Is America ready for gospel cinema? Independent producer Reuben Cannon thinks so. The former veteran casting director sees a vast, untapped audience similar to that which propelled Mel Gibson’s 2004 religious epic The Passion of the Christ to a multi-million dollar success. Except in Cannon’s version, the untapped audience is made up of several million black Americans from across the economic strata—a “core audience,” Cannon suggests, who are socially conservative and woefully under-served at the local cineplex.
“The expression of black life in American cinema has been very narrow,” Cannon says. “That’s why people are responding to Woman, Thou Art Loosed—it’s so rare that you see the full complexities of black life up on the screen.”
Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which opened in a limited theatrical release last September, is the story of a young black Los Angeles woman, played by Kimberly Elise (Beloved), who struggles to get her life on track following childhood sexual abuse. The film drew mixed-to-good reviews for its portrayal of a subject that is certainly complicated, untidy, and raw. Some critics, though, understood the significance of its healing potential: “By mixing the dramatic and the realistic, Woman, Thou Art Loosed offers a therapeutic metaphor and does so with a sense of familiarity,” wrote Africana.com film critic Armond White.
Like Antwone Fisher in 2002—which starred and marked the directorial debut of Denzel Washington—Woman, Thou Art Loosed is a milestone in the history of American cinema: a relatively mainstream major motion picture that takes an unflinching look at the emotional and psychological state of its black characters. Starring alongside Elise and veteran black actors Loretta Devine, Clifton Powell, and Debbi Morgan, is a contemporary figure familiar to millions of black Americans but unknown to much of Hollywood—an African American Christian minister and entrepreneur named Bishop T.D. Jakes.
Playing a version of himself in Woman, Jakes makes a startlingly vivid presence, and if perhaps he seems more natural than other actors in the film it’s because his best-selling self-help books served as the basis for Woman’s screenplay, penned by Stan Foster. Bishop Jakes, who oversees a large Dallas-based ministry, was first approached by Cannon in 2002 with the idea of turning Jakes’s books—including his Woman, Thou Art Loosed—into a major motion picture. As Jakes has said in interviews following the initial release of Woman, he knew he wanted to write about the troubling subject of sexual abuse in the black community after spending years ministering to women who were emotionally damaged by the experience. The books and now the film are designed to encourage “healing” and “forgiveness,” Jakes told BlackAmericaWeb in September: “It’s not just divine forgiveness, which is part of the message. But also, it deals with the struggle that we have to forgive people who have done things to us, and how you’re never really free until you forgive people who have mishandled you,” Jakes said.
For Cannon, Jakes’s message of healing and forgiveness presented a unique challenge: Would it be possible to fashion a work of cinematic entertainment from such a difficult subject? And if so, would enough people be willing to pay to see a film concerning this bleak part of American life?
The answer came after Cannon attended a large-scale 2002 revival meeting held by Jakes in Houston. “There were literally thousands of people in that hall, I mean something like sixty thousand people there,” Cannon says. “And once I felt the energy in that audience and saw how Jakes was able to encourage hundreds of women to get up and basically admit that they’d been sexually abused, I knew there was something there, something larger than just what was happening in that room.”
For his part, Cannon, an active member of West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, where the revival scenes in Woman were filmed, had been interested in tapping into church-going black audiences even earlier than 2002. In cities and towns across America, plays by black writers like Tyler Perry (Madea’s Family Reunion, Why Did I Get Married) have for decades been drawing millions of mostly black audiences to legitimate theaters. Sometimes dubbed the “chitlin’ circuit” of the theater world, these plays are morality tales, filled with melodramatic accounts of cheating husbands, drug-addicted young adults, and women on the edge. According to Cannon, they represent a parallel universe to the mainstream entertainment world, but also indicate a healthy audience of black Americans who are starved for message-laden entertainment.
“These plays are off the radar of mainstream Hollywood, but they make millions of dollars every year,” Cannon says. Indeed, in February, Lion’s Gate released the second of what Cannon is calling his gospel cinema catalog, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which again stars Kimberly Elise, along with Cicely Tyson, and, in the role of an older black woman character, Tyler Perry, who also adapted his play for the film version.
With the relative success of Woman, Thou Art Loosed (it was originally conceived as a DVD-only release), Cannon believes he has a good shot at establishing gospel cinema as a legitimate sub genre of the major motion picture world. Woman, Thou Art Loosed was produced for about $3.5 million, much of it raised from individual celebrity investors including Danny Glover, Cedric the Entertainer, and Oprah Winfrey. It was shot on digital but has the look of a traditional big-budget picture. Director Michael Schultz, whose film credits include the modern classics Cooley High (1975) and Car Wash (1976), shot Woman Thou Art Loosed in 12 days. The film has grossed almost $7 million at the box office and Cannon expects strong returns after the DVD is released this month. “We earned back all the investors’ money, which you have to do if you want to keep going as an independent,” Cannon says. It helped that Winfrey featured the film on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” last October. Cannon recognizes that Woman has received its share of more than average backing. “This film does have difficult subject matter, but it has been blessed—anointed, you might say.”
As an independent filmmaker, Cannon said he has to be as concerned with the business end of his movies as much as the creative end. And, while the message of Woman, Thou Art Loosed undoubtedly helped convince investors to contribute financially, Cannon maintains that it’s his track record as a producer whose films usually earn back their investment that made Woman possible in the end. “You can’t approach people and ask for money if you don’t believe you can return their investment,”’ Cannon says. “It’s my job to make sure that the three major components of the project are going to come together before we even get started: the budget, the script, and the cast. Somehow, those three stars have to line up, and in this case, they did.”
The future success of Cannon’s gospel cinema, then, rests with his core audience theory: “It’s those millions of black church ladies,” Cannon says. “They are out there, and I have faith that they will want to see these movies.” If one examines the pallid history of films concerning black life in America, it might seem that Cannon has a pretty good shot at making a go of gospel cinema.
The fact that millions of black Americans represent 11 percent of movie-going Americans today (compared with 15 percent for Hispanic attendance and 68 percent for White), most filmmakers agree that offering films that appeal to black Americans makes good business sense. And, following several box office successes in the 1980s and 1990s by black directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and F. Gary Gray, it is clear that a market exists for films by and about African Americans. Yet, there remain huge swaths of the black population—working to middle-class, church-going black folks—whose experiences and beliefs rarely turn up on the big screen. Cannon, who left Chicago as a 17-year-old high school graduate with dreams of working in the movie industry, is uniquely qualified to tap into that overlooked audience.
Cannon, whose producing credits include Get on the Bus (1996), directed by Spike Lee, and author Maya Angelou’s 1998 directorial debut Down in the Delta, acknowledges that his task is difficult and the road facing any black filmmaker seeking true independence, long. If the business of making films is intricate, complex, and to a large degree perilous to filmmakers whatever their skin color, it is doubly so for black directors and producers. At the same time, Cannon says, the groundwork continues to be laid for more films like Woman, Thou Art Loosed and new expressions of black life on the big screen. Indeed, after starting out in the mailroom at Universal Pictures back in the early 1970s and working his way up to becoming one of Hollywood’s most respected casting directors, Cannon has personally helped guide the careers of a new generation of black filmmakers, including John Singleton.
“Hollywood isn’t going to change, so it’s up to us to try to take control of our own images in movies,” Cannon says. “For years, it was easy to complain about what wasn’t being shown of black life, to spend energy on the fact that the film community just couldn’t seem to get it right. But, I say, it’s on us now. We shouldn’t have the expectation that someone else is going to tell our stories. We have to have the courage of our convictions.”
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