Friday, February 23, 2018

African American Movie Churches: Same Name, Different Stories

Let the Church Say Amen (2002, 2013)
IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) offers a synopsis for the 2002 documentary Let the Church Say Amen that reads, “In Washington D.C., one church becomes the symbol of a local community dedicated to one another” -- which is fairly accurate. The database also lists a 2013 made-for-TV movie Let the Church Say Amen and gives the exact same plot synopsis -- which is not at all accurate. (There was another Let the Church Say Amen, a docudrama from 1971, but I couldn't view it in time for this post.)
Here at Movie Churches we usually look at theatrical narrative films, but today let’s look at these two films with the same title, even though one was made for TV and the other is a documentary. Both are about African American churches (one fictional, the other real) and because of that, they fit in nicely with this month’s theme.
2013's Let the Church Say Amen is based on ReShonda Tate Billingsley’s novel of the same name. For years, Simon Jackson (played by Steve Harris), the pastor of Zion Hill Church, has paid much more attention to his church than to his family, and his family is falling apart. Though the Bible verse is never mentioned, the theme of this story is in First Timothy 3:5, where Paul gives instructions about choosing church leadership: “For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”
This is a difficult verse for a number of reasons. Most of the great leaders of Scripture, like Jacob or Eli the High Priest or King David, had problem children. Besides that, Christian theology teaches clearly that everyone is responsible for their own moral choices. God as a Father has many children who have gone astray.
I think that verse teaches that while children are in the home, church leaders should be loving fathers who provide material needs, kindness, support, discipline, and direction. Usually, kids will turn out well in such an environment, but there are no guarantees.
The film opens with daughter Rachel (Naturi Naughton) arriving late to Sunday morning worship, just before her father’s sermon. In voiceover, Rachel gives her backstory, explaining she’s a single mother. Her son’s father, Bobby, and his new girlfriend also attend Zion Hill Community Church -- the church Rachel’s father founded and pastors.
The choir sings “Tell Him What You Want” before Reverend Jackson begins his sermon, “God Can Bless a Hot Mess.” He describes the problems and depravity of contemporary culture, hitting on many of the seven deadly sins but assuring the congregation, “a mess can be cleaned up; it ain’t never too late for God to clean up your hot mess!”
We learn about the rest of the family. The mother and First Lady of the church, Loretta (Lela Rochon), has faith that God will work in her family, though they face great challenges. Her oldest son, David, has overcome a drug addiction but has a gambling problem and is unable to keep a job. Only the younger son, Jonathan, seems to have his life together. He’s just graduated from college, and everyone expects him to become engaged to the nice young woman he’s been dating for years. His parents plan for him to assume his father’s role as pastor after finishing seminary (Frankly, this idea of an inherited pastorate puzzles me, as if the pastor were king or ministry was a family business.)
But Jonathan’s life has its troubles. He might not want to follow the plans his father has for his life. He might want to see other women, and he might rather study architecture instead of going to Fuller Seminary -- but he’s afraid to tell his parents these things.
The real trouble in the film comes when son David is caught stealing the church funds to pay off his gambling debts. And when Rachel is arrested for physically assaulting Bobby’s fiancee. The church board is concerned and considers firing Reverend Jackson.
I have some questions about Rev. Jackson’s ministry myself. It seems that Zion Hill Church is a hotbed of gossip, with everyone talking about the pastor’s children and the children of other leaders in the church. The church leadership seems to be indulging in intrigue and infighting. It just doesn’t seem like a healthy place.
At the end of the film, Rachel stands in front of the congregation and pleads that they’ll allow her father to keep his job, arguing that he has been a living example of Jesus’ sacrificial life. She notes that her father missed important parts of his children’s growing up like school dances, sporting events, and honors ceremonies because he was attending to the lives of those in his congregation. To me, that shows that Rev. Jackson really should have been delegating more. He should have been there for his children, because they, too, are important in God’s eyes and they’re part of the congregation.
So I’m giving the church in the 2013 version of Let the Church Say Amen a rating of two Steeples out of four.

