Racism was a hot topic at the movies this weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The Hurricane, enjoying its first week of wide release, was lauded for its condemnation of the institutional racism that kept boxer Rubin Carter flasely jailed for 20 years. But this weekend's box-office winner was the less noble-minded comedy Next Friday, attacked by several critics as "a stupid, petulant exercise in racism" (Eric Lurio of the Greenwich Village Gazette).

Next Friday ($14.5 million)

The only Christian critic who weighed in on the surprise hit sequel wasn't happy with it either. Preview's Paul Bicking took issue with its "flood of verbal filth and condoned drug use," exacerbated by "the stereotyped behaviors portrayed by popular actors." Mainstream critic Lawrence Van Gelder of The New York Times criticized Next Friday in the same vein, asserting that it's "feeding a stereotype of blacks as shiftless layabouts interested mainly in recreational drugs and irresponsible sex."

Stuart Little ($9.7 million)

Since no new Christian reviews for the mouse tale are available this week, I'll insert a review of my own. Like most Christian critics, I was charmed by this film, which details the adoption of a talking mouse in a human family. My only beef with the movie is its somewhat unambitious storytelling—especially in light of the imaginatively plotted Toy Story 2—that eschews much of the source novel by E.B. White. But since the movie's made more than $100 million already and there'll most likely be some sequels, the series as a whole might pick up more aspects of White's story. And though the movie as a whole doesn't achieve much depth, I was impressed by a comment Stuart made that he felt "an empty place inside" him, despite his full inclusion into the Little family. He wants to know who his parents were and where he came from, and his search could easily be used to mirror a Christian's hunger to know our Father and Creator that can't be satisfied by earthly people, no matter how loving.

The Hurricane ($9.1 million)

Christian critics couldn't have been happier with The Hurricane, which details the true story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's wrongful imprisonment and eventual release, focusing on the boxer's change from a man who shuts out the world to one who can receive love from others. John Adair of Preview called the film "a great story of love and justice [that's] heart wrenching and inspiring." Movieguide elaborates: "The drama lies in the metamorphosis from darkness to light, and the spiritual analogies are acute, allowing Scripture to season and define Rubin's experience. The Hurricane reflects the Lord's redemption with dignity and care." Denzel Washington's performance in the title role drew unqualified praise from many critics including Movie Parables: "Words only serve to diminish the superlative work of Mr. Washington."

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But J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth felt that "Denzel has become typecast as the dignified, sophisticated, always-in-control black man," to the point that he diminishes the impact of the role. Parks was more impressed with the subplot of "an illiterate boy becoming a lawyer, [which] is the real inspiration in the movie." Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Hillari Hunter agrees, praising the story of this teenager, who was instrumental in the long crusade for Carter's freedom, as inspiration to "never give up fighting for what's right." The movie's liberties with the facts dampened the enthusiasm of the mainstream press—David Ansen of Newsweek criticized the inclusion of a fictional racist detective who's mostly responsible for Carter's downfall. "This melodramatic device," he writes, "succeeds in getting our blood boiling … but by putting the onus on one evil white man, it diminishes the systemic racism that kept Carter behind bars." But Charles Henderson of ARIL's Flames says the movie works despite these shortcomings. "Those who evaluate this film as a documentary will see only its flaws … This movie functions at the level of parable or myth, and it touches more fundamental questions of the heart and soul."

Girl, Interrupted ($8.2 million)

Christian critics were divided on this true story of Susanna Kaysen's stay in a mental institution during the 1960s, where she was sent after almost killing herself. Paul Bicking of Preview disapproved of the movie's obscenities and graphic sexual elements, but noted that "the story does reflect the confusion many young women feel and shows one way of working through problems." Movieguide disagreed, arguing that Susanna didn't actually work through her problems. "If Susanna's illness is merely the result of confusion confounded by multiple sins, then Susanna doesn't need treatment but repentance. Her therapy revolves around expressing her thoughts. Hence, she is a self-liberator."

