You never know where God might turn up. The Other Cinema is an independent concern just off London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. They have two small screens showing the kind of films that not a lot of people want to see. Good films but not popular ones. The current season is called ‘RESPECT’, not in this case R-E-S-P-EC- T for women, but respect and selfrespect for black people. As I struggle through the bubbling melee of youngish humans wagging their lager bottles in the corridor that doubles as a bar, I feel like I’m in a club. There’s no popcorn, no huge cut-out of Bugs Bunny or the Hulk, no hotdogs and no one is charging you £23.50 for 43 blocks of ice and a quarter a pint of Coke. It’s rather refreshing. The cinema is akin to a lounge. The back row is made up of two or three deep, dark brown leather sofas. My seat is huge, upholstered in beige leather and wondrously comfortable. As I sit down, these are some of the words I hear:
“I realised I was going to hell and I’d had enough of all the badness around me. He’s given me security and the love that helps me stand up and be myself… I was in Feltham prison today – I spent four years there before and today I went in there and I was so grateful that I knew that I was going to be leaving at the end of the day. He did that for me. And I know that I’m going to heaven.”
It was a testimony that could have come from one of the black Americans that I was about to see in the film Revival on Hoover St but it didn’t. It came from a white Englishman, probably around 26 years old, probably not middle class. He’d been engaged in a rather public conversation by someone four rows down – and he wasn’t holding anything back. How do we respond to stories of transformation?
How do we respond to the claim that God has come down and done something deep and extraordinary in someone’s life? And how do we respond if that someone is black and American and if the person who has been most influential in their lives is black and American and an enthusiastic preacher who sells videos and tapes of his message? How do we respond when that message is preceded by a swaying, clapping, wailing, soaring, robed choir backed by a band with a lead guitarist with the dexterity of Eric Clapton?
With enthusiasm? Cynicism? Wonder? Yearning?
The Hoover St Revival is a keenly observed, tender and moving documentary about transformation and redemption in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods of central Los Angeles. It has no presenter, and no voice-over. You can’t tell if the Director, Sophie Fiennes, believes in God, you can’t tell if she thinks the preacher is a sham, you can’t tell whether she thinks it’s all somewhat emotionalistic but in the end you feel that she’s convinced by the people’s authenticity. Something important is happening in a bad place. And the church is where the pain is – ministering.
Interestingly, if the film’s title didn’t reveal that there had been a revival in Hoover Street you wouldn’t have known. Fiennes doesn’t tell us about how the church began or how it grew or even how many members it now has (10,000). Rather, she observes the church at work and listens to some of its people – trying to capture its spirit and its impact, helping us see how people might have been transformed.
So we cut between the pastor, the Revd Noel Edmonds, preaching, the choir singing, the office administrating, the congregation engaging, the video team editing, and a number of people and families going about their lives – in and outside the church. The homeless woman grateful for so much; the former bum witnessing to two card-players at a gas station about how Jesus rescued him; a father tenderly helping his four year old daughter get dressed; a middle-aged woman doing her make-up, telling us: “Don’t I look good for having nine children?”, telling us a little later that she abandoned one of them completely in a motel room, telling us that she sometimes wonders if it’s all just a game and that there’s someone up there pulling the puppet strings, telling us a little later how much pain she’s seen, and then, in a scene towards the end of the film, telling us what God is like, singing it out to us – the soloist in the choir – taking us higher and deeper, helping others pour themselves out to God.
But this ain’t just church religion, this is religion for the streets. We listen to a transformed man talking about his business as he washes a customer’s car:
“I try to be faithful, to give it my all and to do a good job too.”
We watch an ice-cream van man at his work as we, and he, listen to a sermon on “being in the world but not of it.”
We see the church gather outside the house where a 17 year-old boy has just been shot to death … we see them in a circle holding hands, praying… we see the mother arrive to make her ghastly discovery… the church is where the pain is.
