I’m not sure when I first learned about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but I know exactly when I first saw him. I mean, really saw him.
I was in college watching a documentary called “A Long Night’s Journey Into Day.” It told the story of four amnesty hearings during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post apartheid South Africa. About 15 minutes into the film, a sweet old man, possibly diminutive but for the authority of his gentleness, appeared in an interview. He said, “This process is not about pillorying anybody. It’s not about prosecuting anybody. It’s ultimately about getting the truth so that we can help to heal and also so that we may know what to avoid in the future.” Later in the film he appeared again, this time having my full undergraduate attention. He said, “We make the mistake of conflating all justice into retributive justice, whereas there is something called restorative justice and this is the option we have chosen.”
I’ve never forgotten those words. I could not imagine, as a young man, how justice could exist without punishment, without retribution. Yet as a human being, I knew implicitly how bittersweet justice was. How often in our lives is that which we most desire — to right a wrong — impossible to obtain? That thing just out of reach, or simply left off the table, feels almost fundamental to the pain we carry, the suffering that carves the contours of our identity. Justice, forgiveness, relief from pain — these are things that carry us in ways we cannot quantify. Possibly most painful of all, “I just want my child back.” Is that a feeling that retribution can ever satisfy?
Twenty years later, I’m still wrestling with these questions. They, and that man’s profound words, are why I made the movie “Mass.” The film is finished now, but with the death of the Archbishop, I find myself back at the beginning again. This time I have a new question: How did this man, human and fallible, find and sustain such wisdom and such compassion? This is a man that waited until age 62 to vote, and yet bears no resentment for the country that dehumanized him. Rather, he devoted his life to heal and unite that country. There is an easy answer. He is a man of God. But that’s simplistic, and what does it offer the rest of us who have different beliefs or do not believe at all?
Yes, he was a man of faith, but he was something greater. He was a man of grace.
Grace is a state available to all of us. What is it, exactly? Submit your definition here. I can tell you what it’s not, though. It is not resentment or anger. It is not divisive or exclusionary. It is not intolerance. It does not allow for a society or platforms where hate and blame have become endemic. The state of grace allows for forgiveness, and can hold conflicting orders of truth with equal honor. It is sustained by empathy and humility, which in turn is our interdependence; our need for one another. And that is exactly what the great man said: “We are different so that we may know our need for one another.”
These are all the struggles, themes and aspirations the characters wrestle with in “Mass” — the path forward made possible by the firm belief in the healing power of forgiveness. It’s become hard now to imagine how the film could have ever been made without the Archbishop and his profound voice.
At certain screenings, I had the privilege of meeting people who had been in his orbit. I told them, “I’ll die happy if he sees it.” Unfortunately, that will never happen, but I do wonder what he would have thought of it. I may not have realized it at times along the way, but I certainly know it now: the film is a tribute to him, and in so many ways, his. I’d like to believe he would have recognized where it came from and known my endless gratitude.
Rest in peace Archbishop, and thank you for your voice. May your life find its way into many more creations.
Fran Kranz is an actor and film director. His feature directorial debut “Mass” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released in October by Bleecker Street.
Human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu died on Dec. 26 at the age of 90.