Friday, February 24, 2017

Black Movie Churches Month: The Black Klansman

Black Klansman (aka I Crossed the Color Line) 1966
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: The Black Klansman is an exploitation film. You might even call it a Blaxploitation film, though the main era of Hollywood’s African American films, starting at the time of 1971’s Shaft, were made almost a decade later. Blaxploitation films were genre films (cops, gangster, horror) that were mostly made during the seventies. Usually, African Americans were behind the camera in those films, but that’s not the case in The Black Klansman.

The crew behind the camera for The Black Klansman was rather inept. The film was written by Arthur Names, who also wrote Snakes: The Armored Warriors and Girl in Gold Boots (featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000). Ted Mikels, the director of the film, went on to direct the first two features in The Corpse Grinders series and four features in The Astro Zombies series, along with The Doll Squad (which I saw in a special screening at the Castro Theater in San Francisco for a special mocking session from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.) We are talking some horrible filmmakers here.

Back to the film. It’s certainly true to their exploitation roots. A black jazz musician in Los Angeles, Jerry,  learns that Klansmen in Turnerville, Alabama, firebombed a church, killing the man’s young daughter. He returns to Turnerville disguised as a white man and infiltrates the Klan to learn who killed his daughter and to seek revenge. (It should be noted that the disguise Jerry uses, a white man toupee to cover his ‘fro, is the lamest disguise since Clark Kent’s glasses.)

As an exploitation film of its time, it doesn’t miss any chances to show a couples in bed (mixed race couples!) and cleavage. There are fights (not well choreographed) and there is violence. But the film is “on the right side of history,” saying the Klan and segregation are bad. It even ends with an inspirational quote from John F. Kennedy urging us all to learn to get along.

But for the purposes of this blog, we’ll need to look at the one church in this film and the two clergymen.

The church in the film, the one that is firebombed, is St. Peter’s MIssionary Baptist Church. We do see a good crowd at the Wednesday night prayer meeting. Everyone there sings heartily “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  Before the bombing, we hear part of the pastor’s sermon, “We are lost sheep in the eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us rise and dedicate ourselves to His way. For Hs is the way of everlasting peace.” It was all very orthodox and not what you’d expect from a filmmaker responsible for 1964’s Dr. Sex.

After the firebombing of his church, the Reverend is impressive as he discourages violence, “More bloodshed is not the answer. Let us return to the church and rebuild. The Lord will show a way.” But he does work for justice, badgering the sheriff and the mayor to investigate the killings of blacks by the Klan. By the film’s end, he has successfully convinced Turnerville’s mayor to work for the good of all citizens, black and white.

White actor playing, Jerry, a black playing a white
There is one other “clergyman” in the film, and he’s not as inspirational. Jenkins is the “Kludd” or chaplain for the local chapter of the Klan. It is his job to “say the prayers that will keep people in line and fire them up.” We learn later that he certainly wouldn’t have been one of the men that threw the firebomb: “it’s against his religion,” we’re told. He only prepared the firebomb for someone else to throw.

Not surprisingly, the Klan has wretched theology, “If God had wanted us to eat, sleep, go to school and go to church with N#U($*s, He would have told us about it in the Bible.” (May I recommend Galatians 3:28?) And if they integrate, “May the Lord strike us dead!” (There are far better reasons for the Lord to strike some Klan members dead.)

And, of course, there are the cross burnings. This piece of symbolism has always baffled me, especially for Klan members who call themselves Christians (which sadly is a majority since they seem to have no idea what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ). Why do they make a ritual of destroying the primary symbol of the Christian faith? The Kludd says it’s “an emblem of devotion to principles, to serve and sacrifice for life.” Which still makes no sense to me. I think they just like to watch stuff burn.

So we’re giving St. Peter’s and its pastor our highest rating of four steeples and the Kludd of the Klan our lowest rating of one steeple. (Sometimes I wish we had a way of giving out negative steeples.)

(If you should be interested in watching this film, which can be enjoyed best as a historical curiosity, on Amazon it’s free for Prime members and can also be found at Youtube.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Presenting the First Ever Golden Steeple Awards

Movie Churches Award Night 2017
Award shows make you wait until the end of the night to find out the winner of the Big Awards, but we don’t do that here at Movie Churches. We’re going to tell you in the second paragraph the winner of The Golden Steeple of 2016 for the Best Depiction of Churches/Clergy/Faith in a Nominee for the Oscar for Best Motion Picture. This is the first year of the award, which honors the most attractive depiction of a Movie Church.

