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Overcoming xenophobia … a Biblical and movie theme

Overcoming xenophobia … a Biblical and movie theme

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

Food fights can get pretty messy, but this film, produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey is one Dreamworks product where the mess is downplayed and overcome by personal dignity, unspoken forgiveness and a “can’t we all just get along” appearance where food is the common denominator.

Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) and Oprah Winfrey (“Their Eyes were Watching God”) recently produced this film that, in a small, but significant way, belies what many filmgoers think of as their professional commitment to truth-telling and advocacy for justice.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” for all appearances is a light hearted film that amicably deals with dueling culture foodies.

Set in an idyllic village in southern France, the Kadam family, displaced from India with a son, Hassan (Manish Dayal) who is cast as an ingénue chef, settle across the road from a well established, Michelin-starred French restaurant run by officious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The “immigrants” from India, (although no tasteful French village would overtly label them as such) go about setting up an Indian cuisine restaurant within 100 feet of the established French restaurant.

The film is about the courage and faith it takes for these political immigrants to seek asylum and start over in a new country and the courage for people to welcome “the stranger” into the stayed and comfortable lives of their communities. It is about the ridicule and violence that can be wrought by “respectable people”. And it is about speaking up (or not) about the sins of omission when people of faith witness injustice and racism. To say the least, Madame Mallory could have raised a big stink in the community about the ugly writing on the front wall of the Kadam’s restaurant.

Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”) directs a luscious production with a superb soundtrack, though some of the colorful sets were a bit Disney-esque. And he seems to gloss over the racial antagonism that the Kadam family faces as they start a new life in a new country.

Yet some will see this movie taking its place with “Chocolat” (2000), “What’s Cooking?” (2000), or “The Mistress of Spices” (2005), in using food as a way of tackling xenophobia. Others will see this as a predictable “feel good movie” neglecting the flat out racism and subtle classism. They will need to settle for the romance, the success of Hassan, the turn around of Mdm. Mallory, the lovely food, the beautiful photography and the picturesque setting.

But we can’t help but wonder, given Winfrey’s and Spielberg’s history of strong stands for justice and righteousness, if they have settled for subtlety in action.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints, Pontiac, Michigan, and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and a former broadcast news executive.

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