I’m glad to say the church in 2002’s Let the Church Say Amen is a good church, because it’s real. Documentarian David Petersen spent most of 2001 filming at the World Mission for Christ Church in a poor neighborhood of Washington D.C. (though there is no mention of the jet crashing into the Pentagon).
The church was founded in the 1970’s, by Dr. JoAnne Perkins, whose mother brought her along with her eleven siblings to the city, where life was a struggle for them all. While on welfare, JoAnne earned her doctorate in Special Education and purchased the grocery store that became a storefront church. At the same time, her brother Bobby slipped into drug addiction.
Through his sister’s ministry, Bobby came to trust in Jesus and overcame his addictions. He now serves in the church. The film documents Bobby preaching, leading singing, distributing food and clothing to the poor.
The film also examines the lives of parishioners. Darlene Duncan, the mother of eight, wants to become a nurse’s assistant and get off public assistance, but she only has a sixth-grade education and must pass a test to get into the program. We follow her progress, and with hard work, she passes that test and eventually finishes the program. She credits the pastor of her church, the parishioners, and God for getting her through. She says, “The big churches, they don’t care if you come back or not. But at World Mission everyone is somebody.”
David Surles was a homeless man whose life was turned around in Christ, and now he feels the need to give back. “Coming from the streets, you’ve got to be willing to go back to the streets.” He tells an addict on the curb, “Don’t give up on Jesus. He cares about you.” He dreams of one day owning a house, and we see him take the first steps on that path.
A more tragic story is found in the life of Cedric Fulmore, whose son is stabbed and murdered by a gang member. “My pastor was there in five minutes,” Cedric says. He becomes frustrated by the pace of the police in pursuing justice, but his faith in Jesus grows as he looks to Him for hope. Before filming was complete, his son’s killer turned himself over to the authorities.
The church offers hope to the poor of their neighborhood, bringing in doctors and nurses to provide needed health care, along with blood pressure and vision checks, but the members of the church consider their primary gift to the community is offering the blessing found in knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
As Brother Bobby preaches, “Blessings in not these clothes you got on, not your bank account, not that your belly is filled with black-eyed peas, but because your name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life.”

It is that kind of preaching, and that kind of service, that compels us to give World Missions for Christ Church our highest rating of four Steeples

Friday, February 16, 2018

African American Movie Churches: Comedians

Coming to America (1988) and Which Way is Up? (1977)

Any serious list of comedians from the last four decades would include the names Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Any amusing list of comedians would include them as well. Many critics call Pryor the greatest standup comedian of all time, and the financial success of Murphy’s films put him on the list of top ten money-makers of all time. Both have received the Mark Twain Prize for Humor from the Kennedy Center -- Pryor taking the first in 1998. And both have made films that feature clergy.

Murphy is credited with the story of 1988’s Coming to America, in which a pampered African prince, Akeem, comes to America (thus the title) to find his bride. Talk show host Arsenio Hall plays Akeem’s servant. Both Murphy and Hall play multiple roles.

One of Hall’s roles is Reverend Brown. Akeem asks a local where he can meet nice women in America (particularly in Queens, New York). He is told his odds are best at the library, at a church, or at the upcoming Black Awareness rally, hosted by Reverend Brown.

The concept of the rally is a little puzzling to me. All of the attendees seem to be African Americans, so you’d think they’d be aware of Blackness, but what do I know? Still, we soon learn that along with raising pigmentation awareness, they seem to be raising money for a local playground.

We see the Reverend Brown is the M.C. standing alongside a dozen lovely women in bikinis, and he gives a creepy little speech: “You know I didn’t come to preach to you today. But when I look at these contestants for the Miss Black Awareness Pageant, I feel good. I feel good ‘cause I know there’s a God somewhere. Turn around for me, ladies, please. You know there’s a God who sits on high and looks down low. Man can not make it like this. Larry Flynt, Hugh Hefner, they can take a picture, but they can’t make it. Only God above, the Hugh Hefner on high, can make it for you. Do you love him? Do you feel joy? Can I get an Amen? Don’t be ashamed to call on His Name. I don’t know what you come to do, but I come to praise His Name.”

So I guess we do end up with a bit of a sermon along with extremely obnoxious objectification of women. (He says about the contestants, “Woman, you look so good, someone should put you on a plate and sop you up with a biscuit.”)

The Reverend does make one other appearance in the film, at an engagement party of a kind. It’s the kind where the bride-to-be (or not), Lisa, had no intention of marrying her lazy, obnoxious boyfriend, Daryl, but he surprises her at the party with a proposal. (Lisa’s father was aware the proposal was coming...It’s why he threw the party in the first place.)

The Reverend Brown takes time out from leering at almost every woman at the party to encourage Lisa to wed Daryl, though he doesn’t seem to know either of them very well, saying,

“I want you and that young man to tie the knot. And pray for the help of the God that helped Joshua fight the battle of Jericho, and helped Daniel escape the lion and helped Gilligan get off the island.” (The audience, on the other hand, knows Lisa should not be with Daryl, but rather with Akeem since he’s the hero of the film.)

If the film were made in the current climate, the Reverend Brown’s attitude toward women would be even more severely judged (I hope). He did try to get that playground built, though, so I’ll allow him two steeples out of the possible four.

