The advent of Easter has become a time for releasing biblical and Christian faith-based movies. This Good Friday brings a third in the God’s Not Dead series — “A Light in the Darkness.” A Pure Flix Entertainment production, one can only hope it’s better than their rather dreadful Samson from February. A better bet is Andrew Hyatt’s Paul, Apostle of Christ, which opens today with James Faulkner as Paul and in the role of Luke, Jim Caviezel, who was Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Worth noting as well is the mid-March release I Can Only Imagine, the story of Bart Millard, lead singer of the contemporary Christian music band MercyMe.
Music can stir the soul, which brings me to Blaze, the latest effort from writer-director-actor-producer-author Ethan Hawke, whose prolific and protean career is the subject of a cover feature in the 2018 25th anniversary issue of MovieMaker magazine. Blaze is Blaze Foley, an itinerant musician from Arkansas who, with his partner Sybil Rosen, moved to Austin in the 1970s and became a legend in the outlaw Texas country music scene until addictions and bad luck got the better of him. Hawke himself has played a troubled musician in the role of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Born to be Blue (2015).
Hawke cast Arkansas musician Benjamin Dickey in the role of the mercurial Blaze, and it’s a brilliant choice. Dickey not only does justice to the songs, he embodies the character, fully deserving the Sundance special jury award he received for achievement in acting. Alia Shawkat is also terrific as the Jewish girl, Sybil, smitten by Blaze, who accompanies his rambling ways, for a time living in a tree house in Georgia. Much of the scenario is drawn from her memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.
Blaze had great talent but never achieved major success and struggled with his self-destructive side. There were ill-fated moves and a split from Sybil. There’s a poignant moment when he visits his elderly father, played by Kris Kristofferson. When Blaze had big career opportunities, he blew them. There’s a great scene where he turns off a trio of record company executives (cameos by Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell, and Steve Zahn). The highs and lows are also reflected in posthumous reminiscences by fellow musicians Zee and Townes Van Zandt (Charles Adams and Charlie Sexton) in radio interviews (with Hawke, back turned, playing the radio host). Foley was only 39 when shot to death in 1989.
The movie takes an evocative non-linear approach to this story that weaves together the strands of a singular life. Blaze may have been a lost soul but there is something in his musical legacy that touches the soul. In Sybil’s words: “It’s the homeless troubadour refusing to bend to the demands of success. It’s the champion of the downtrodden, the bellicose drunk, the gentle giant children adored. But mostly it’s the music — so direct and authentic it feels as if he is singing about you personally, wrapping your life in melodies that can heal.”
The gospels have a lot to say about healing, love and forgiveness, but divisions within Christian churches sometimes put these to the test. That is the case with the true story dramatized in director Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday, scheduled to be released on Netflix April 13. At the centre is the African-American Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a successful evangelical pastor of the Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His charismatic preaching attracted whites and blacks in great numbers and reached a nationwide TV audience. Pearson was also a protégé of leading Tulsa-based televangelist Oral Roberts (played by Catholic activist Martin Sheen), the stern patriarch of a network of Christian ministries and a university.
Pearson adhered to a strict fundamentalist doctrine of hellfire and salvation — unless you explicitly accept Jesus as your lord and saviour you are doomed to eternal damnation. An early scene has him visiting an aging uncle named Quincy (Danny Glover) in prison and declining to help him with a parole request. The despondent Quincy will take his own life. There’s a parallel to Roberts’ rejection of his eldest son who committed suicide after coming out as gay.
Pearson started questioning his beliefs after watching a program on the Rwandan genocide and having an encounter in which he was convinced God spoke to him. How could this God of unconditional love, who sent his son for the salvation of the world, condemn most of humanity to hell because they had not known and accepted Jesus? When Pearson started preaching this truly Easter message of redemption, of all people being saved by the sacrifice of the cross, it provoked major troubles. Many in his congregation left, including his top adviser and business manager, Henry (Jason Segal), forcing him to find another smaller venue. Pearson was upbraided by other Pentecostal bishops and called on the carpet by Roberts, who had treated him like a son. (Another son of Roberts, Richard, would take on the mantle of heir but later have to resign over improper use of funds.)
Through a difficult period of soul-searching Pearson persevered, with strong support from his wife, Gina (Condola Rashad), and remaining congregants. These included his choir leader, Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), who was wrestling with his homosexuality. Reggie was HIV-positive and as the illness progressed returned to Texas to live with his mother. Pearson would make a visit to his side to reassure him that “Jesus loves you.”
The narrative has had a protracted development, originating as an episode of the documentary series “This American Life” over a decade ago. At one point the film project had Jonathan Demme as director with Jeffrey Wright as Pearson and Robert Redford as Roberts. Fortunately, this Netflix production earns full marks for quality, sincerity and sensitivity. Ejiofor is especially compelling as Pearson, who was present at the Sundance premiere and credited the filmmakers with doing “a fantastic job of interpreting my hurts, hopes, and heart.” Indeed it’s the humanity of all the characters that comes through. In this story faith is deeply felt on all sides. There are no caricatures. Still, the spiritual takeaway clearly embraces a gospel of inclusion over exclusion in which God’s saving love is for everyone.
Fundamentalist doctrines have a hard time accepting redemption for souls they believe are lost. That was true of socially conservative Utah’s Mormon church, which ostracized gay people or pressured them into traditional marriages to “cure” their afflictions. When the AIDS crisis hit in the early 1980s, gay men who contracted the deadly disease had nowhere to turn. They became lepers in the community. Quiet Heroes, co-directed by Jenny Mackenzie and Jared Ruga, relates how Dr. Kristen Ries arrived in Salt Lake City as an outsider and became the only doctor willing to treat HIV/AIDS patients, who had often been abandoned by everyone else, including their families. Dr. Ries, who had been raised in an anti-Catholic household, found a welcome in the hospital run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross where she developed an extraordinary compassionate practice assisted by a nurse practitioner, Maggie Snyder, who would become her life partner as well.
While the righteous wrote off AIDS sufferers, in the face of fear and death these brave women brought palliative concern, mercy and hope to a stigmatized population. You might say they were an Easter presence in a dark time.
*Note: My best movie of 2017, Paul Shrader’s First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke as an ordained minister, had a special screening last week at Austin’s South By Southwest Festival in advance of its theatrical release. Watch for festival highlights in the April 11 issue.