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Showing of 'God's Army II' draws praise and criticism

Pastor objects to stereotypes regarding preacher, gangs

Despite an LDS filmmaker's stated effort to combat religious stereotypes in his most recent film, one Utah religious leader said there were several he was offended by during a recent interfaith panel discussion.

The film, "God's Army II: States of Grace," was originally released in 2005 and received praise from several critics, who labeled it a large cut above other LDS-themed films for a gritty story line that explores gang violence, forbidden love and redemption in the context of LDS missionary service.

The Trolley Square Regency Theater was packed Wednesday night for a free showing of the film, which will be re-released in local theaters on Jan. 20 and run through the duration of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City. A panel discussion followed the screening, featuring the film's writer and director, Richard Dutcher, as well as several local religious leaders and observers.

Audience questions following the discussion became largely commentary on the local culture, including swipes at local businessman Larry Miller for refusing to show the controversial film "Brokeback Mountain" in his theaters.

The Rev. France Davis leads Utah's largest African American congregation, Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He surprised Dutcher and many in the audience when he blasted the film's portrayal of an African American preacher, whom the LDS missionaries find drunk and unconscious in a gutter. They take him in and befriend him.

"I see nothing good" in the character's portrayal, he said. "He is shown as a money-grabber, drunk and a lady's man. That seems to me to be the common image of African Americans in this community." The Rev. Davis, who worked with the late Martin Luther King Jr., said when Congress was considering a national holiday to honor the civil rights slain leader, those same three issues were at the core of the opposition.

The film also portrays violent black and Asian gang members. "I'm told the most violent gang in our state is not Hispanic or African American. I think we're feeding a commonly held belief about people who are defined as 'the other.' "

Dutcher countered by saying he comes from a mixed religious background: one-third Baptist, one-third Pentecostal and one-third Mormon. "I'm sad those characters would come across that way to you. That was not my intention. I wanted very much to show that of all races represented in the film, none of them were completely negatively portrayed and none of them were all positively portrayed."

Concerned about approaching a multi-cultural story, Dutcher said he relied heavily on advisers, one a former African American gang member. "This is the first time I've heard that criticism. I hope it doesn't come across that way to the African American audience . . . I've hated it whenever I've seen Mormon characters misrepresented" in film.

Dutcher said the criticism reminded him of some of his "conservative Mormon friends that don't want to see their people presented in anything but the most positive way." He said all of the characters were in need of God's grace.

Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby said Latter-day Saints are "probably the only group in the world that want to present a stereotypical image, even though it's a lie. We're going to have to confront our image in ways like this that bring into view the full scope of the world view. If we're going to do that, we have to focus on the common human traits we share with everyone."

David Rowe of the Salt Lake Theological Seminary said he found himself wondering "to what extent is Dutcher a pluralist in affirming all these different faith traditions. I don't think so. He is a Mormon. The language is not overt about it being the 'one true church,' but there is some of that there."

Roger Keller, professor of religion at Brigham Young University and a former Protestant minister, said he was "wowed" by the film. "I think there are some Latter-day Saints who would want to see these characters as not real. There are some of us who don't want to see the real side of life, maybe. But it's there that we encounter grace, when we find people who are broken like we all are."

Two audience members asked Dutcher why he presented a father of one of the LDS missionaries as unloving and more concerned about appearances than his own son. He said since coming to Utah he's heard a bothersome phrase directed toward some missionaries, and the line appears in the film: "I'd rather have you come home in a coffin than without your honor (intact)."

"I don't know how anyone who believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ can say such a thing. It's despicable," he said.

The event was sponsored by the SLC Film Center.