Nicole Havelka Consulting Blog
in Change Leadership - Community - Organizations - Pop Culture

More of Who I Am: How the Movie Pleasantville Changed Me

Face of a girl - half is black and white, the other side is color a paint brush is placed on her forehead between the black and white and color sides of the face.

Anyone who reads my social media feeds knows that I am a film and tv junkie. Long before I strongly identified as Christian or a yogi, the stories of movies and television wove a tapestry of meaning for my life. I joked (somewhat truthfully) in my young adulthood that I worshipped at the AMC 30.

Listening to a recent podcast from This Movie Changed Me, that featured a question-filled, theological conversation with the Rev. Sue Phillips about how the 1984 movie, Amadeus, changed her. In this podcast, she recounted how this movie gave her young self permission to ask deep questions about her own purpose and calling, to see how her own story intersected with God’s workings in her life and gave voice to her own questions about religious teachings.

For me, movies were crucial in shaping my sense of call to ministry. Having spent my first few years out of college as a journalist in the late 1990s, I had a career crisis, the proportions of which could only be produced by a soul-searching, meaning-making young adult like myself. I had begun to return to church after a long hiatus and soon felt called to ministry and to go to seminary. This calling made absolutely no logical sense. Yet, an unmistakable magnetism drew me toward that leap of faith.

At the time, I spent most of my Sunday mornings and afternoons not in church, but at the movie theater. I often saw two or three movies in a weekend — working hard the budget movie theaters and the rewards programs to get the best deals on tickets and popcorn on my very tight budget. The stories on screen were my way of putting my small, personal story in the context of a wider story. 

I saw the 1998 movie, Pleasantville, sometime early in 1999 in the throw of Oscar nomination season at the $3 movie theater. I remember walking into the theater in a cyclone of overwhelming emotions. I had just experienced my first unbelievable call to ministry. I was emotional, unclear about what what this strange magnetic call was and how it could possibly be part of who I was.

Surrounded by darkness and the pervasive smell of buttery popcorn, I settled in to see this critically acclaimed movie. I saw most Oscar-nominated films at the time, but I’m guessing that this fantasy that explores the intersection of personal and social change drew me for more personal reasons.

For those who haven’t seen the movie at all or for a while, I’ll recap: Two late 1990s teenage siblings are magically transported into a 1950s black and white sitcom called Pleasantville.  Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) wants nothing to do with this new reality and blames her brother David (Tobey McGuire) and his geeky obsession with the comforting black and white show for leading them toward these “tragic consequences.”

Despite David’s best efforts to maintain the perfect equilibrium of this fictionalized 1950s utopia, they inject their modern sensibilities and lack of rehearsed predictability, into this town. Soon everyone — starting with teenagers — are turning from black and white into color. Along the way they discover a whole range of emotion, conflictual circumstances, even violence, that had never entered into the town that was perpetually sunny and 72 degrees. In a final scene in which David and his soda shop-owner boss, Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), is hauled into court over a nude mural painted that Johnson painted on a public wall, David sums up what they are experiencing in an impassioned speech that brought tears to my eyes then (and now when I watched it again):

“See, I know you want it to stay “Pleasant” but there are so many things that are so much better: like Silly … or Sexy … or Dangerous … or Wild … or Brief … And every one of those things is in you all the time if you just have the guts to look for them. (pointing to the “colored” section of people in the balcony) Look at those faces back there. They’re no different than you are. They just happened to see something inside themselves that you don’t want to.” https://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Pleasantville.html

David’s speech and the movie as a whole summed up how I was feeling in that moment of calling— like I was being turned inside out by a force that I felt I could not control. That all at once I felt both less like myself and more like myself that I ever had before. Although the fantastic social and political commentary was remarkable, the immediate impact of the movie on me was personal: This newfound calling of mine was uncomfortably forcing me to become more of who I was, who I was created to be. I was turning colors and didn’t really know what to do about. The movie reassured me that I didn’t need to know all the answers or categorize all the feelings or make the transition pretty or painless. I needed only to accept it, and myself, for what it was.

Though I had not thought about it until I listed to that podcast recently, that change that happened against the backdrop of Pleasantville and other movies, probably formed the basis of my persistent interest in organizational, social and personal change.

What if we approached change as a process of becoming more of who we ARE rather than LOSING who we used to be?

Are you in one of these moments of change yourself? Let me help you reframe the questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *