the whole village with their Pentecostal-style worship, reminds him, “It’s OK. They’re our brothers and sisters, Our Lord loves all His sheep!”
Would that we were all so smart and strong.
Don’t let the sub-titles put you off, nor the fact that there’s not a single actor in this film who you’ll recognize. The African Doctor is one of the warmest movies I’ve seen in years, a true story set in the Christmas season and celebrating the Christmas spirit with great humor, no sarcasm, lots of heart.
You can find it on Netflix; I’m not sure where else you might get a copy. But once you do, I think you’ll agree it’s worth the effort.