Readers of this review should know that I have no memories of Graham prior to the 1980s, and that I have not read any biographies about him, although I have learned about his life and career in other ways over the years. Readers should also know that although I admire Graham, I do not consider him to be beyond criticism, and I have no desire to watch a hagiography about him.
Before I watched the film, I read a little about it and watched its trailer. From that reading and watching, I did not expect it to be fair to Graham. Now that I have watched it, I think it is unfair to him, but not as unfair as the trailer had led me to fear. I was pleased to see how fair and sympathetic it is toward him, considering it is not a Christian documentary. I learned much from it. I thought it was well worth the time to watch it. I found it so interesting and informative that I would like to watch it again.
I had thought it would be more of a biography than it is. How is it not a biography? Consider this fact: the last forty years of Graham's life--from 1978 to 2018--are addressed in around ten minutes. Ten minutes! Of those forty years, the film mentions the revelation in 2002 of what Graham said in a private conversation with President Nixon in 1972 about Jews in the American media--as if this is one of the few events in the last forty years of his life worth relating in detail. It does not mention the sermon he delivered in the 9/11 memorial service at the National Cathedral. I don't mind the relating of those controversial remarks, but, from what I've heard, I think that their revelation meant far less to Americans than that sermon did.
It is my understanding that every documentary of American Experience explains how its subject is related to and pertinent to America today. In other words, it answers the question: "Why should I, as an American, care enough about this subject to watch a documentary about it?". Apparently AE thinks that nothing or almost nothing Graham did in the last forty years of his life is pertinent to America today. I'll say more about this at the end of this review.
I noticed with interest the conspicuous absence of participation in this documentary by prominent evangelicals: most notably Graham's son Franklin. I have no judgment about this, because I don't know the reason for it. I don't know, for example, if AE asked Franklin to participate, or if they didn't invite him.
A two-hour documentary about Billy Graham from an evangelical perspective would be very different. It would include parts of Graham's life which evangelicals consider important from their perspective but AE apparently does not--including what he did in those forty years, his books, and his influence on evangelical education and scholarship, which I have read is not only admirable but considerable. It would also include the participation of far more evangelicals, and would mention more evangelists--in particular, the one to whom Graham was commonly compared when he became famous in the late 1940s: Billy Sunday.
I expected that what Graham said and did with respect to the civil rights movement would be, to AE, one of the most important parts of his life. I was not surprised that it was unfair to him in what it related in this regard. Yes, in the early 1960s Graham was one of the many white ministers who were sympathetic with the goals of Martin Luther King, Jr. but disapproved of his willful violations of the law to attain them. AE should have mentioned that it wasn't only white ministers who held that position: so did many black ministers. In fact, it was the official position of the National Baptist Convention, of which King was a member until 1961, when, frustrated by that disapproval, he left it and joined the newly-formed Progressive National Baptist Convention. (Notice that when Graham invited King to deliver a prayer at his crusade in New York in 1957, King was not known for violating the law, but for leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott--a boycott being an entirely legal type of protest.)
In my opinion, the most unfair moment in the documentary is when Anthea Butler (currently Chair of Religious Studies and Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania) says that Graham refused to advocate for civil rights merely because he wanted power for himself. Someone else in it says that Graham was drawn to "power" like a moth is drawn to a flame. Whether that is true, I don't know, but, from what I know of Graham, I don't believe it. Neither do I believe that he sought to engage with powerful and influential men because he was power-hungry. Rather, I believe he sought this for their sake, for the sake of the gospel, and for what he believed the good of America and the world. He wanted to tell everyone, from the lowest to the highest, to hear the gospel. He wanted to persuade powerful and influential and influential people to use their power and influence for the sake of the gospel. He wanted to use his own power and influence for what he believed to be the common good of America and the common good of the world.
My favorite part of the documentary, and the one which I found the most moving, is that about Graham's crusade in London in 1954--especially the testimony of John Guest, which made me shed tears. AE has posted on its website an article about his conversion which is entitled "What Does a Religious Conversion Look Like?".
To return to the question "Why should I, as an American, care enough about this subject to watch a documentary about it?": AE's answer is that because of Billy Graham, evangelicals are an active and influential group in American politics. I myself do not think they have made the case for this. Although Graham was active in politics, and urged evangelicals to vote, I consider him to be neither the father, nor the grandfather, nor the godfather, of the mass movement of conservative evangelicals in American politics. I think Jerry Falwell, Sr. deserves such a distinction.
Lastly, I should mention what I think should be the most troubling aspect of this documentary to a Christian. Regardless as to whether AE is right about Graham's role with respect to evangelicals being active in politics today, what does it say that they think that this is the most important part of the legacy of the most famous and influential evangelical evangelist of the 20th Century?
Is it not because for over forty years, American evangelicals have been and continue to be known foremost not for the gospel, nor for evangelism, nor for their love of God, nor for their love of Jesus, nor for their love of one another, nor for their love of others, nor for their charity--but for their engagement in politics?
Yes, it is. Which prompts the question: Is that fair? Do they deserve to be known that way?
To which I would answer: Yes, it is fair--and, therefore, we know there is something alarmingly amiss among evangelicals in America today.