And the winner is… Hacksaw Ridge!

Now that you know who won, perhaps you’d like to hear about all the nominees (which just so happen to be the same films nominated this year for the Best Picture Oscar).

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during World War II who fought to go into battle as a medic. His church, Seventh Day Adventist, is seen only briefly. We see him doing chores at the church as the choir practices, but throughout the film Doss’ choices are made on the basis of his faith. And they are often difficult choices with hard consequences. Doss questions God and His Word, but continues to be faithful, resulting in a truly amazing work of grace. (It should be noted though, that the film gets one church detail very wrong. There’s no way a good Seventh Day Adventist of his time would go on a first date to the movies. That’s like a Southern Baptist of the time taking his sweetheart to a bar. Wouldn’t happen.)

Hidden Figures would probably be first runner up for the Golden Steeple. It’s another historical story; in this case, it’s about the African American women who played a crucial but previously unheralded role in the space race of the early 1960s. There are a couple of scenes in what seems to be a Methodist church which the women mathematicians attend. The pastor of the church is quite supportive of the civil rights movements from the pulpit, lauding the accomplishments of his congregants. Big bonus: the church is depicted as a great matchmaking location.

No mention of the Golden Steeple nomination?
Fences, based on the classic August Wilson play about troubled domestic life, also has a strong church presence. Hollywood is much more comfortable with churches in historical dramas. Churches are also much more likely to be shown in a positive light when the film deals with African American characters. Rose (Viola Davis), the wife and mother in the film, finds strength and comfort in her local church. Her husband, Troy (Denzel Washington), speaks reverently of Scripture but implies that pastors are money grubbing. The film also has a pious, almost saccharin, religious ending.

Moonlight also has an African American character that speaks well of the church and Scripture. Unfortunately that character, Juan (portrayed by Mahershala Ali), is also a drug dealer. In this coming of age story about Chiron, a bullied boy growing up gay, his friendship with Juan and Juan’s girlfriend provide him with rare glimpses of kindness and compassion.

No, Bridges does not play God
Hell and High Water, a story of brothers who rob banks to pay the mortgage, doesn’t have any scenes in churches, but we see the exteriors of churches often in the small towns where the story takes place. The two Texas Rangers pursuing the brothers discuss their faith, and the Native American Ranger surprises the Ranger played by Jeff Bridges with his orthodox Christian faith.

Lion is the true story of a Indian boy (not Native American), Saroo, who is separated from his family and then adopted by an Australian couple. As an adult, he searches for the family he lost as a child. We don’t see any Christian churches in the film, but as starving child, Saroo, finds nourishment from the food offered to Hindu idols. (I don’t think the Apostle Paul would have any problem with that.)

Arrival, the story of the reaction of nations to alien visitors from space, has a single reference to a church. The scientists attempting to communicate with the aliens hear a news story about the demise of hundreds in a “church” that is actually a suicidal cult.

Again, the Golden Steeples are snubbed
Manchester by the Sea has an interesting and mixed take on churches. Lee (Casey Affleck), the emotionally tortured protagonist in the film, explains to his nephew Patrick that as Catholics, they’re Christians just as much as Patrick’s newly “born again” mother. The Catholic Church is where ceremonies take place -- weddings and funerals. However, the Church seems to provide no spiritual comfort for Lee. And -- as often happens in current films -- it goes without saying that the Born Again Evangelical Christians (Matthew Broderick and Gretchen Mol) are judgmental jerks. Though Matt’s home is decorated with Christian bookstore knickknacks, he has no problem with “living in sin” with Gretchen.

And finally, La La Land, the probable winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, has no Movie Churches at all. The story of an actress and a jazz musician seeking stardom doesn’t seem to have any interest in spiritual things. As some have commented, the movie does seem to capture contemporary Hollywood’s values of placing personal fulfillment and fame over even romantic love (let alone God’s love).

