New film looks at prayer, but RNS advance feature mainly sees racial issues

A bold new movie on the power of prayer to heal relationships rightly gets a sizable feature from Religion News Service. But what does RNS fixate on? The color of the cast.

War Room, due out Aug. 28, follows "a flood of faith films starring white actors" last year, says the article. It "arrives at a time when racial tensions in America have intensified as a result of police brutality cases and the racially motivated slaying of black worshippers by a white shooter in Charleston, S.C." And its main actor, T.C. Stallings, says he took the role "because of the positive picture it paints of the African-American family."

And what's the plot of the film? Well, the article never quite gets around to that, despite the 800-word count.

Much of the story quotes Stallings, who tells of his own disadvantaged upbringing in Cleveland, then gives his views on how Hollywood treats urban African Americans:

“What I saw on TV and in movies growing up was all negative. The picture of African-Americans in urban areas was all bad language and bad credit scores and bad habits,” Stallings said. “There were many upstanding, Christian black families in the world, and they needed to be talked about as well.”
Stallings rejected the black family stereotype he was seeing, graduating from high school and college. Today, he resides in California with his wife and two children, whom Stallings helps home-school.
“There are many people out there — white and black — who stay with their families and work through their problems. They aren’t thugs or gang leaders,” He said. “’War Room’ tells the truth about society by showing the reverse of that stereotype.”

Sure, valid views, and he has a right to give them. But six paragraphs worth? And his thesis would have been more solid if the producers, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, had confirmed it. The most for which RNS quotes them is a vague statement from Alex: “There is an element to the way we tell this story that has power and desperation that would be different if we tried to tell it any other way." Howso? Doesn't say.

BTW, did you recognize the Kendricks' names? They also produced 2011's Courageous, another inspirational film. As RNS notes, that film was shot on a fairly small budget and reaped fairly large receipts. The article could have also mentioned their Fireproof and Facing the Giants, which did the same on similarly small budgets.

Oh, and prayer? The article finally gets to that in the last half, quoting author-actress Priscilla Shirer:

“War Room” draws a parallel between a “prayer closet,” a term referring to a secluded place where Christians pray, and where military officials develop a strategy before they go to war. The movie paints a picture of what it looks like to fight life’s greatest problems with prayer. Shirer believes that no problem is too big to be overcome through prayer, even the problem of racism.
“Prayer is the only thing that will make a lasting difference in the race conversation,” Shirer said. “We can have symposiums or pass policies to get people to behave in the way we would like them to, but for lasting change to take place in the hearts of our people and our nation, God must be involved.”

Maybe it's just me, but it sounds like Shirer was prompted -- that she was asked a leading question like "What about race? Can prayer help that, too?"

OK, RNS has a valid point about faith-linked films majoring in white faces, at least recently. Noah and Exodus had white stars and a sprinkling of black extras. The Bible miniseries, with its film spinoff Son of God, had a variety of shades but mostly white lead roles. But RNS omits 2010's The Book of Eli, a faith-tinged film with Denzel Washington as the titled character.

And if you look over the decade, you'll see other well-produced, well-acted films with black casts. Tyler Perry has turned out films like Meet the Browns and The Family That Preys, both from 2008. There's also Rob Hardy's 2005 film The Gospel, about a funk singer who's a prodigal son to a pastor. And how did RNS forget 2006's Color of the Cross, with Jesus and the apostles as black men?

Maybe RNS was relying on the trailer, linked from the web-based article, to tell us the plot. If so, though, it could have also saved more than four paragraphs on the power of prayer.

It's not like the producers have kept the storyline secret. You can read a synopsis on the film site itself, as well as the Internet Movie Database. The synopses tell a rather familiar situation: an affluent couple with good jobs and a beautiful suburban house, who nevertheless teeter on the verge of breaking up. Not terribly different from a lot of white families.

The plot innovation enters with an elderly client of the wife, who advises her to set up a prayer closet -- a "war room," she calls it -- to pray fiercely for the healing of the family.  The wife does so, and her renewed spirituality challenges her mate to deal with his own issues as well. Sounds like a hopeful picture, but not exactly a positive one, for families of any color.

RNS deserves credit for spotting and reporting on a rather daring film. But which is the daring part? Showing blacks in a favorable light, during a time of racial tension? Or suggesting that prayer can heal and motivate people to reconcile, during a time of falling faith?


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