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It was around the time when a devoted Christian character, frustrated with a secular public interest attorney, shouted “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior!” that I knew I was seeing something special. God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness isn’t just the conclusion of the most successful film trilogy made for the evangelical market, it’s the first time a Facebook argument has metastasized into a movie.
Produced and distributed by the Arizona-based ministry/media empire PureFlix, and starring its co-founder David AR White, the picture picks up precisely where the last one ended. White’s good-natured Pastor Dave is arrested for not sharing the texts of his sermons with the feds. This story thread is soon dropped (as was the real-life case it was based on) but the overall foreboding vibe of Christian persecution suggests that, as the Gospels say, tomorrow will be indeed be anxious for itself.
Pastor Dave’s church is on the campus of a state-run university, and therefore in the lion’s den of so-called diversity advocates who actually want nothing more than to silence free speech. The heartless college board (headed by Tatum O’Neal) is itching to shoo the congregation off grounds, even though the structure pre-dates the school itself. An avalanche of talk radio and cable bloviators (including Fox News’ Judge Jeanine Pirro) bombards the early sequences, and stand-ins ask why Jews and Muslims never seem to be the ones that are silenced.
Then something terrible happens. A vandal hurls a brick, which accidentally cuts a gas line. One poorly rendered CGI flameout later, and Pastor Dave’s Swahili-speaking best bud Jude (Benjamin Onyango) dies in his arms. Now it’s personal.
A jump back in time answers the question “who would do something so violent?” Naturally, it’s a godless boy (Mike C Manning) frustrated with his religious girlfriend (Samantha Boscarino) after too many sips of demon rum. We’ll get back to those two characters much later, as this is all just a set-up for a legal battle between the establishment, invoking those sinful words “eminent domain”, and the warriors of righteousness who won’t move their tax-sheltered establishment no matter what anyone says.
Pastor Dave, not a wealthy man, calls on the only lawyer he knows – a Chicago city slicker far from his Arkansas birthplace, his brother Pearce (John Corbett). Here’s where something remarkable occurs. The actors stop belching out aphorisms and the characters behave like human beings. It almost starts to resemble a real movie. Corbett is basically mimicking Jeff Bridges, but it works. I wouldn’t exactly call David AR White a great thespian, but compared with his earlier attempts he this is a vast improvement. He even lands a few jokes, and evokes genuine sympathy as a man who just wants to do good (my man loves soup kitchens) but is facing tremendous and uncaring odds.
A Light in Darkness is written and directed by Michael Mason, a man of mystery with no other credits. He has an eye for framing that previous PureFlix directors lack. (The first entry in this series really looks like a cobbled-together student film.) And there are even some moments in the narrative that feel inserted as some sort of appeasement to those that haven’t already drunk the (non-alcoholic) sacramental Kool-Aid. To wit, a local African American preacher reminding Pastor Dave that as a leader of a black church in the deep south he’s seen his share of hurled bricks. (“My bad,” Pastor Dave’s face reads, not “#AllPreachersMatter”.)
These nods go a long way, but this is still a sham of a film. The drama is preposterous, the pacing drags and the repeated suggestion that the Almighty always has a grand plan for everything is a bit of an insult to Jude’s grieving relatives. (If the “light” of the title is the fire that killed the black friend in the first reel so everyone could ultimately feel good about themselves later on, that’s a bit of a red flag.)
By the end of the movie, when the brothers are reunited, the unintentional manslaughter is forgiven and the entire campus of young people is glued to theology discussions on YouTube, it will take the will of the Lord to keep most audience members from snickering. But to the small but sincere group in the core demographic – the ones who have internalized a non-existent persecution complex and are ready, in Pastor Dave’s words, to “stop rolling over” and ask “when is it our time to fight?” – I’m sure this riveting tale of property reallocation will feel like a call for a holy crusade. Luckily the evangelical pop stars the Newsboys, making their third cameo, have some catchier tunes.
- God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness is released in the US on 30 March and in the UK on 25 May
Source: The Guardian
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