But this church is not content with the status quo. Its pastor Revd Noel Edmonds is clearly concerned for his people’s spiritual, emotional, intellectual and economic liberation. There is no hint of prosperity Gospel in the material presented, rather Fiennes’ focus is on what Noel Edmonds has to say about how to grow free of the debilitating impact of crushing circumstances and the murderous, crackhead culture his people are surrounded by:
“You can’t live to everything. Some things have to be regarded, other things have to be disregarded. Some things have to be fed, other things have to be starved…. If I’m going to be brilliant, I have to study, I can’t watch TV… I have to die out to the last relationship to live to the new one… You’ve got to die out to the parties when the babies are born.”
“It’s not about what you have, it’s about who you are… When I go out, it will be with respect, with high self-esteem, with victory, with everything God promised me… To get what you really want you have to be prepared to have nothing.”
Certainly, there seems to be something of the method actor in the way his speech changes as he preaches, but it certainly does not come across as feigned or insincere. On the contrary, there is a curious blend of strength, directive leadership, compassion, sharp psychological analysis and focus on the word of God. He has according to the website: ‘A God given anointing to teach and preach from a psychologicaltheological platform as opposed to arguing philosophical-theological church issues…’ ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,’ God opens his address to his distressed people in Isaiah 40.
What emerges from this fine and restrained film is a kind of sober awe.
The Director leaves us with an image of the local high school band rehearsing When the Saints go marching in for a football game. There is hope in this but also a quiet fearfulness for these young people cast into this maelstrom of squalor and murder.
Watching this film, set in the world’s richest country, in the city that constructs its glitziest dreams, where the affluent and the mega-rich whisk by Hoover Street on the freeway, I couldn’t but sit in awe and humility at what God has done through this local church. Is there really any other hope for our beleaguered society than the people of Christ reaching out where the pain is?
But the rich and the successful need transformation too. Which brings us to Jim Carey’s light-hearted but not entirely empty-headed comedy – Bruce Almighty! Bruce has had a bad day in a life with a beautiful apartment, a handsome, if not house-trained dog, a throaty sports car and a very good job as a comic TV presenter – not to mention his wondrously patient and not unattractive live-in girlfriend – Jennifer Aniston.
Bruce, however, has failed to get the serious news anchor role he wanted, and is fired for having sworn on air in a fit of teenage petulance. He now whines and wails at God: “Oh God ,why do you hate me?” God in Bruce’s world is there to give him what Bruce wants but God won’t comply:
“God is a kid sitting on an ant-hill with a magnifying glass and I’m the ant.”
God’s response is to give Bruce his powers and let him see if he can do any better, without infringing anyone’s free will. “Can I ask why? Bruce says.
“That’s the beauty of it, “ says God, “you can.”
And better Bruce can do, at least with his own life – improving his sex life, enlarging his girlfriends’ breasts, wreaking revenge on his professional rival, and getting that job. Ah, but it is, oh, so very selfish and God intervenes to remind him that he has a rather a large back-log of prayers to respond to. Bruce has then to get down to the real business of ordering the world. Failure follows on failure, resulting in civic unrest and a break-up with his girlfriend. But in this instance Bruce’s omnipotence is of no avail because he can’t interfere with free will. “How do you make someone love you?” wails Bruce. It is, as the divine Morgan Freeman, acknowledges, a good question.
Beyond the gags, the evident respect for prayer, and a warm and credible performance from Morgan Freeman, the film asks serious questions about the selfishness and triviality of our ambitions, about whether what people really want will actually give them what they really want. In the end, Bruce is able to pray not that he gets his girl back but that she gets someone who will really love her – that she gets the right person for her. As Noel Edmonds put it:
“To get what you really want you have to be prepared to have nothing.”
Along the way God has tried to teach Bruce a lesson – to stop looking for a miracle and start trying to “be the miracle,” to stop complaining that someone else’s car has broken down and is making him late and to start trying to help fix it. Again, there is an echo of Noel Edmonds exhortation to his people:
“One way to get rid of the anger is to stop seeing yourself as the victim and see yourself as a victor.”
But there is a huge difference between the two films. Bruce Almighty makes a laudable exhortation to selflessness, to loving your neighbour… to community spirit – that’s the path to victory but it feels curiously humanistic and hollow and really rather easy. On the other hand, Noel Edmonds’ people know that the only reason they can call themselves victors is because Jesus bought the victory for them on the cross. They know that the only way to live and love victoriously is in the power of the Spirit. And it ain’t easy.
No, it ain’t easy, is it?