Rolling Out.com posted a blog at the beginning of February naming 5 movies that all African-Americans need to see. So I have decided to have a little fun with this blog and write about four movies, that in my opinion worst treat the issues of the Black Church and sexuality. If you have not read my Best List, yet, you may find it helpful to better understand the background and basic criteria for the movies I have selected. Please note that I did not select any of the movies on the list because they are bad movies (although most of them are). I chose them because of there lack of complexity, and in most cases because they uncritically reinforce one, or a series of stereotypes that African-Americans have been fighting for two centuries.
In the interest of full-disclosure, I purposefully excluded all movie-vangleism films (such as Tyler Perry & T.D. Jakes movies) from consideration because they need their own blog, if not dissertation.
The Worst List
Why It Qualifies for Sexuality: Despite its title, the movie really isn’t about soul food as much as it is about marital and family drama. In particular the hypersexual relationship between Bird (Nia Long) and her newlywed husband Lem (Mekhi Phifer), the lack of both emotional and sexual intimacy between Teri (Vanessa L. Willians) and her second husband Miles (Michael Beach) and the adulterous relationship between Miles and his wife’s cousin Faith.
Why it Qualifies for Black Church: The family has a strong relationship the local pastor, who not only performs Bird and Lem’s wedding, but is also a regular attendee at Sunday dinner.
Why it is One of the Worst: Let us ignore, for the time being, the fact that this movie is uncritical in its celebration of the same unhealthy eating habits that leads to the death matriarch of the family, and that the movie writers seem to miss the irony of that fact. We have, in the role of the pastor, a type of coon. He eats the family’s food, he makes risqué comments about the women, even during his prayers, yet when Maxine has her baby, he is nowhere to be found. When Mother Joe goes to the hospital, and later dies, he is nowhere to be found. When the family is falling apart at the seams, no one calls the pastor, no one repeats advice of his or words from a sermon. In fact despite the fact that a good portion of the movie takes place on a Sunday, it doesn’t seem that anybody goes to church. The sexuality in the movie is just as exploitative. From the dress riding up the woman’s behind at the wedding, to the gratuitous cleavage shots as Bird is being fondled by her ex; from the sex in the bathroom at “Big-Mama’s” house, to the adulterous sex on the piano at Teri and Miles’ house, this movie is filled with images of inappropriate sexual behavior. In fact it is the only sexual behavior presented, playing on and contributing to the notion of Black culture as hyper-sexual culture (and thus as unhealthy as the aforementioned eating habits). Most importantly is the fact that the movie is narrated by Ahmad, a not quite teen-age boy who sees and hears all of the sexual and adulterous interactions take place, yet no one takes time to talk to the young man about what is going on in his family.
The Fighting Temptations
Why It Qualifies for Sexuality: Although there is no sex in the movie, Maryann (Faith Evans) and Lilly (Beyonce) are outcasts from the church because of they are seen as “unrepentant sinners” meaning that the church assumes that they are sexually immoral because they are young, single mothers who sing secular music.
Why It Qualifies for the Black Church: The entire movie revolves around the life of a Black Church that is wrestling the issues of church identity and hospitality. Most notably the church is caught between trying to uphold what certain members believe is the moral standard and being welcoming to those who are not “ideal” Christians.
Why it is One of the Worst: I must first of all admit that I really enjoyed the music in this movie; it is the best gospel music I remember since Lauryn Hill sang “His Eye is On the Sparrow in Sister Act 2. That being said, this movie falls short on both of the messages it is seemingly trying to convey. On one hand it appears that the church has learned throughout the course of the movie to be less judgmental and more loving, yet what really happens is Lilly becomes Darrin’s wife, removing her from single mother status, and seemingly removing her from singing in the clubs, making her fit in with the rest of the church. So on a second look, it actually appears that the church does not mature; they simply get their way. There is no indication their welcome has grown any, Lilly has simply conformed with their ideals. The movie is also uncritical of the blatant sexism of the church’s willingness to cast Lilly and Maryann out of the church because they are seen as sexually immoral, while they embrace Darrin and tolerate Lucius despite the fact that they are trying to seduce women just like Lilly. Additionally outside of these four characters, every other remaining character, including Paulina (LaTanya Richardson) who is herself a single mother, and her teenage son, are all asexual.