So even if Mel Gibson, Andrew Garfield, and the rest of the cast and crew of Hacksaw Ridge are overlooked on Oscar night, they can take comfort in being the winners of the first ever Golden Steeple. (And whenever they want to come to Fresno to collect their award, I’ll construct one and roll out the red carpet.)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Black Movie Churches Month: Woman, Thou Art Loosed

Woman Thou Art Loosed (2004)
“Wasn’t your picture on the cover of Time Magazine with the question, ‘Is this man the next Billy Graham?’” Someone asks T. D. Jakes this question near the beginning of the film Woman Thou Art Loosed, which is based on Jakes’ self-help novel of the same name.

Jakes and Graham have a number of things in common. Obviously, they’re both preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both have preached to thousands of people in their day. Both have taken advantage of a variety of media, -- writing books, speaking on the radio, and appearing on TV. With the production of this movie, both have appeared in a feature film.

World Wide Pictures is a subsidiary company of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and their policy was that the famed evangelist would, in some manner, appear in every film. Whether the film was about a troubled teen or a businessman in a midlife crisis, the protagonist would eventually find his or her way into one of Graham’s evangelistic crusades or stumble across a crusade on the TV dial. No matter how awkward the transition, Graham’s Gospel presentation would be jammed into the narrative. (Thankfully, an exception was made for the Holocaust drama, The Hiding Place.)

In T.D. Jakes’ drama, the protagonist,  Michelle (a victim of sexual assault, a drug addict, and an ex-con) isn’t the only person who goes to the revival at Jakes’ church. It seems like the whole city is there, including the man that sexually assaulted Michelle. Also, Jakes’ preaching seems to be the only thing on television, including on the sets at a strip club and in the drug dealer’s den. The radio seems to play only ads for Jakes’ revival. Not only that, but Jakes plays himself in the film as the pastor Michelle shares her story with while she’s in prison.

The film opens with Jakes preaching in his church, in a classic African American lyrical style, “I believe that God can set people free, even me! You’ve got to come DOWN out of the balcony! Backslider! I’m talking to you! You need a good anointed church like this so you can be healed!”
His preaching is backed by a powerful choir as he urges everyone to come to the cross to be made free. The film certainly opens with a bang.

t is interesting that though the film tells a fictional story, it seems to feature actual church services in progress. The actors seem to be interspersed with actual congregants in worship. And the church is filled to capacity. When Michelle comes to the revival meeting, an usher first warns her there is no room. “The fire marshall won’t allow more,” he tells her. When she protests, another usher assures her there’s room “in the usher area or the balcony.” It’s always good to see the ushers on the ball, trying to meet people’s needs.

The single negative thing the viewer notices about the church is that Michelle’s mother, Cassey, is a member. Cassey’s boyfriend Reggie had abused Michelle when she was a little girl.. When Michelle mentions that assault to her mother in the church, Cassey rages, “Don’t bring those lies about molestation into the church!” (I perhaps should have said that Cassey and Reggie’s presence at the worship service is a negative thing for Michelle more than for anyone else. They, like each of us, need the Gospel message Jakes presents from Luke 13, the story of a woman healed after years of suffering. The message also serves as the title drop.)

Not only does the church in the film seem to be a place where God’s truth is presented in a loving and healing fashion, Jakes himself comes across very well in the film. Michelle is astounded that a man of his stature would come to visit her in prison. In fact, Jakes (in real life) has made prison visitation a regular part of his ministry. (Jesus’ command to visit the prisoner is, I’m afraid, greatly neglected by many in the church. Even worse. It’s ignored by many in the clergy.)

Jakes’ work in prisons led him to be concerned about the abuse of children and women that leads to many other social ills and sins. I might argue with some of the statistics used in the film (“one in three women has been sexually assaulted” is a statistic that has been widely disputed),  but there is no doubt the sexual abuse of women and minors is a serious issue the church should address and often does not.

It is a pleasure to know that the four steeples we give to this Movie Church could probably also be given the real church depicted in the film.

(The director of the film, Michael Schultz, was also the director of a couple of cult classics, Carwash and The Last Dragon along with the ignominious flop, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which starred the Bee Gees as the Beatles.)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Black Movie Churches Month: Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country (1995)
The voice of a preacher can make a difference. A droning monotone can put people to sleep. A nasal tone or a squeaky voice might keep people from taking the message seriously. Who could listen every week (without laughing) to the Impressive Clergyman with a lisp from The Princess Bride or the malaprop laden liturgy of Father Gerald from Four Weddings and a Funeral? How much better if a preacher is gifted with a rich, deep tones, a voice of dignity. Say, the voice of James Earl Jones. Yes, imagine the voice of Darth Vader, Mufasa, and “This is CNN” reading Scripture.