(In Coming to America, the prince comes from the fictional African nation of Zamunda. It just so happens that tomorrow we'll write about seeing a different film with a different fictional African nation 
in tomorrow's bar post.)

The Reverend Lenox Thomas in 1977’s Which Way Is Up? definitely deserves an even lower rating. Like Hall and Murphy in Coming to America, Pryor plays multiple roles in addition to the Reverend including an everyman named Leroy Jones and Leroy’s father, Rufus. (I found it interesting to learn that Pryor’s full name is Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, so his actual name includes the film’s pastor’s name.)

The film is based on Lina Wertmuller’s film, The Seduction of Mimi. In this version, Leroy is a working man thrust by circumstance into a battle between a business and a labor union. The Affiliated Farm Workers Movement seems to be primarily Hispanic and Roman Catholic, with images of the Virgin Mary prominent on their protest signs.

After accidentally joining the union (slapstick is involved), Leroy meets a beautiful union organizer, Vanetta (Lonette McKee). Leroy is married, but he falls in love with her and fathers her child.

Though Leroy has himself been unfaithful, he is outraged when he learns that his wife is also carrying another man’s child, and even more so when he discovers the father is the Rev. Thomas.He calls the clergyman “potbellied” among other vulgar and racially charged expletives that I can’t quote here (but if you know the work of Richard Pryor, you can make some accurate guesses). His wife, Annie Mae, says she went to the Reverend for spiritual comfort because she was lonely, and the Reverend provided more personal comfort.

Leroy goes to Thomas’s, the 7th Lucky Church of Eternal Salvation (the church sign promises a healing service every weekend). An all-ladies choir is singing, “Thank You, Jesus,” with the Reverend on guitar.

After their song, he launches into a sermon on sin and lust. “Sin and lust lead to high blood pressure! To tooth decay! You get all of these things when you sin and lust. I have no decay in my mouth because I don’t sin or lust. I must admit my lovely and devoted wife, Sister Sarah, had one cavity but that was from a childhood incident many years before she met me. But I cleansed her of her sin, and the cavity filled itself.”

Leroy seethes as he listens to the sermon and plots his revenge. He goes to Sister Sarah, for piano lessons and attempts to seduce her.

At first, she resists, but Leroy forces himself on her, and (ew) eventually wins her over. She tells him, “I’m not a total fool; she knows the Reverend cheats on her. She uses Leroy to get some revenge of her own.

Leroy goes back to church on the night of a healing service. The Reverend is confronted by a man with a crippled leg and says, “That’s a lot to ask for two dollars. I might be able to help you on Christmas Eve. Now go take a seat next to that blind fellow.”

Leroy says he needs healing. “You look pretty healthy to me,” the Reverend says, but Leroy continues.

“I need to confess,”

“Confess to the congregation, the Lord loves the truth,” Reverend Thomas tells him.

Leroy’s confession is, “You slept with my wife.”

The Reverend tells Leroy, “Sit down before I lay this glove on your [hindquarters].”

Instead, Sister Sarah stands and says “You have wronged this man, and wronged me too. But now I bear his child. An eye for an eye, a baby for a baby.”

Other women stand to admit they, too, slept with Reverend Thomas. The congregation chases him out of the church and into the street, where he’s hit by a tram and, in the words of Leroy, is “flat as day old beer.”

Dead or alive, we at Movie Churches are not at all impressed with the Reverend Thomas, and we give him our lowest rating of one steeple.

Friday, February 9, 2018

African American Movie Churches: For Better or Worse

The Preacher’s Son (2017) and War Room (2015)

Fans of the sitcom Family Matters probably didn’t guess that in a couple of decades Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) would be playing an irresistible ladies man, any more than they would expect Blossom to play a neurobiologist, or Screech to box Danny Partridge. Still, in The Preacher’s Son White plays Deacon Black, who seems to be sleeping with every single woman in the church (and with some who are married).

He’s not the only person in the church with questionable sexual ethics. Dante Wilson (Christian Keyes), the preacher’s son of the title, was engaged in a long term affair with the wife of another deacon (but that deacon is in a wheelchair, so the affair is totally understandable, right?).

The Preacher’s Son is based on Carl Weber’s bestselling novel of the same name, which tells the story of a prominent pastor, the Bishop T. K. Wilson (Clifton Powell) who is considering running for political office based on his platform of family values. Complication arise when the Bishop’s unmarried daughter becomes pregnant and his son begins dating a stripper named Tanisha (Drew Sidora).

