The Saint of Fort Washington July 15, 2017
Tim Hunter’s The Saint of Fort Washington (1993) aims to strip away the stigma so firmly held in place in our society. It puts a spotlight onto what many homeless citizens do during the day, but is more concerned with how they go about their lives when they aren’t being judged by the populace. Hunter appears acutely aware of the issues faced, and emphasizes that not even programs installed by the government to aid the homeless population can always protect them from the mean streets of the city.
He also underlines that not every homeless person is the strung-out junkie so many of us would like to believe. His main characters are Jerry (Danny Glover) and Matthew (Matt Dillon), and neither arrived at their current situation because of their own mistakes. Jerry is an army veteran whose chronic pain has left him incapable of working a steady job; Matthew, who is debilitated by bouts of schizophrenia, was able to live off paychecks given to him by the government, but with his apartment bulldozed on short notice, he thus has nowhere to live and no address to have the checks sent.
Jerry and Matthew meet one another just as the latter is being faced with tragedy, and Jerry, able to maintain good spirits despite his less-than-ideal living situation, decides to take the young man under his wing and become a father figure. By day, they make meager sums of money washing the windows of individuals stopped at intersections, hoping they’ll get paid rather than shooed away. By night, they sleep at the Fort Washington shelter, a spectacular complex that holds what looks like thousands of cots for the underprivileged. But as the film’s writer, Lyle Kessler, is quick to point out, the quasi-stadium is not the haven the local government clearly intended it to be: make it through the night unharmed by ne’er-do-wells and you should consider yourself lucky.
From there, The Saint of Fort Washington is generally plotless, save for a half-assed subplot that concerns the fort bully’s (Ving Rhames) harassment of our heroes. What it is is mostly a story of survival, one that concludes rather darkly but, in a way, realistically. Kessler and Hunter obviously figure that most of the homeless do not get the chance to experience a happy ending. Why give fictional characters a break when their real-life counterparts don’t get it themselves?
Glover and Dillon coat their portrayals in a deep-seated vulnerability that makes it easy to forget that movie stars are standing in front of us. Both could go for the broadened, emotionally jagged performances the Academy loves, but they instead amplify the bleak plights of their characters and enliven them naturalistically. We’re left with characterizations that hurt, and such is why The Saint of Fort Washington is so effective. It’s a minor feature, but it’s a compassionate, conscientious one. And cinema, after all, should spend more time giving a voice to the voiceless, not always to the fictional individuals who think and feel much more melodramatically than you or me. B-
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
ecause we’re taught from an early age that to be homeless is to be a living taboo, it’s difficult to know exactly how to respond to someone living on the streets. We’re essentially accustomed to treating a homeless man or woman as if they were hardly a human at all, rather a thing that makes us uncomfortable in that moment we’re stopped at a traffic light or waiting at a bus stop. Why is that? Why is it accepted, and practiced, to act as though a person who has lost everything, who has nothing to their name, is not worthy of our attention, our respect?