Jones plays the Reverend Stephen Kumalo in 1995’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the second film version of the acclaimed 1948 novel by Alan Paton. (The first version was made in 1951 featuring an early performance by Sidney Poitier.) The novel was written at the same time that the formal policy of apartheid was being established, but blacks of South Africa were already being treated quite poorly. This version of the film was made just as the policy of apartheid was ended in 1994.

Rev. Kumalo is the pastor of a small congregation in rural South Africa. As the film opens, a young child brings a letter to the pastor. Before opening the letter, the pastor has his wife feed the child. The letter waits even longer until his wife finally opens it to find that the letter is from another pastor who urges Kumalo to come and help his ailing sister in Johannesburg.

Kumalo’s rural church is a humble place, decorated by a simple wooden cross. The pastor has a simple home. Nevertheless, all in his community seem to treat him with reverence and respect, referring to him as “umfundisi,” the Zulu word for pastor. Even the white people in his community seem to respect him. You can see why he hesitates to leave this relatively safe place for the big city, but he must go because not only is his sister in Johannesburg, but also his son, Absalom. (It is baffling why any minister would give his son such a name, the name of King David’s rebellious though beloved son.)

Kumalo is welcomed into a mission home by a group of clergy, with both black and white pastors dwelling together, dining together. These pastors obviously greatly respect the Reverend Kumalo and his ministry. He also finds his brother, who greets him much less warmly. His brother believes the church has done nothing for the blacks of South Africa, and that politics provide the only hope for blacks of the nation. (It is interesting that two of the greatest opponents of apartheid, men who helped bring it to an end, were a politician, Nelson Mandela and a clergyman, Bishop Desmond Tutu.)

We see another side of Kumalo when he finds his sister, Gertrude. He discovers she has become a prostitute and a seller of liquor. He goes into a tirade, screaming at her as a harlot. But others calm him, and Kumalo eventually urges her to go back to the country with her son. At another time in the film we see another flaw in the pastor’s character: we learn of a time in his life when he considered having an affair. He fasted and prayed and withstood temptation and maintained a long and faithful relationship with his wife.

The real test of the pastor’s faith is when he learns that his son has been arrested for the murder of a white man during a botched robbery. Even worse, the man killed was had worked for the rights of blacks of South Africa. The pastor tries to fight for his son, but he also cares for the father of the victim.

So the pastor tries to care for both his son and those who suffered from the crimes of his son. He ministers to the woman who is pregnant with his child. He brings the woman to prison so his son can marry her, preventing the child’s illegitimacy. He does all he can to save his son’s life.

But he also reaches out the father of the man killed, James Jarvis (played by the great actor Richard Harris). He visits Jarvis, a rich and powerful man in his community, to confess that his son did the killing. The pastor expresses great sorrow for Jarvis’ loss, and Jarvis eventually accepts his kindness, giving a gift to the pastor’s church in his son’s honor.

So we’re giving the Reverend Kumalo our highest rating of four steeples (admitting that one steeple is probably due to James Earl Jones’ magnificent voice).

Friday, February 3, 2017

Black Movie Church Month: The Gospel

The Gospel (2005)
It’s good to see some continuity in film memes on into the 21st century. For example, you might think using “Hey Kids, let’s put on a show!” as a plot element would have ended with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland back in the 1940’s, but no! The film The Gospel, written and directed by Rob Hardy in 2005, still uses the show business method of problem solving.

The film is a retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son in the setting of a large urban African American church. Bishop Fred Taylor founded New Revelations Church and poured his whole self into its founding and growth. His son, David, grew resentful and jealous. David’s mother became ill while the Bishop was away at a conference, and though he tried to make it back home,  she dies while he is away. David blames him for neglecting his family, saying “She died and you were away with the church like always.”

David runs from home and eventually becomes a popular hip hop singer with such hits as “Undress Me.” He has a trusty agent negotiating a big contract for concert and recording deals. After years of being away from home, David gets a phone call from his father’s secretary. She tells David that his father is sick. David tells his agent he is going to have to go home for a few days.