Dante doesn’t know he’s dating a stripper, but everyone else in his world -- especially his mother, First Lady Charlene Wilson (Valarie Pettiford) -- seems aware of Tanisha’s history. In fact, when Dante brings Tanisha home, his mother criticizes her dress and tattoo (and by implication her character), but waits to call her a tramp until after she’s fled the house crying.

Dante’s relationship with his mother was already complicated. He wants to go to law school, but his mother expects him to take over the church from his father. In fact, she has somehow enrolled him in seminary without his knowledge. Dante, though, has already enrolled in law school without telling his parents.

This brings us to the strange process of succession in the movie’s church. Can the pastor’s wife choose the next pastor? The workings of First Jamaican Ministries are rather odd. The Bishop seems to be the ultimate authority in the church, but another minister in the church, the Rev. Reynolds (Anthony Montgomery) who’s scheming to take the church from him, challenges him by accusing the Bishop of fathering a child out of wedlock. The scheming minister’s plan is foiled when the newly married reverend is revealed to be the father of the Bishop’s grandchild.

If this all sounds like an overcooked soap opera… Well, yes, it is. But the unfortunate events of the film can actually happen in a church where the leadership has too much power with no oversight.

Though the film came out just last year, it already seems ages old in the age of #MeToo. The men in the film treat women as sexual objects. The only person in the film who seems to have a decent moral compass is the Bishop, but what kind of job is he doing if he’s unaware -- or unconcerned -- of all the sexual happenings among the leadership of the church?

His good nature keeps the film from getting our lowest ranking, but still, the church and clergy of The Preacher’s Son gets only two steeples.

You’d think from watching The Preacher’s Son that sexual temptation -- or temptation in general -- is irresistible. War Room shows there are tools to battle against sin, with the primary tool being prayer.

War Room was written and directed by Alex Kendrick, the creator (along with his brother, Stephen) of a number of successful Christian films. The film tells the story of Tony and Elizabeth Jordan and their daughter, Danielle, going through great difficulties. Though Tony is a very successful pharmaceutical rep, his job forces him to spend most of his time on the road, and he cuts ethical corners. The couple bickers most of the time they’re together, leading Danielle to prefer spending time at her friend’s house.

Change comes when Elizabeth, a real estate agent, takes on client with a home for sale, an old woman named Clara. When Clara shows her house, she mentions her favorite room, a closet she calls “the war room,” her prayer closet.

Clara is blunt about spiritual life in her conversations with Elizabeth from her first question: “Where do you say you attended church?”

“We occasionally attend Riverdale Community Church,” Elizabeth answers.

"You say you attend church occasionally, is that because your pastor preaches occasionally?”

Clara goes on to ask Elizabeth about her prayer life, whether it is hot or cold. Elizabeth reponds it is “somewhere in the middle,” and Clara serves Elizabeth a lukewarm cup of coffee to show what she believes God thinks of such a prayer life. Elizabeth soon decides to make prayer a priority.

Meanwhile, Tony seems to be going another direction in his spiritual life. In church, he seems to be scoping out an attractive woman when his Elizabeth nods a greeting her way. On a business trip, he flirts with a woman and takes her out to dinner. The woman asks Tony to her room, but as Elizabeth prays for Tony in her own newly-made war room, he suddenly comes down with severe intestinal distress before he can go with the woman.

A friend at the gym encourages Tony to go to church, and when he does, the pastor tells the congregation, “People think they can impress God. God looks for people who will seek Him with a whole heart.” (For what’s it’s worth, I should note this is a white pastor. Clara and the Jordans are African American. I mention this only because though the makers of the film are white, the cast is what makes this film fit into this month’s theme)

Prayer does turn around the Jordan’s lives. Tony comes to God and back to Elizabeth. Clara celebrates God’s answer to her prayer and Elizabeth’s. Clara’s devotion to prayer is even recognized by the man who buys her house, a retired African American pastor who served many years in ministry. “Someone’s been praying in this closet,” the pastor says as he and his wife tour the house.

“How did you know that?” Elizabeth asks.

“It’s almost like it’s baked in,” he responds.

We don’t see much of pastors and churches in War Room, but all we see is good, earning them four steeples.

Friday, February 2, 2018

African American Movie Churches: World War 2

Mudbound (2017) and The Negro Soldier (1944)
We’re beginning Black History Month with a film that many expected to get more Oscar acclaim than it received. Sure, 2017’s Mudbound received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Mary J. Blige), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Best Song (“Mighty River”), but many expected the film to be nominated for Best Picture as well.

Maybe the Academy members thought of it as TV rather than film because it’s from Netflix. But that doesn’t matter to us, because it has an African American church, and that’s all we need for it to be featured in this month’s lineup here at Movie Churches.

