A young boy from Monroe, Ga., began his life with the film industry by tearing tickets at a theater in town. Part of his job included climbing the outside stairs that led to the balcony, where he collected tickets from people of African-American descent so they could enter a segregated section of the theater to watch the movie—a memory that stayed with him throughout his life of civil rights activism. His passion for film and for advocating for the marginalized have converged many times throughout the Rev. James M. Wall’s varied and illustrious life, a life that is in its 9th decade, but which is still characterized by service and volunteerism.
Early Years in Film
Please don’t ask Jim to name his favorite movie. “I can’t really do justice to that question,” he says with a smile. “A favorite film, or a film I’d watch over and over again, or a film I would take with me to a desert island, or a film that impacted me most? It’s a broad question with a variety of answers, depending on meaning.”
Jim has always appreciated movies as entertainment, but he learned to appreciate film as an art form while in graduate school at the University of Chicago. He acknowledges that most movies are made purely for commercial reasons, but others stand as works of art. “Everyone thinks, ‘What is this film about?’ But if you study it long enough, it is something else. It is the era. It is the vision of the director. What did he or she want to say to us?” Jim says. “’It comes down to what the film “is,” as well as what is it “about.” What is the dynamic of the emotional input of the artists who made the film?”
Many of his academic studies gave him a deeper appreciation for movies as art. Fast forward several years later, and Jim, an ordained United Methodist minister and editor of Christian publications, found himself in an important place in the history of film in America.
“Jack Valenti, who was president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said to me, ‘We could not have sold the companies on agreeing to a rating system without the support of the churches.’ Valenti asked the National Council of Churches to help develop the movie rating system we have today,” he says.
Jim was appointed by the council to attend ratings appeal meetings in Hollywood. “That’s one of my proudest accomplishments, being part of a system that avoided government censorship through voluntary film industry ratings.”
The Art of Retirement
Jim and his wife Mary Eleanor have many accomplishments for which they can be proud. Their lives of service have woven their names into the foundations of many important landmarks and events, both global and local. They have mingled with world leaders and celebrities, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Jimmy Carter, to Academy-Award-winning actress Helen Mirren. They’ve done their part in making art available to the public, helping to build libraries as far as Palestine and as close as Elmhurst.
In 2012, Jim and Mary Eleanor left their home of almost 50 years to move to Park Place of Elmhurst. “It’s a mile away from here,” he says, “so we kept our doctors and we kept our city. That was part of the attraction. To move away is good for some people, but we were happy to stay here, and we’re very happy we moved to Park Place.”
Shortly after their move, Life Enrichment Director Lisa Stoik found out about his background and invited him to help select movies for Park Place’s weekly movie night. Of course, he was happy to oblige. “Then after a while, she suggested that I select the films.”
Choosing a film is a process that is more complex than simply picking a DVD from a shelf. And Jim also emphasizes that this is not a work he does alone. “It’s important to note that I’m part of a team here,” he says. “There’s Lisa, who’s the chief. Then we have an IT specialist who does the projection. And I have a team of people who preview films to help me decide which ones to choose.” Lisa emphasizes the importance of the IT specialist Grayson Haller, another Park Place resident and faithful volunteer. The activity truly is the result of many people’s time, efforts, and talents.
Once the weekly film is selected, Jim works to build the audience. The Park Place newsletter features the teaser description James writes about the upcoming film, and he hopes it entices people to come watch. Then each Sunday night, 35-55 people attend.
The volunteer hours Jim spends on this project are a bit of a labor of love for him. It’s his way of bringing more art to Park Place, and perhaps helping people expand their taste in film. And for him, he has seen how life seems to imitate the art he appreciates, even when life doesn’t happen the way we’d planned.
“It would be nice to watch films all the time that are just happiness, happy endings, everyone gets what they want,” he says. “But real life isn’t like that. Real life is full of successes and failure and ups and down and life and death, and that’s one of the things I like about film. Sometimes you watch a film, and you are at a point in your life when you can really relate to what you’re watching.”
For Jim, that has meant losing loved ones over the years, feeling discouraged by world events, and all of the other happenings that are part of the process of life. But it also includes a wealth of happy times, including 65 years of marriage to a woman who values volunteerism, civic duty, and art the way he does. Mary Eleanor has helped bring Park Place residents a fascinating lifelong learning opportunity through a program called “The Great Courses.” She and another resident, Bob Parker, coordinate courses taught through video by a professor, three lectures a week for two months. Often, Jim will plan his films to coincide with what the course subject is. For instance, the summer course subject was the American West, so one of Jim’s movie choices was “The Man from Laramie.” Together, they continue to use their time to enhance the lives of their neighbors during their retirement, just as they did in their earlier years.
“Her volunteer work is certainly equal to my own,” Jim says. “She was the co-founder of the DuPage Foundation, a non-profit group that raises money and makes grants to organizations and individuals who apply for support. She also created the Senior Home Sharing project in DuPage County.” Senior Home Sharing provides seniors an opportunity to live independently in an affordable, family-style home. Her work has helped improve the quality of life for many people in her community.
Looking at the lives of Jim and Mary Eleanor, and the impact on those they’ve touched, we see an abundance of true splendor in the world around us—on the walls, on the screens, and in the hearts of those like the Walls who give of themselves to make the world a beautiful place.
Jim is one of many volunteers who make our Providence communities a better place. If you’d like to volunteer, you can apply here.