Bishop Taylor has prostate cancer. He appoints one of the pastors on staff at the church to succeed him: David’s childhood friend, who went through the church’s training school and has since become ordained. The Reverend Charles Frank is played by Idris Elba. (Elba had also recently played the drug dealer Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire, one of television’s great performances and characters. Stringer was no Reverend.) Before Rev. Frank was chosen by Bishop Taylor, he had been fascinated by the idea of joining Divine Gospel Ministries. “You got it give it to ‘em, they’re doing it big; radio, TV,” he says. “They’re the allstars of the Gospel Game.”

It’s a strange idea to me, that Bishop Taylor should be able to chose his successor. I know denominations like the Methodists or Catholics where the mucky mucks in the denomination choose the pastor, and Baptist and independent churches where the denomination votes for a pastor, but for a pastor to just anoint someone is foreign to me.

The Rev. Frank seems to be a proponent of the Prosperity Gospel, preaching, “If God blesses you with the money to buy that car and that ice and that bling -- rejoice and acknowledge where it came from.”  He argues that the church needs new facilities, “We can’t preach about prosperity and blessing if we don’t look the part.”

Bishop Taylor agrees with the plan to build a new church. He helps get a loan to build, but the church first needs to raise if they can raise $150,000 for a down payment. (Myself, I’m not such a fan of a church being millions of dollars in debt.) But how will they raise the down payment? That’s when David steps in. He’ll use his show biz connections to bring in Gospel singers to put on a show to raise the money for the down payment.

David decides to hang around for a bit and not rush back to his concerts and record deals. He pushes to keep things the way his father ran things. The Rev. Frank doesn’t like this, and he doesn’t like the singer of “Undress Me” trying to take a leadership role in the church. After all, the Rev.’s the one who stuck around and didn’t run off.

But David argues that the Rev. Frank shouldn’t be making big changes arguing, “This will always be my father’s church!” (I would think it should be God’s church, but that’s me.) A struggle ensues to see who will rule the church.

The movie ends with a reading of the story of the Prodigal Son, making it explicit that David is the younger brother and the Rev. Frank is the older brother. (And I guess the Bishop Taylor is supposed to be the Father from the parable, but with his death and all, the parallel to God from the original story doesn’t hold up so well.) Eventually, there is reconciliation.  

So how does New Revelations rank as a movie church? Not being a fan of the Prosperity Gospel, because Jesus didn’t seem to care about having the latest chariot, I can’t rate the church high for its teaching. The squabbling of the leadership in the church doesn’t help much either, although the bishop’s secretary does her best to demonstrate servant leadership. I do appreciate the acknowledgement that churches aren’t perfect, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

There is something about the church that gets it at least an extra steeple: the music. The church has a great choir, and they even have a sign language interpreter at worship services.The film opens with a soulful rendition of “Awesome God,” and there is good music throughout. I would probably come back to a church that might have Kirk Franklin or Yolanda Adams singing on a Sunday morning. In the extras to the DVD for The Gospel, gospel Singer Yolanda Adams says that often, when people won’t listen to the Gospel spoken, they can’t escape the Gospel sung.

Maybe people seeing the film will at least hear about Jesus in the music. That’s what pulls the Movie Church in the film up to a generous Three Steeples.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Welcome to Black Movie Churches History Month

In honor of Black History Month, we’ll be featuring black movie churches at this site. Not African American movie churches, because at least one of the churches will be an African church. (We hope to avoid such mistakes common in the press, such as referring to Ruth Negga, nominated as best actress this year for the film Loving, as an African American woman even though she’s not American -- she’s Irish and Ethiopian.)

Last year there was quite a brouhaha over the lack of racial diversity in the nominations for the Academy Awards. The omission of Selma in 2015 from the nominees for best actor (and most of the other major awards) led to the hashtag #Oscarssowhite. The controversy seems to have died down a bit this year, with a record number of six black actors nominated in the acting categories. Barry Jenkins has been nominated for best director for Moonlight. He’s only the fourth black director to be nominated for an Oscar (none have yet won). Four out of the five entries in the documentary feature category are films made by people of color about people of color (Ava DuVernay is the first black woman nominated in the category, for 13th).

Three of the nine features nominated for Best Picture, Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, tell stories about African American characters.

Hidden Figures even features a more than decent Movie Church. Later in the month we’ll be looking at all the all the films nominated for Best Picture and discussing whether or not churches are featured in the films, but before that, look for the first of our Black Movie Churches on Friday: the 2005 musical drama, The Gospel.