The Green Mile ($7.6 million)

Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser offered a fresh opinion this weekend on what just became Tom Hanks's tenth $100 million film. He compliments the movie for the "motifs of good vs. evil [that] dominate, contrasting warm, selfless characters with others who personify humanity's ugliness." This contradicts most Christian critics' opinions, which found the good vs. evil theme a liability, manipulating the viewer's sentiments with caricatured people. Smithouser also praises The Green Mile because it "credits God with endowing miracle workers." This fits in with many of the previous reviews, which present the miracle worker as a Christ figure—although some dissenting opinions view the miracles as mystical supernaturalism without any direct link to God. Despite the uplifting moments he noted, Smithouser doesn't recommend the film because of its offensive elements—again diverging from most Christian critics, who found the language and violence harsh but appropriate for the anti-capital punishment stance.

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Rounding Out the Top Ten

Landing in sixth place is Galaxy Quest, which is enjoying strong word of mouth and repeat business. Christian reviewers have been enthusiastic about the inventive space comedy, which finds a race of aliens patterning their whole existence after a Trek-like TV show. Hollywood Jesus uses that context to examine our own interaction with cultural stories. "[The aliens] let story inform life. They were transformed by their own stories. In this sense, this film becomes a very profound statement and reflection of our own culture. … Our cultural myths and popular stories give us the context in which we live our lives. The stories we pay attention to really matter." World calls it "more entertaining than several of the [Trek] movie sequels," noting its content is "tamer than most sci-fi."

Two new reviews for seventh-place finisher The Talented Mr. Ripley cast the film as a morality play. The adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith thriller tells of a working-class stiff who is willing to murder to live the high-class lifestyle he observes. Art Hennessey of The Phantom Tollbooth says the intense film is a warning against covetousness, "a stern morality lesson masquerading as a sumptuous thriller, and … one of the best films of the year." For Hollywood Jesus' Kathleeen Bruce, the movie is a fine exegesis of James 1:15: "Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." Previous reviews by Christian critics were not so kind, finding the film rather creepy and without a moral compass.

The $60 million sci-fi thriller Supernova pulled in only $5.7 million for an eighth-place take, presumably from rubberneckers getting a look at the hulking wreck of a movie. The troubled production, which is essentially a special effects film released without the special effects, has left everyone involved washing their hands of it—even the studio declined to comment on it. I suppose there's no point to spin control when your movie's receiving reviews like the one from Mr. Showbiz's Michael Atkinson, who called it "a Frankenstein monster, with more obvious story patches, post-dubbed exposition, and missing money shots than most straight-to-video fare." No Christian reviews are in yet, although Preview and Focus on the Family promise them soon.

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Ninth-place finisher Toy Story 2 has enjoyed unanimous support from Christian critics, who have praised the film for its sharp humor, strong storyline, Biblical parallels, and clean fun. (Read our previous installments from Nov. 30, Dec. 15, and Jan. 12 for further coverage.)

No new reviews are available for Any Given Sunday, which landed in tenth place, so I thought I'd share my opinion of Oliver Stone's football epic. Stone's thoughts on the price of fame and the power of teamwork didn't seem very revelatory after umpteen sports movies, but the film nevertheless made an impact on me with the simple casting of Lawrence Taylor as a Miami Sharks linebacker. About ten years ago, when I ate, slept and breathed football, Lawrence Taylor was a member of the New York Giants, hated rivals of my Washington Redskins. I reacted with distaste at seeing him again—surprising me, since my interest in football dissipated long ago. I soon understood that the habits I learned as a fan—to hate people simply because of the color of their uniforms—were dangerous and long-lasting. Demonizing an opposing team like that is the same process by which we dehumanize other races, other sexes, or other religions: setting up an us/them relationship that leads to antagonism. I walked away better understanding the danger of letting people become icons apart from the content of their character.

Steve Lansingh is editor ofthefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.