Catholic screenwriting maven Barbara Nicolosi, director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, has often commented that it’s pointless for Christians to expect protests and activism to turn Hollywood around and get them catering to the Christian market, for one simple, intractable reason: Hollywood hasn’t got a clue how to do it. A typical Hollywood studio exec’s idea of a Christian-themed film is about as likely to satisfy the real needs and desires of Christian moviegoers as the latest John Hughes movie has of taking top prize at the Slamdance Film Festival.
Case in point: The Fighting Temptations, a gospel-music infused comedy about a callow, dishonest young Manhattan advertising executive named Darrin Hill (Cuba Gooding Jr.), whose pious small-town Baptist aunt has died and left him a tidy sum of money on condition that he lead the church’s choir to a big gospel-music competition.
Here is a film so woefully misconceived, so completely devoid of even generic, safely banal Hollywood spiritual uplift, that it made me long for the spiritual depth and religious meaning of Sister Act and Bruce Almighty. This film is rife with barely veiled contempt for Christians and Christianity, and the fact that the studio apparently thinks they can market and sell this movie to Christians may just be the apex of that contempt. What an indictment of the churchgoing world if they turn out to be right.
Start with the black Baptist pastor, Rev. Lewis (Wendell Pierce), a hypocritical, posturing, gutless wonder who never once evinces the slightest hint of genuine spirituality — not that anyone else in the film does either, at least outside the more spirited gospel numbers themselves. There’s also the pastor’s sister and church treasurer, Paulina (LaTanya Richardson), a stridently intolerant, self-righteous harpy who bullies her brother into running the church as she sees fit. And then there’s the congregation, a sorry flock of complacent, venal, backbiting stereotypes who join the church choir only for a chance at some of the money (or, in at least one case, for a chance to sleep with Darrin, though it never actually comes to that).
All of this might be at least endurable in a film in which there was some kind of third-act redemption, some kind of spiritual awakening in which everyone came to a realization that what really matters is… oh, some nonthreateningly vague platitude about "faith," or love, or perhaps even God. Maybe even a scene in which the characters repent of their wrongdoing, or stand up for some kind of moral principle. Nothing too terribly controversial or challenging — no need to mention Jesus, for example, just because these people are supposed to be gospel-singing southern Baptists. But some kind of gesture in the direction of something spiritual being somehow important.
It never comes. The Fighting Temptations never manages even the most generic sort of pro-faith cliché. It’s kind of like the line about "the true meaning of Christmas" in The Santa Clause 2, by which the movie means not even platitudes about family and generosity and so forth, let alone anything about the birth of Christ, but only toys and nostalgia. The Fighting Temptations is a redemption story without the redemption.
No, it’s worse than that. The filmmakers’ idea of "redeeming" Rev. Lewis and the church choir members is to have them finally stand up to Paulina in scene of stunning smugness and vindictive delight at the humiliating skeleton in her own closet. This odious sequence is actually supposed to be Rev. Lewis’s finest moment, though never in the film does he look less Christian and more venal.
Wait, that’s not necessarily true. Perhaps he looks less Christian baptizing a trio of prison inmates — at least one of whom has expressed a firm desire not to be baptized, and none of whom has indicated any interest in receiving baptism — simply to qualify them to join the church choir. There’s no hint whatsoever of any faith or teaching; even when Darrin assures the convicts that it’s "just a little sprinkling," Lewis doesn’t contradict him, or suggest that there’s anything more to it than that.
There’s lots of winking and nudging about rampant sexual immorality, but not even lip service to the idea that God might prefer marriage to fornication. The film condemns judgmentalism toward single mothers, but doesn’t seem interested in acknowledging the preferability of an intact family unit.
The film especially condemns Paulina’s judgmentalism toward single mothers supporting their sons with sultry music acts — a demographic that includes Beyoncé Knowles as Darrin’s love interest as well as Darrin’s mother — but doesn’t gesture in the direction of what it thinks might be an appropriate place for the church to draw a line, or what its stance toward offenders ought to be.
In fact, the only thing that the movie ever comes down on as wrong, other than judgmentalism, is evil advertising cabals conspiring to market malt liquor to black communities and vulnerable rural consumers. Beyond that, the filmmakers seem to think that the church should simply open its doors not only to every kind of sinner but to every kind of behavior, neither judging anything nor calling for or expecting any kind of moral change.
That leaves the gospel music itself as the sole virtue in a plodding, predictable formula comedy. With real-life gospel and R&B artists like Faith Evans, Rev. Shirley Caesar, and the O’Jays, not to mention Beyoncé herself, there’s no denying the soundtrack’s power. But when the plot is interested in the music only in connection with the big competition, and there’s no effort to suggest that the music means anything to the characters on a spiritual level, any spiritual response to the music must involve a disconnect from the film.
Roger Ebert likes to cite Gene Siskel’s favorite critical question, "Is this movie more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch?" If this movie’s main draw is the music, we might likewise ask: Is The Fighting Temptations remotely as enjoyable or edifying as random concert footage of the same musicians? Or does the formula plot, objectionable moral and spiritual implications, and Cuba’s comic mugging just detract from the music?
Me, I’ll take the concert footage any day.
The hero’s nearly religious reverence for rock’s angry posturing and anti-authoritarianism — reverence culminating in a pre-concert prayer to the "God of rock" — isn’t quite condoned, but isn’t put in any larger context either. Rock culture’s darker side is whitewashed (it’s not about drugs, kids, and groupies are really just band cheerleaders!), and subjects other than music (and even music other than rock) get short shrift. Then there’s the swishing, lisping fifth-grade "band stylist" bringing "Queer Eye" camp to the grade-school setting.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.