God is a black woman. It sounds like some hokey line from an American talk show host in the 90s, but this was essentially one of the hooks of a religious movie that came out in 2017. Maybe I’m being a tad flippant in that summary-The Shack has a little bit more going for that. Starring Avatar and literally nothing else for his career Sam Worthington, it tells the story of troubled father Mack, whose daughter gets murdered at a fishing resort. After getting a note to return to the shack the killer (who is still on the lam) left her bloodied dress, he is transported to a idyllic cabin where he meets God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit you could argue (she’s called Sarayu).
What makes this movie stand out is that it tries to be a little more, to quote Captain Holt, “awake” than other religious movies. The casting of the Holy Trinity is by non-white actors. Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara plays Sarayu and Israeli actor Aviv Alush portrays Jesus. The most noteworthy casting choice is, of course, God, or “Papa” as the film calls her. She is played by Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer (sans a scene later on where she’s depicted by Oneida actor Graham Greene). This is significant because religiously focused films don’t tend to be, well, leaning towards the more progressive bent. The best example is the Pure Flix model, whose movies all have a very stringent right wring ideology characterising them. Not that they’re all white actors, of course! Just, you know. They ain’t casting my girl Octavia as fucking God any time soon.
It’s not just that, though. There appears to be a much looser, more spiritually open bent to the film. Jesus as one point even infers that he isn’t a Christian, just that he hopes people accept Papa’s love into their lives. They bring up Native American culture and legends, and even link it to the narrative as our protagonist tells a story involving said culture to his daughter shortly before she dies. God and religious order are questioned a hell of a lot more than I can imagine the heroes of Pure Flix films would. Mack even chews Papa out several times over his legitimate anger. He’s not perfect either-a huge subplot is that he poisoned his abusive father when he was a kid! This isn’t exactly bringing up discussions of dialectical materialism or marching down Washington in pink beanies, but this strays a bit aways away from traditional conservative rhetoric.
Except…is it? Because the whole journey Mack goes on is to essentially come to the conclusion that God loves him and it’s all part of life. There’s even the Wisdom scene, where a physical embodiment of the concept tries to force Mack to choose between which of his two living children will go to Hell, and he picks himself. This is a way of saying that God cannot choose between all her children no matter what they did. Except that’s kind of crap because there’s only so much a parent should take before giving up on their child, and even God should agree there’s a limit to one’s terrible actions. Wisdom states that terrible people were created by other terrible people, and judging that line makes you judge all of humanity essentially. But that’s just pure crap because plenty of people grow up with abuse and don’t turn into monsters. The fucking main character of this movie did! It’s just insanely spurious logic and a dodge from pertinent questions because there are no easy answers for them. But you can’t say that because it flies in the face of the divine idea of God and her love.
It may be more challenging than other religious flicks, but it arrives at the same philosophical conclusions-God is great, and we need her in our lives no matter what shit the world wages on us. You just have to forgive terrible things, but this feels weak when you’re facing the Creator of the Universe. The guilt and grief of having your child murdered is just too much of a heavy topic to broach in such a manner while still staying sunny and hopeful, that’s why other religious flicks don’t tend to approach something nearly as loaded. It’s really kind of insulting that Mack is browbeaten into forgiving his daughter’s killer. It just is not justified, even if holding onto that hurt is destroying his and his family’s lives. It’s an ugly and disturbing facet of humanity and fate this film does not adequately address, because the idea that God is good is the foregone conclusion of their expectant audience.
So yeah, forget it. This film does not deal with heavy topics in a more liberal and progressive matter. The diverse casting and implementation of other spiritual practises and ideas is window dressing. God is divine and loves you, and isn’t at fault for creating a universe where unspeakable evil occurs, but you gotta trust in loving her and forgive the horrific monsters because it’s good for your soul. Christ, I’m thinking of when the idea of forgiving the murderer of a loved one came up on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and that 22-minute cartoon episode of a children’s show handled it with more tact, intelligence and stones than this fucking thing did!
Watch Martin Scorsese’s Silence instead. It’s a pro-Christian film that challenges fate pretty hardcore as well, but at least it earns the weight of the disturbing shit thrown at you and how its characters react to that.