Throughout his ministry, Bishop T. D. Jakes has shown a remarkable ability to minister to hurting people, especially women. His bestselling book, Woman, Thou Art Loosed: Healing the Wounds of the Past (Treasure House, 1994), became a workbook, a conference theme, a worship CD, and a stage play. Now it's a movie.
With a screenplay by Stan Foster, the film has already won awards at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival. It has also earned an R rating for graphic depictions of sexual abuse.
As Woman opens, a hardened Michelle Jordan (Kimberly Elise) is walking up the aisle at a church revival in response to an altar call by Jakes (who plays himself). Just as we believe we are about to see a dramatic conversion experience, Michelle leans over, pulls a gun from her bag, and fires.
Having started with the climax, the film moves alternately backward and forward to trace dual narratives: the story of why Michelle did what she did, and the story of her potential transformation.
As Jakes visits her on death row, she explains how she became the hardened, cynical woman who awaits her death. "Little girls like me never grow up—they just die," she says dryly. Michelle explains that she grew up in a fatherless home, and that Reggie (Clifton Powell), her mother's live-in boyfriend, sexually abused her. Torn between her desire for her mother's love and her need to escape her painful home situation, Michelle turned to drugs and prostitution, eventually serving time for narcotics possession. The incident at the church takes place during her parole and lands her on death row.
At first, the central characters of the story—a sexually abused child who becomes a criminal; an emotionally needy, dismissive single mother; and a manipulative abuser—feel painfully commonplace, the story of countless young women. Yet Woman pushes the viewer to understand each character's motivations, most successfully those of angry, wounded Michelle and her mother Cassie (Loretta Devine). The film sympathetically portrays Cassie's fear of being alone and explains that she believes she has settled for the best relationship she can find. Without excusing her neglect of Michelle, it demonstrates, subtly and otherwise, that Cassie also struggles with unresolved abuse. Choosing blindness and self-preservation, she perpetuates the cycle.
Though attempts to flesh out the abuser and the drug dealer are admirable, they are less successful because they lack subtlety. Too often they turn toward the camera to address the audience—a technique sometimes effective on the stage, but jarring and artificial on the big screen (the film depends too heavily on this device for exposition, as well).
More subtle characterization comes through other characters' actions: a powerful shot of Cassie's hand gripping, then releasing, a butcher knife to stab Reggie when she suspects Michelle is telling the truth, or Michelle's careful cradling of the gun a friend unexpectedly provides for protection from their pimp.
Woman's most compelling performance comes from Jordan Moseley, who plays the young Michelle. At first, Michelle radiates vulnerability, innocence, and joy, but the viewer can immediately sense her instinctive suspicion toward "Uncle" Reggie. Moseley effectively conveys the rising panic in the preteen's futile attempt to evade Reggie. The stunned disbelief on her face when she tells her mother, in a child's limited vocabulary, that Reggie "hurt me"—and her mother doesn't believe her—is easily the most powerful moment.
Having filled in the narrative, the film moves back to the climactic scene at the revival and struggles for redemption. Despite the too-rapid transformation in both Reggie and the prisoner Michelle, Woman presents a powerful question: For a victim of crime or abuse, is grace worth having if it is also given freely to the offender?
Michelle comes to understand that she needs God's grace and forgiveness. But her emotions are too raw and her pain too deep to accept these gifts if her abuser can receive them too.
A subtle second question: What is the role of religion in healing those who hurt? Religion is present throughout the film, whether through a video in the hairdresser's shop, a radio advertisement for the revival, or Cassie's involvement in the church. So how can matters of faith transition from the periphery to the core of a person's heart, where woundedness and the capacity to wound others lie?
In many ways, the film raises the questions it hopes local churches will answer. Indeed, it's clearly designed to open discussion on these questions, and to provide materials to encourage churches to discuss sexual abuse (such resources will be posted on the movie website).
Because of the graphic depiction of sexual abuse, this film is not for children or squeamish audiences. The presentation, too, requires an attentive audience due to the rapid flashbacks and flash-forwards. Yet by starting and finishing with the climax, the film presents a challenging message: People are often at their lowest point of woundedness when unresolved pain spills over into poor choices and criminal behavior. And as a church, we need to take the time to listen to them, to learn their stories, and to point them toward grace and forgiveness.
LaTonya Taylor is associate editor of Campus Life magazine.Discussion starters
- If Michelle and Reggie could be reconciled to one another, what might a healed relationship between them look like?
- What are some of the characteristics of churches that are safe places for hurting people?
- How can churches bring healing not only to people who have been abused, but also to those who have abused others?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film includes a depiction of child sexual abuse, as well as some violent scenes. It's not a movie for children, but mature older teens may be able to see it with discussion time from a parent or youth pastor. It will be difficult viewing for those who've been sexually abused as well.
Photos © Copyright Magnolia Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/07/04
Bishop T.D. Jakes' Woman, Thou Art Loosed began as a novel and then became a stage play. Now, Jakes himself has a role in the big screen adaptation of a story that reflects his investment in ministering to wounded women. The film, directed by Michael Schultz, opened in only 408 theatres, but drew a large enough audience to surprise the industry and place sixth in the box office top ten over the weekend, earning $2.3 million.
Kimberley Elise, who had a supporting role in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate, plays Michelle Jordan, a young woman who suffers from abuse, addiction, and poverty, and ends up in prison for taking retaliation into her own hands. Jakes plays himself, visiting her on death row.
LaTonya Taylor (Christianity Today Movies) says, "In many ways, the film raises the questions it hopes local churches will answer. Indeed, it's clearly designed to open discussion on these questions, and to provide materials to encourage churches to discuss sexual abuse (such resources will be posted on the movie website)."
To caution audiences, she adds, "Because of the graphic depiction of sexual abuse, this film is not for children or squeamish audiences. The presentation, too, requires an attentive audience due to the rapid flashbacks and flash-forwards. Yet … the film presents a challenging message: People are often at their lowest point of woundedness when unresolved pain spills over into poor choices and criminal behavior. And as a church, we need to take the time to listen to them, to learn their stories, and to point them toward grace and forgiveness."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it's "a potent and soul-inspiring drama about the healing power of forgiveness. [It] deals with difficult subjects—including sexual molestation and murder—though in a way which challenges viewers of faith to take seriously the Christian imperatives of love and reconciliation."
Regarding the actors, he says, "Elise delivers an emotionally penetrating performance. Jakes … has a presence to match his sizable frame, and exudes a sincerity which is both charismatic and consoling."
Reviews from mainstream critics range from high praise to harsh criticism, so that it's hard to believe they've seen the same film. But most agree that it might have done better with a little less "self-promotion" by Jakes. Dave Kehr (The New York Times) says the movie "renews an important tradition of African-American filmmaking: the movie as revivalist sermon, a genre epitomized by Spencer Williams's magnificent Blood of Jesus of 1941."from Film Forum, 11/04/04
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) is impressed with "the power of Michelle's story combined with Jakes' compassionate and wise responses to her brokenness. [The film] does a masterful job of showing how one generation's weaknesses and sins shape the lives of the next." Holz notes that the film's R-rated elements (sex and violence) guarantee that "it'll (rightfully) remain out of bounds for quite a few families—some very much in need of the message presented. Namely, that God promises to enter into the most shattering experiences of our lives, if we'll let Him."from Film Forum, 11/24/04
Jennifer Parker (Catapult Magazine) says, "The film dramatically unfolds an unforgettable character's story, which will be for some an autobiography, for others an indictment, and for the chosen few, hopefully, a call to compassionate action. [The] film artfully reminds the Church to heed the cry of the victimized."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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