Mudbound is based on Hillary Johnson’s 2008 novel. It tells the story of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta during and after World War II. A black family, the Jacksons, barely scrapes by, making friends and enemies with the McAllans, a white family. Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks) is a Klansman who doesn’t like his family associated with “inferiors,” but his daughter-in-law Laura (Carey Mulligan) comes to depend on midwife Florence Jackson (Blige) as a servant and -- later -- as a friend.

The heart of the film, though, is the story of the families’ two sons, both of whom serve in World War 2. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) serves in the Air Force; Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) commands a tank in the Army. Their families are anxious as their sons serve. Florence says “Through those four years, I only prayed for him. God’ll forgive me.”

When Jamie and Ronsel return home to their families, they strike up a friendship that strengthens them both, but sets off great conflict between the families. In their service for their country, both men learned about manhood, and that race has nothing to do with a man’s worth.

The Jacksons find support in their church. For some reason the church building is never quite complete, just a wood frame, through the years, but the congregation seems joyful as they sing (“Do You See How They Done Me, Lord?”) and listen to their preacher (“One mornin’ we will shake these chains from around our feet,” he says).

Faith doesn’t seem to touch the life of the McAllans, though. It is an odd thing in our culture that the media seem much more comfortable showing church as a healthy part of life in black families but not so much in white families.

The church has long been central in the life of African American families, and it’s no coincidence that when Frank Capra was given the task of making a World War 2 recruitment film for the Black community, he set that movie (The Negro Soldier) in a church.

Though The Negro Soldier is called a documentary it is not all, strictly speaking, “true.” The U.S. military asked Capra to make a follow up to his Why We Fight with a film that would both encourage blacks to support the war effort and assure whites that blacks serving is a good thing.

The film opens with images of churches: churches in the country and churches in the city, wooden structures and stone cathedrals, eventually focusing on a neo-gothic building in an urban setting.

An African American soldier sings “Since Jesus Came into my Heart” with backup from the choir. The pastor (played by an actor and filmmaker, Carlton Moss) thanks the soldier for his singing and for his service. The pastor acknowledges the servicemembers in the congregation (there’s a woman in uniform in the congregation as well as several men) and announces he is going to depart from his text, ad libbing a sermon honoring the service of African Americans in the current conflict and throughout American history.

The pastor says he had just visited the USO where he saw Joe Lewis, which reminded him of the fighter’s championship battle. But, the pastor points out, now the battle is not just man vs. man but nation vs. nation. At stake is the United States.

Then the pastor, in his “impromptu” sermon, pulls out a copy of Mein Kampf, referring to it as “The Gospel According to Hitler.” (This confused me. Does the pastor always carry a copy with him?) He read aloud a passage about the inferior nature of “coloreds,” calling them “half apes.” The pastor argues that Nazis are evil and must be stopped.

He goes on to highlight the achievements of African Americans through the centuries, starting with Crispus Attucks, who died in the Boston Massacre, through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the building of the Panama Canal, and World War I. He notes the how the black Americans in that conflict were honored by the French, noting a memorial to 371st Infantry that was later torn down by the Vichy government.

The pastor then points out the contemporary achievements of African Americans in law, medicine, and education. (This film is said to have done much to inform people’s perception of the accomplishments of blacks in a variety of fields.)

A woman in the congregation interrupts the sermon to ask if she can read a letter from her son, who’s in the infantry (you can tell that this is a fictional scene because the pastor allows someone to take away from his sermon time).

In the letter, the son tells about his basic training. He mentions a speech from the chaplain, who tells the soldiers he’s not only there for religious services, but also to provide counselling for any problems the men may be experiencing. The letter tells about the hard work in training, but also notes they have time for sports and worship services.

After the mother finishes reading the letter, noting with pride that her son has become an officer, the pastor returns to his sermon. He encourages the congregation to continue the fight by supporting their men and women in service until they come victoriously into Berlin and Tokyo.

He closes in prayer, “Oh God, we thank you for this land our fathers built with a government of the people, for the people, that will not perish from this earth.” The service (and film) concludes with the congregation singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The America presented in each film is very different, though the time period is the same. Mudbound shows a country rife with prejudice and division. The America of The Negro Soldier seems almost like paradise -- if it weren’t for the dangers posed by evil foreign countries.

The churches in both films provide community and hope to their congregations, but not much in the way of Biblical or theological content. Both churches seem to serve the country well; it would have been good if their service of the Lord was as evident. We’re giving the churches of Mudbound and The Negro Soldier three steeples out of four.