Now that you're past the sensationalist headline, let me ask a question:
When was the last time you had a good, cathartic cry while watching a movie?
Last week at the Carter Center in Atlanta, I attended a premiere for the new HBO film, Mary and Martha (which also runs on the cable network April 25 in honor of World Malaria Day). The room was filled with top scientific minds and malaria researchers, many of whom have helped establish Atlanta (home to the CDC and previously the U.S. Office of Malaria Control in War Areas) as ground zero for global health. These folks are keenly aware of the statistics about deadly parasitic illnesses (in 2013, 3.3 billion people are at risk for being infected with malaria; currently, 90 percent of deaths from malaria occur in Africa), yet as they watched actresses Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn portray two moms who struggle to overcome their grief after losing sons to malaria in Mary and Martha, the auditorium was reduced to a pile of Kleenex and sniffles.
That's not to say Mary and Martha, a beautiful, Richard Curtis-penned travelogue shot mostly on location in South Africa, is an inherently sad movie. The film does -- and should -- have an emotional impact, especially on parents, because it deals with the sudden, tragic loss of a child. But the movie also evokes tears of satisfaction and joy when Swank's Mary turns her grief into political willpower.
The film features a scene in which Swank's character lobbies for malaria prevention funding during a Senate committee meeting on Capitol Hill, and should hit home with American activists and ONE campaign members who've spent the better part of a decade successfully hounding politicians to pursue Millennium Development Goal #6 (malaria deaths, by the way, have been reduced by 25% globally since 2000).
If you're someone who believes you shouldn't worry about malaria, a disease declared eliminated from the United States in 1951, you're partially right. You live in a country where you don't have to fear dying every time you get a mosquito bite. Yet, seeing Mary and Martha will make you care about how controlling and, ultimately, eliminating malaria from other countries yields a more productive, stable, and happy world for all of us.
Richard Curtis (best known to most of you as the writer behind Brit hit flicks such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually) has been doing his part to fight disease and poverty since the mid-1980s. That's when he, like many of us, was so moved by the images of the famine in Ethiopia and the grand charitable gestures of Bob Geldof that he "bought 20 copies" of Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas," marveled at the impact of Live Aid, traveled to Africa to see for himself, and went on to co-found Comic Relief, an organization that supports development work in 70 countries and has raised more than a billion dollars since 1985.
Although a 2005 TIME magazine article about his involvement with Live8 and the push to increase government aid to Africa labeled Curtis (along with Geldof and U2's Bono) as one of the "Pooh-bahs of Poverty", he assures his Mary and Martha script was based on personal travel experiences, not celebrity peer pressure.
"There's an autobiographical element in Mary and Martha of going from knowing nothing to wanting to do something yourself," Curtis says. "In the film, when Mary says, 'Can't we move to a smaller house and give our money away?' that section has been about the last 15 -20 years of my life."
Some may see Mary and Martha as a vehicle to promote foreign aid, but that doesn't bother Curtis. He "profoundly rejects" the notion that charities utilizing celebrities as mouthpieces -- whether as award-winning actresses in film such as Mary and Martha or onstage at concerts -- is a crutch, noting that a recent Comic Relief event featuring Adele raised 9 million pounds.
"If you walk up to anyone on the street and say, 'Give me a day of your time, and I can assure you it will raise 250,000 pounds and buy 25,000 malaria nets that will save lives,' I think it'd be one in 1,000 who'd say no."
It's unfortunate that it takes a film about a white American boy dying from malaria to hammer home the point to moviegoers that the lives of all children -- all people -- no matter where they live or the color of their skin, are equally valuable. Yet, Mary and Martha does just that. No mom will walk away from this film with a dry eye, neither should anyone else. So, this World Malaria Day, see the film. Cry. Then take action ... because you can.
Mary and Martha plays on HBO April 25 and on additional days this month; check your local listings for details.
For more of my interview with Richard Curtis, click here.
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