|Movie spotlights church's role in saga of homeless man
Dec. 15, 2006
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
The Rev. Cecil Williams, here with the choir of Glide United Methodist Church, plays himself in "The Pursuit of Happyness."
By Mary Jacobs*
In his 40-plus years at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San
Francisco, the Rev. Cecil Williams has met many of the homeless folks
who have come through the church's homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
But he won't forget Chris Gardner.
"He was one of the few men I've seen who had a baby with him at all
times," Williams recalled. "And I remember him because he had the gall
to say that, without a doubt, he was going to break out of the cycle of
Gardner's remarkable story is the basis of a new film, "The Pursuit of Happyness," which opened Dec. 15, starring Will Smith.
During the period in the 1980s shown in the film, Gardner stayed briefly
in Glide's homeless shelter. After he left, Williams said he didn't
hear from him until a few years later.
"Next thing we knew, he was in Chicago," he said. "He had started his own brokerage and he was a millionaire."
Gardner credits his success to confidence in his ability to eventually succeed and to the encouragement of his pastor.
"Cecil Williams would talk every Sunday about being able to walk on the
waters of life," Gardner recalled. "And he'd say that baby steps count,
too, as long as you're going forward. That's food for the soul."
Williams has since retired as pastor of the church but is still affiliated as chief executive officer of the Glide Foundation.
'Pursuing a dream'
Will Smith, who portrays Gardner, said at a recent press screening in
Dallas that the film "will forever hold a spot in my heart."
"(The film) is about, 'How do we do it? How do we keep pursuing a dream and stay encouraged?'" Smith said.
Williams plays himself in the movie. The church's choir, the Glide
Ensemble, also makes an appearance. Residents of Glide's homeless
shelter were recruited as extras for a scene at a worship service.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
Smith plays the role of Chris Gardner. Smith's real-life son, Jaden
Christopher Syre Smith, plays Gardner's son, Christopher, in the movie.
Gardner remains a member of Glide and returns four or five times a year to help in the shelter's kitchen.
An early draft of the film's script omitted any mention of the Rev. Cecil Williams. Gardner sent the script back to the writers.
"I told them, if there's no Cecil Williams, there's no Chris Gardner," he said.
Smith said being on location at the church brought the role home for him.
"We shot the scenes at Glide in the same places where Chris slept and
ate," Smith said. "Being there, the members of the crew and I felt the
spirit of what had actually happened there."
In preparing for the role, Smith said, "I asked myself, when would I have
broken in this situation? When would I have given up? For me, it was the scene in the bathroom."
The scene shows Gardner, just evicted from his apartment, spending a
night with his son sleeping on the floor in the men's room in a bus
Scenes like that, Williams hopes, will give moviegoers more empathy for
the poor. "You get a sense of some of the horrifying experiences a poor
person can encounter."
Trusting in God
"I was struck by the commitment that (Gardner) had to this idea of who
he was and what he wanted his life to be," Smith said. "He gambled
everything. He put his trust in God, and in the face of homelessness and
hunger he held onto that idea. That idea was food for him when he was
hungry and shelter for him when he was homeless."
Gardner said he was pleased with the way Smith portrayed him.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
"I feel that, spiritually, I did the right thing in making this movie," Will Smith says of his role playing Chris Gardner.
"What I figured out late in the game is while we were shooting for those
17 weeks, while everybody was watching Will, Will was watching me," he
said. "I think he's done his best work to date."
Williams said he also got to know Smith while the cast was filming at the church, and was impressed with the actor's character.
"I feel that, spiritually, I did the right thing in making this movie,"
Smith said. "The tool that God has given me is my artistry. I feel I'm
closer than I've ever been to doing something with that tool that will
leave the world a better place."
The film depicts Gardner, an African-American man, working to break into
a profession that was dominated by white males. If Gardner encountered
any racism, the film doesn't show it. Gardner said that was a conscious
"There's a bigger barrier beyond racial barriers," he said. "It's the
barrier of the human spirit, the barriers of possibilities, of what can
and can't be done. That's what the movie is about."
If viewers take anything home from the movie, Gardner hopes it's this:
"The cavalry ain't coming. You've got to do this yourself."
The film alters a few facts from the real-life story for dramatic
purposes. Gardner's son, Christopher, was a baby at the time; in the
movie, he's a 5-year-old boy.
Gardner also is shown as a natural whiz at Rubik's Cube, a popular
puzzle in the early '80s. In real life, Gardner has never worked a
Rubik's Cube; the writers used the device to convey his unusual talents.
Smith took 12 hours of lessons with Rubik's Cube champions learning to
master the puzzle. After 20 more hours of practice, he can solve the
puzzle in about two minutes.
Gardner said his determination to succeed should encourage church members who work on behalf of the homeless.
"The work that Methodists do makes so much of a difference in someone
making it or breaking it," he said. "A lot of times they don't get to
see that immediately."
He compared helping the homeless to gardening -- planting seeds, feeding and nurturing them.
"One day, things have blossomed, but it takes a long time sometimes," he
said. "If my contribution is anything, maybe I'm representative of all
the gardening all the Methodists have been doing for years."
*Jacobs is associate editor of The United Methodist Reporter. This story originally appeared in the Reporter.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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