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Preacher has faith in R-rated message

Bishop T.D. Jakes' film is a story of Christian redemption. But the scenes of child rape, drug use and murder may put off some.

August 20, 2004|David Briggs | Religion News Service

CLEVELAND — Is America ready for another R-rated Jesus flick?

Bishop T.D. Jakes, an evangelist who is frequently mentioned as a leading contender to replace Billy Graham as America's preacher, is betting on it in a new film that includes intense scenes of child rape, drug use, domestic violence and murder.

Seeking to take a page from the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," Jakes came to Cleveland recently for a private showing of "Woman, Thou Art Loosed: The Movie" for pastors in advance of its planned nationwide release in October. The movie, starring Kimberly Elise from the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," tells the story of a young woman searching for hope in prison after a lifetime of sexual abuse, poverty and addiction.

Like Gibson, Jakes is hoping pastors will rent out theaters for a gritty, modern screen adaptation of Jesus overcoming suffering. Jakes' pitch: "The Passion" told how Jesus was crucified. "Woman, Thou Art Loosed" tells why Jesus was crucified: to offer hope to people suffering today.

Also like Gibson, he is counting on church folk to see the film's likely R rating as a way to reach contemporary audiences. If Gibson expanded Hollywood's concept of Jesus films with scenes of intense violence, Jakes is pushing the envelope even further by asking churchgoers not to turn away from child sexual abuse, prostitution and a violent drug culture.

"Mel Gibson proves to us perhaps the next frontier of evangelism may be the movie theater. We have to start thinking outside the box," Jakes said in promoting the film to about 60 church leaders who attended the screening at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

"I want you to own it. I want you to embrace it as people of faith," Jakes said.

Millions have embraced Jakes, whose Dallas-based Potter's House church has a congregation of more than 25,000. He has national shows on Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television. And he has written 27 books, including the bestselling "Woman, Thou Art Loosed."

Hollywood was stunned by the success of Gibson's film, which has taken in more than $600 million in theaters worldwide since its release this spring. That is much more than many experts thought the director would make with a subtitled film on the Crucifixion.

But Gibson did not wait for churchgoers to flock in. In an intense marketing campaign, he showed the film to groups of pastors ahead of time to build interest.

Jakes' stop in Cleveland was the fourth of about a dozen planned showings around the country, a spokeswoman said. Jakes said he hopes to open the film in 500 theaters in October. Jakes and other investors financed the film, but he did not disclose the cost.

Several local pastors praised the film.

"Powerful. One word: 'powerful,' " Bishop J. Delano Ellis II of the Pentecostal Church of Christ in Cleveland said aloud as he got up from his seat after the movie. "If he'd bring it to my church, I'd show it on Sunday morning," he said later.

The Rev. R.A. Vernon of the Word Church in Maple Heights said he may make seeing the film mandatory for his congregation.

"The church has to find a way to make the Gospel relevant to the common man," he said.

The cast also includes Loretta Devine and Clifton Powell.

Beginning and ending on death row, the film follows the life story of a woman who was abused by her mother's boyfriend as a child and her attempt as an adult to reclaim her life after falling into an abyss of prison, prostitution and drug addiction.

Jakes' film is starting to win some notice. It won prizes at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival in Miami.

But observers say Jakes may have a much harder road than did Gibson. Although Jakes may be a star on the evangelical circuit -- he drew 130,000 people to a four-day rally in Atlanta in June -- he does not create the same secular buzz as Gibson.

"Billy Graham is one of them. Jakes is one of them," said William Blizek, editor of the Journal of Religion and Film at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

"The thing that made Mel Gibson so attractive is that it was an outsider standing up for them."

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