Hustle and Flow
Why It Qualifies for Sexuality: Sexual abuse dominates this movie about a pimp named DJ (Terrance Howard) and the women that he uses as prostitutes.
Why It Qualifies for Black Church: There is a small, but pivotal moment where DJ gets the idea that the way to make is life better is to spend less time pimping, and devote his time to rapping about pimping. This scene takes place…you guessed it, in a church (while he’s listening to a spiritual, no less).
Why it is One of the Worst: I almost feel silly for having to explain it, but here goes. As a movie with a hero (not an antihero or a merely protagonist) who is a pimp, the entire movie blurs the lines in very dangerous ways between sexual violence (and domestic violence) and intimacy. DJ’s romantic interest is one the women whom he prostitutes, who is pregnant by an unknown John. DJ’s business manager is another woman whom he prostitutes, whose body he exchanges for a microphone. Then there is a third woman that DJ prostitutes who gets upset because when she gets out of line DJ does not slap her. Not only is DJ’s lifestyle never criticized or even challenged, but it is celebrated throughout the movie, most especially in the song that unbelievably won an Oscar, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”. Additionally, it is in the pivotal church scene where, while listening to the songs of hope and deliverance from our ancestors, DJ is literally moved to tears and figures out that the way out of his predicament is to spend less time pimping, and devote that time to rapping about pimping. This sets DJ on a road to “redemption” that is culminated when he is initiated into the brotherhood of successful rappers by beating up another rapper, thus starting a rapper’s beef and going to jail. This completely leaves out the horrific double entendre “Whoop that Trick”, which is used because it can talk about smacking a woman and tearing up a club, thus giving it more mainstream appeal. It is worth noting that the “Jezebel” or hyper-sexual black woman image is used here is the same that is used in The Fighting Temptations and is the same that is often uncritically employed in real-life churches; but more on that in a future blog.
He Got Game
Why It Qualifies for Sexuality: High school basketball standout Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) and his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) have a relationship where they both appear to use intimacy to try and impact the other’s decision on major issues such as abortion and college.
Why It Qualifies for Black Church: His name is Jesus, which alone would not be enough to qualify, except for the fact that Spike Lee insists on beating this obvious allusion into the ground of Shuttlesworth as a type of basketball messiah who is seen by all those around him as having the ability to save them from poverty, obscurity, incarceration, or irrelevance. From the description of his mother “sounding like she caught the holy ghost” when she called him home for dinner, to the video montage of Shuttlesworth spliced with images of Christ, Spike Lee makes sure that no one misses the religious tones of the movie.
Why it is One of the Worst: Aside from the clumsy script, which seems to be part B-movie, part ABC after-school special, He Got Game belongs on the worst-list because it is only successful in exploiting women’s sexuality in the name of Shuttlesworth. The attempts to make Lala human fall short, and the other women are used strictly as sexual objects to attract the attention or the services Shuttlesworth. There is no trace of healthy sexuality anywhere in the movie, nor any evidence that any of the characters have a sense that there is something wrong with that. Similarly, the Shuttlesworth as savior motif is worse that its complete and utter lack of subtlety. It seemingly attempts to take a religion notion, salvation, and place it in an entirely secular context, basketball. However, there is nothing about this salvation that makes anyone a better person. Shuttlesworth, his father who is a convict (Denzel Washington), his family, Lala, no one even aspires to be better. In the same way that Hustle and Flow bastardizes the notion of redemption in its attempts to link it to rapping, pimping, and going to prison; He Got Game bastardizes salvation as all of its characters are content to praise Shuttlesworth.
For more information on the stereotyping of African-Americans in films, read Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Black American Films by Donald Bogle.
Nelson Jerome Pierce, Jr. is an avid movie watcher, and is the Pastor of the Word Fellowship Church in Cincinnati, OH. Friend him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.
The views, opinions, and perspectives expressed in by guest and consultant bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, its state affiliates, it member organizations, or the National Black Church Initiative. The Religious Coalition is committed through its National Black Church Initiative to faithfully, prayerfully breaking the silence on issues related to sex, sexuality and religion.