Film Review: The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story (2019), Dir. Aneesh Daniel
The title character, Graham Staines (Stephen Baldwin), is an Australian missionary working in the eastern state of Orissa, India in 1999. His flock is made up of lepers, who are ostracized by most of society. These are those who the term “the least of these” from the Bible is referring to. Although medical practices have rendered them no longer contagious, the fear and loathing which they inspire in others makes their marginalized lives one of abject misery. Under the care and attention of Staines and his wife they live in an environment of acceptance and love where they can learn skills and work together as a community. This being a Catholic mission, there is obviously religious teaching. And this is where the conflict lies.
Xenophobic laws have been passed in reaction to Christian missionaries which include edicts against forced or coerced conversion. The suspicion that the missionaries are giving the poor and the vulnerable food or money to sell their beliefs is viewed as a threat to Indian traditions and as an effort to undermine their culture and way of life. Passions on this subject are running high in this state when the young, ambitious journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) and his pregnant wife are sent here to work for the local newspaper, whose editor is on something of a crusade against unlawful conversions. When Banerjee is given the assignment to infiltrate Staines’ operation to unmask illegal practices, he embraces it eagerly believing he will be exposing bad behavior, performing a service to the community and enhancing his career.
The more involved he gets, the less convinced he is that there is any malpractice. All he sees is unconditional love and tireless devotion from Staines, his wife Gladys and two young sons. He is under increasing pressure from his editor who holds his job hostage to finding negative proof. Joshi’s perpetually knitted brow registers his conflicted emotions on what he is seeing and is tasked to do. As tensions rise an unruly mob sets fire to the car where Staines and his two sons are sleeping, in a frenzy of enraged violence. They are burned alive. When this horrible act which brought Graham Staines’ story to international attention occurs, Banerjee finally gets his spine and refuses to spin the story to paint Staines as somehow deserving this hideous fate. His editor’s complicated personal motivations behind his antipathy toward Staines are a subplot. He does not want Staines remembered as a hero or a martyr.
Banerjee is finally able to do the good reporting which he misguidedly believed he was doing before. He reveals the truth about Staines work, exposes his papers coverup, and the nefarious behavior of those on the anti-missionary mission. The perpetrators are arrested and put in prison. Staines is widely praised and acknowledged as a hero of the people. Gladys Staines forgives the murderers and she and her daughter stay on and continue the work. She is awarded the Padma Shri award from the government of India and later the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice. She was able to transform the mission house into a full hospital for leprosy. It is a very Christian story.
The usual conflicts are somewhat heavy-handedly emphasized. The faith, hope, charity and forgiveness of the Christians contrasting with the suspicion, ignorance and superstition of the native population. The politics and power plays influencing ambition and money are all there, playing out with an overly intrusive musical score which sometimes swells too annoyingly to serve its purpose. Apparently Stephen Baldwin, who also produced the film has become a born-again Christian and started his own ministry, which would explain the exaggerated bias which exonerates Christian cluelessness in favor of piety and nobility of purpose. Nonetheless, it is a story worth telling and the Staines are worthy subjects.
You can watch a trailer for the film here