In "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored," who should be preaching that old-time religion behind the pulpit but Isaac Hayes - yes, the "I'm talkin' 'bout Shaft!" guy.
Hayes is great, and his character really cares about the people in his flock. He's not the nutball clergyman that Hollywood dishes up in every third movie or so.But then, "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored" is not a Hollywood movie.
Even more interesting to me, however, is that the film shows people happily attending church, more or less taking for granted that such a community gathering is not uncommon.
OK, the setting is 1948-1962 - and moviemakers seem to be more willing to portray people as religious and churchgoing if the film is a period piece. And a cynic could argue that because the community depicted in the film is so oppressed, turning to God is more natural than in today's more sophisticated society.
The truth that Hollywood ignores, however, is that Americans do go to church in this modern world, something that national surveys repeatedly bear out.
But I can't remember the last time I saw a family - or even a single person - attending a church service in a movie that wasn't for a wedding or funeral - or the occasional moment in a dark thriller that has the brooding anti-hero stepping into an empty urban (usually Catholic) church in the middle of the night.
Mostly, religion is simply ignored. And when it is depicted, it's most often cynical or dark or downright devilish.
Aside from "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored," I can think of only two other movies so far this year that portray religion in a positive light. The first was "Cry, the Beloved Country," another period piece (set in the '40s), this time taking place in South Africa, with James Earl Jones as an aging pastor in a remote Zulu village. And "A Family Thing," again with Jones, in which the character of 80ish, blind Aunt T. (played wonderfully by Irma P. Hall) refers to her faith repeatedly.
Again, though, neither was a major Hollywood production:
By way of comparison, let's look at other 1996 movies that have illustrated religious elements, most of them major studio, star-driven pictures:
- "Heaven's Prisoners" opens with Alec Baldwin in the confessional of a Catholic Church, counseling with a priest and pouring out his heart, echoing a common movie moment that shows churches and clerics as good to have around when one needs free therapy, though you never see the same people simply attending a church service.
- "The Pallbearer" boasts a dark, comic funeral sequence, as twentysomething slacker David Schwimmer delivers a eulogy about an old high school acquaintance he can't even remember. Later, as a pallbearer, he drags the coffin - and the other pallbearers - in the wrong direction so he can talk with a woman he's attracted to. After the funeral, the victim's grieving mother (Barbara Hershey) comforts herself by seducing Schwimmer instead of seeking religious counsel.
- "Last Dance" shows an ineffectual pastor repeatedly attempting to comfort death-row inmate Sharon Stone, who sneers at him and expresses no interest in repenting. He offers banal words of solace, but cowers a bit in her presence.
- "The Craft" is about troubled teens who practice witchcraft, and the film portrays supernatural elements as real, suggesting that devilish powers can be summoned up if you know how to do it. No churches or clergy are referred to, and the film concludes that the most powerful force in the universe is quite dark.
- "Primal Fear" has a central murder plot involving a Catholic archbishop in Chicago who is brutally slaughtered (quite graphically). Later, we learn that the archbishop made pornographic videos with his altar boys. There are repeated dialogue references to the "power" of the church, though no positive Catholic depictions are on hand.
- "Mrs. Winterbourne," a comedy, of course, opens and closes with a Catholic church wedding, and though the priest isn't really portrayed as negative, he is something of a buffoon, both at his church and while dining with the Winterbourne family.
- "Hellraiser: Bloodline," a worthless horror sequel, opens with a corrupt clergyman/magician in 18th-century France conjuring up evil spirits . . . that is, when he's not torturing prostitutes. But the bulk of the film is set in modern-day Manhattan, revolving around a sinister puzzle box that opens a portal between Earth and Hell. Nothing heavenly here, however.
- "City Hall" has a central, over-the-top sequence that shows the mayor of New York City (Al Pacino) attending the funeral of a young boy who was innocently gunned down in a police action gone awry. Instead of respectfully worshiping with the congregation, however, the mayor, who has White House aspirations, turns the service into a media event by delivering a grandstanding speech. No one - including the victim's grieving parents - calls him on it.
- "Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace" is, like "Hellraiser: Bloodline," a horror sequel with religious overtones, as a childlike man becomes godlike when his intelligence is artificially boosted and he, more or less, bolts into cyberspace. Naturally, he uses his newfound powers for evil, plotting to become a cybergod over the Earth. His name, by the way, is the very biblical "Jobe."
As for television, there may be heavenly messengers, courtesy of "Touched By an Angel" (which offers strong endorsements of prayer and a belief in God, though characters never seem to go to church), but the only contemporary TV characters who are depicted as attending Sunday services on a regular basis are - are you ready? - "The Simpsons."
So, there is something encouraging about watching "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored" and seeing a community uplifted by religion in general, and prayer in particular.
But whether Hollywood will learn anything from the success of this small, independent film remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the cynic in me doesn't really expect to see Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Demi Moore playing a character who attends church in a movie anytime soon.
On the other hand, there has been talk of a "Simpsons" theatrical film. . . .