Faith at the Movies

Posted: Jan 19, 2006 12:01 AM

It’s become a well-worn axiom among conservative circles in the last few decades: Hollywood hates Christianity. They make films where the worst villains are people of faith (Seven, Kinsey, Kingdom of Heaven, to name a very few) and television shows where Jesus says drug-dealing, homosexuality, and euthanasia are just alright with him (The Book of Daniel).

However, the last few years have shown chinks in Tinsel Town’s anti-religious armor. The Passion of the Christ blew the doors off the box office two years ago and the C.S. Lewis classic, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe repeated the feat again in the last.

Even if the entertainment industry as a whole doesn’t care much for reverence, it can’t resist the urge to bow down at the feet of the almighty dollar. Thus, studios are now offering big bucks for screenplays with a religious angle, and Christian/conservative entertainment press are receiving increasing invites to promotion events that attempt to sell faith-friendly films to flyover audiences.

Yet, despite the major commercial successes of The Passion and Narnia, film and television producers still can’t seem to get their arms around how to market to the crowd that made The Purpose-Driven Life the best-selling hardback book in U.S. history.

No doubt, NBC executives thought they were playing into market demand when they green-lighted Daniel and were likely shocked when it turned out that mainstream audiences, while interested in seeing religion explored on film, aren’t interested in seeing it assaulted (well, aren’t interested in seeing it on network anyway—the Comedy Central niche demographic being another story).

Unless Christians themselves are the driving force behind the projects, Hollywood appears at a loss when it comes to creating entertainment that touches on faith. They either end up with unfair, bigoted depictions on one hand or bland, ill-defined Touched by an Angel-type portrayals on the other.

But there is evidence beyond the two monster moneymakers cited above that it doesn’t have to be this way. To overcome its religious stalemate with mainstream America, the entertainment industry could as it has so many times in the past, borrow a page from the African-American community.

“Black-targeted” entertainment has always shown greater respect for Christ than more generally-marketed material. Even as gansta rappers offer up paeans to benjamins and hoes, momma and Jesus always remain sacred (think Kanye West rapping “God show me the way…Jesus walks with me” in one song and “There’s a party/who’s invited/you, your friends, and my ****” in another.)

Reasons for the seeming paradox are varied and complex. But for purposes here, it’s enough to note that when 61 percent of a community takes the Bible as the actual word of God, it isn’t likely to suffer either sacrilege or banality lightly. Its entertainers respond accordingly by not only treating faith with respect but by making it a common, vital element in their work.

Take as example small-budget, African-American written, directed, and acted films like Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad, Black Woman and Bishop T.D. Jakes’ Woman, Thou Art Loosed. They don’t deal in pie-in-the-sky platitudinous people. Their characters suffer the horrific outrages visited all too often on humanity today like rape, abuse, cheating and divorce and bring God into the midst of them. Considering the dearth of movies that can claim this, it’s not surprising that they found audiences far beyond their expected demographic.

Interviews I conducted two weeks ago with the casts of Last Holiday and Glory Road further bolstered my feeling that black Hollywood heavyweights deal differently with the question of religion than do their white counterparts.

Usually, even those white actors and actresses who are known to profess some brand of Christianity are reticent and vague in regards to their faith in front of the press. Reese Witherspoon admits she goes to church and says her spirituality is “important” but declines to elaborate further. Mandy Moore similarly deflects religious questions after the release of youth group favorite A Walk to Remember and later goes on to make the Christian-savaging film Saved!

Yet here is Queen Latifah openly, smilingly connecting her own life to that of her character in Last Holiday: “I was brought up to believe that Jesus is sort of like your brother. In Bible school I learned that…he’s always listening, so I’d be looking around talking to God, like, ‘Jesus, I don’t like what the teacher did today.’ I’ve always had that sort of relationship with Him. We kinda converse as friends. Even though I know this is my Savior, He’s also someone I know as a friend.”

Her co-star in the film, rapper LL Cool J holds forth even more effusively:

“I am a Christian, so for me faith is a huge part of everything I do. In Last Holiday my character was searching for love. He was loyal, he was willing to sacrifice and commit. Those are Christian principles. Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice…[Georgia] the main character operated on faith. She looked past materialism, she trusted God.”

Challenged over some of his less edifying previous work, Cool J counters, “Sometimes you have to let your life be the testimony…Everyone has gone through a lot. But going through a lot doesn’t mean that they weren’t on their way to victory.” He later reveals, “I stay in the Word. I need that wisdom, that discernment in my life. So I can deal with the industry.”

Al Shearer, another black actor, makes a comment or two in the same vein in relation to his film, Glory Road.

Is it because they know they will never experience reprisals and criticism from the black community that they are so willing to bare the state of their souls? Is it because they know they are immune to the slings and arrows Hollywood usually reserves for the outwardly religious by virtue of their race?

Both Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes were celebrated by Oprah Winfrey and other influential black entertainers for their frank, religious themes in Diary and Loosed. Mel Gibson and other openly Christian white actors were blacklisted to the fringe of the industry. (Not that Stephen Baldwin or Kirk Cameron were ever major players, but they were certainly more viable before their public conversions.)

According to the most recent findings of the Pew center, 81 percent of Americans claim a branch of Christianity. As secular as most current movies are, it still seems difficult to imagine that this statistic isn’t reflected in some meaningful way among the population that makes up the film industry.

Some religious critics have opined that, if it hopes overcome its recession, Hollywood needs to start making movies that aren’t hostile to America’s dominant faith. And while that would be a step in the right direction, maybe it needs to do more than that.

Maybe it needs Christian actors/directors/screenwriters of all colors to set aside fear of juvenile snickering from their professional peers and acknowledge the religious beliefs they share with the general public—you know, the people they want to turn out for their television shows and movies.

Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Tyler Perry, Kanye West, and others bond with audiences at least in part through their mutual background of faith. Based on statistics, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that entertainers of all races could connect with the majority of moviegoers on the same basis.

This isn’t to suggest that writers and directors must insert preaching into their screenplays or evangelizing in their Oscar speeches. But rather than asking for scripts that market faith, maybe Hollywood should write scripts that reflect common life—life that includes prayer, sin, forgiveness, and redemption. And maybe actors and actresses should be as willing to gush about what it means to them to be spiritual as what it means to them to be fashionable.

Surely that would resonate more with the public than what outrageously overpriced designer duds they’re currently devoted to.

I smiled in detachment when, at the beginning of our interview, LL Cool J made a joke of referring to himself as a “brother.” But by the end of our Q & A session, I felt a kinship to him and made a mental note to follow his career more closely. Why? Because I felt I knew and understood him. And because you can’t help harboring special interest in someone once you discover that he is, indeed, your brother.