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.

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