Edna Spaulding (Sally Field)
Margaret, Edna’s sister (Lindsey Crouse)
Wayne, Margaret’s cheating husband (Ed Harris)
Moze, Edna’s hired hand (Danny Glover)
Mr. Will – Edna’s blind boarder (John Malkovich)
Written and Directed by John Benton, who was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas the setting of the film.
Available on Amazon Prime, Vudu
Places in the Heart is set in the small Texas town of Waxahachie in the midst of the Great Depression.
The film is unusual if not unique in opening and closing in church, with the congregation singing “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.” However, in the first scene, the congregation is incomplete, comprising only the white, upstanding citizens.
In the next scenes, we see that this town and congregation are broken and divided by sin.
The first sin is murder. The Spaulding family of four is seated for Sunday dinner, with the father saying grace:
Our Heavenly Father, bless this meal and all those who are about to receive it. Make us thankful for Your generous bounty, and Your unceasing love. Please remind us, in these hard times, to be grateful for what we have been given, and not to ask for what we can not have. And make us mindful of those less fortunate among us, as we sit at this table with all of Thy bounty. Amen.
The prayer is interrupted by gunshots, and Mr. Spaulding, who is the sheriff, rushes out to find a young black man named Wylie, “drunk as a skunk,” firing a pistol wildly. A final shot hits the sheriff square in the chest and kills him. The remainder of the film follows the trials of his widow, Edna Spaulding, in holding on to her family and her farm.
The second sin is race hatred. Shortly after Sheriff Spaulding’s funeral, the local Ku Klux Klan show up at the Spaulding house, dragging Wylie’s body, who has been lynched. Edna’s sister Margaret, who is condoling with her, chases them away.
Margaret herself, as it turns out, is a victim of a third sin, an adulterous love triangle involving her husband and her best friend Viola. As the plot develops, Margaret discovers the adultery and confronts her husband, who asks forgiveness, it seems, to no avail.
The townspeople are sympathetic to Edna at first but ultimately unhelpful, as exemplified by the local banker (and sometime KKKer) who advises Edna to sell her home and when she refuses, offers his blind and reclusive brother, Mr. Will, as boarder. Edna also takes on a black itinerant named Moze, who initially stole some cutlery but who ultimately helps her plant a cotton crop which saves the farm. And when a deadly tornado hits the town, both men rush to her and her children’s aid.
The “uppity” Moze, however, has stirred up the hatred of one of the Klansmen, and a delegation comes to the farm and beats Moze nearly to death, until they are stymied by Mr. Will, who recognizes them by their voices and names and shames them. Facing a bleak future, Moze parts ways with the family he has come to love.
This brings us to the climactic final scene of the movie. [STOP here if you so choose.]
The scene opens with Margaret’s unfaithful friend and her husband driving out of town. Viola has chosen to leave rather than confess her sin.
The camera turns to a half-full congregation, singing “Blessed Assurance” as they did in the opening scene. The preacher reads from 1 Corinthians 13, concluding “Love never ends.”
As the choir stands to sing and the minister intones the Words of Institution and the congregation begins to pass the bread and wine from person to person and pew to pew, something marvelous happens: the pews are now filled! The camera slowly pans each communicant: from Margaret and her now reconciled husband, to some townspeople including the banker, to Moze and Mr. Will sitting with Edna and her children, and finally to her husband and Wylie, who say quietly to each other “The peace of God.”
Places in the Heart, it seems to me, is not only about forgiven sinners but about a reconciling community, the dawning of the kingdom of heaven. To be sure, it is not a perfected community. Whites and blacks still worship in separate buildings, but Moze and Wylie are forerunners of the white-robed multitude standing before the throne and the Lamb (Rev 7:9).
Edna and her sister never speak about Jesus and blessed assurance in their daily conversation, but by making room in their hearts in a community of shared belief, they open doors for others to enter “the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb 6:20).
This is the vision and song of praise for All Saints Day:
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on his way.
Photo credit: “Places in the Heart” by vision63 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0