When filmmaker Linda Midgett first heard of Larycia Hawkins, a black political science professor at Wheaton College, she didn’t give the circumstances a lot of thought.
It was December 2015, and anti-Muslim rhetoric dominated the headlines. On Dec. 2, a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, had left 14 people dead, and a candidate who would go on to win the presidential election the following year had floated the idea of a ban on Muslim immigrants into the United States. To demonstrate solidarity with Muslim women, Hawkins posted a photo of herself to Facebook with the caption, “I love my Muslim neighbor, because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity … we worship the Same God.”
“I had just moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which is where I’m based with my family now, a couple of months earlier, and I remember sitting in my office, and this little blurb popped up and said a professor at Wheaton was wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women,” Midgett told The Daily Times this week. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ It felt like a (Christian) thing to do on her part, and I didn’t think much of it. But two days later, I was at my computer again, and I started seeing this flood of news articles coming in because it had stirred up a huge controversy.”
Within days of the post, Hawkins was suspended by the Wheaton administration, which went on to propose terminating her tenure. Students demonstrated both in support of and against her, and Twitter culture weighed in as well, with Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader and son of the late Billy Graham, expressing his scorn. At a time when contemporary polarization in American society was just ramping up, the controversy became a full-fledged conflagration that seemed ripe for Midgett’s camera, she said.
“Because it was a controversy involving my alma mater, I was going to follow it for that reason, but then as I really started reading about it, I became obsessed by not only with what was happening, but why it was happening,” Midgett said. “What intrigued and disturbed me was how polarized alumni were over what was happening. People were in an uproar, and I didn’t understand why, and I wanted to figure that out.”
The result is the documentary “Same God,” which will be screened on Tuesday at the Clayton Center for the Arts as the first film in this season’s Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers offerings. Midgett will be on hand for a post-screening question-and-answer session, and she hopes that viewers will come to the event with the same open mind she had at the project’s outset.
“I really went in with an open mind and the spirit of a documentary filmmaker trying to uncover the truth, wherever that would lead me,” she said. “The film is reflective in some ways of my journey of understanding how all these things come together. I think people are surprised when they really see who she is, and by watching the film, even if they don’t agree with her, they feel really bad that this happened to her. Because even if you don’t agree, but you have empathy, that opens up an ability to have a relationship. That’s a door for people to walk through.”
Fostering conversations is something that’s been at the forefront of Midgett’s creative mission since she started out as a writer. As a sixth grader, she wrote chapters of a Judy Blume-style story that her teacher allowed her to read to the class, and she went to Wheaton (Illinois) with the intention of becoming a short story writer and journalist. After college, she moved to Atlanta and began working with a video crew that made corporate and educational videos.
“I have a very distinct memory: I must have been 23 years old, and I was on a boat, filming, and was having such a great time. I remember looking around and thinking to myself, ‘This is a job … and people will pay you to do this? I’m in!’” she said. “From then on, I’ve loved every aspect of filmmaking. I love interviewing people, and I love storytelling, so it just made sense to me to do this.”
“Same God” starts by asking the question: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same deity, as Hawkins’ original post states? However, it’s not a theological film, and only a handful of the film’s 95 minutes are spent discussing it. What Midgett found, she added, was that Christians who lined up both in support of and against Hawkins were drawing very different interpretations from the same set of Scriptures.
“It is very much designed as an invitation to dialog and empathy as opposed to being a treatise on theological questions,” she said. “The film is really an exploration of who she is, why she did this and how her faith motivated her, and then the repercussions of that. And in that, I sort of peel back the layers of the onion in regards to the issues of race and how people responded to Islamophobia and the idea of religious freedom.
“I make an effort to untangle all of these issues, but not with the intent of saying, ‘This is how you ought to believe.’ It’s not my effort to tell people how to think. It’s more of a window into this woman’s heart and really the impact that’s had.”