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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Darien Sills-Evans, Billoah Greene, Tichina Arnold, Eartha Kitt, Patti LaBelle
DIRECTOR
Charles Randolph-Wright
SCREENPLAY
Kevin Heffernan
MPAA RATING
Rated PG-13
RUNNING TIME
103 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
Codeblack Entertainment
 "Preaching to the Choir" Review 
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It wasn't worth a windshield.
 
I was looking forward to this film, released on April 14th in 150 theatres nationwide under the name "Preaching to the Choir."

On the way to the theatre to see the film, Indianapolis was hit by a massive thunderstorm, including the most intense hailstorm I've ever seen in Indianapolis. The result? Five cars in front of me were swept off the road, windows knocked completely out. FIVE. Somehow, I managed to pull over into a school parking lot with large branches, 1.5" diameter hail and various other objects flying around me. I sat there and, yes, prayed as the hail pummeled by car and first one, then two, then three, then four cracks began to show in my car's windshield.

What had begun as a peaceful, enjoyable drive to watch an inspiring film ended in an intense and frightening experience as I both experienced danger and joined many others as we checked on each other's welfare, checked our cars for damage and called loved ones for reassurance.

One would have to realize the role of film in my life to fully comprehend why, even after all that, I ascertained the safety of my vehicle then made the conscious decision to continue on to see "Preaching to the Choir."

Film, for me, is a healer. I can be experiencing joy, rage, pain, frustration, loneliness or utter despair and, somehow, a good film (or even a bad one) will somehow lift me up, allow me to feel my feelings and calm my soul.

More than ever, last night I NEEDED "Preaching to the Choir."

"Preaching to the Choir" is similar in theme to last year's unexpected gospel-themed hit "The Gospel," a film starring Boris Kodjoe as a man who finds success in mainstream music only to return home to an ailing father and re-discover his roots.

"Preaching to the Choir" is a more intense, urban film centered on twin brothers whose parents, one a minister, die at a young age and the boys are left in the care of Aunt June in Harlem.

One boy, Wesley, grows up to be the pastor of the church in which he is raised. The other boy, Teshawn, grows up to be a hip-hop star named Zulunatic.

Both young men carry significant baggage from their childhoods, including unresolved grief, emotional scars and resentments towards each other.

Wesley (Darien Sills-Evans) pastors a stagnant congregation with a bland choir. He has an inability to connect with neighborhood youth, and an engagement that seems more based upon function than connection. The church, in many ways, has sheltered him from a lifetime of feelings and experiences after the deaths of his parents.

Zulu (Billoah Greene), on the other hand, lives the high life (literally) as a hip-hop star whose risky behaviors and rebellion have left him surrounded by people who won't hesitate to harm him once his usefulness to them is done.

After a bitter contract dispute with his record label results in a shoot-out and fiery crash that nearly kills the record label owner, Zulu returns home to "hide" in the last place they'd expect him...a church.

What follows is a fairly predictable story of healing, redemption, faith and two brothers learning the importance of family.

In some ways, "Preaching to the Choir" reminds me of a Kirk Franklin song. Franklin songs are often energetic and inspirational, yet they are also often grounded in urban realities, tough lessons and, sometimes, controversial subjects. "Preaching to the Choir" tries, only occasionally successfully, to present the realities of urban life with a life affirming, Christ-centered message.

The film also features appearances by Eartha Kitt (seriously under-utilized), as a choir member, and Patti LaBelle, who is seen early on as Sister Jazmine in the film's strongest musical segments.

In his feature film directing debut, Charles Randolph-Wright has a clear vision for the script by Kevin Heffernan (based upon a book by Monica Lengyel Karlson). Unfortunately, the film often loses its sense of balance in addressing both urban reality and Christian lifestyle.

For example, the "love" story that Zulu is involved in upon his return to the church. It is conveyed, initially, over their conversation during an art exhibit...that's dandy, but then we learn that she has all Zulu's releases, which include his big hit "My Bag of Weed."

Hmmm. Interesting way to convey a "love" story based in a church.

Then, when Zulu faces the possibility of leaving to avoid retaliation by the record label owner, there's again talk of running off together, etc.

This lack of balance is a running theme throughout the film, and often overshadows the positive and inspirational energy throughout the film. By the end of the film, it becomes clear what the film-maker was going for...he just didn't quite get there.

The original score, by Nona Hendryx, is appropriately gospel-tinged, though a bit lower energy than what is found in this type of film (with the exception of the aforementioned Patti LaBelle segments in the beginning).

The performances are uniformly solid, though none particularly stand-out. Tichina Arnold (the mother on "Everybody Hates Chris") offers a nice performance with an out of place character, Desiree, whose inappropriate dress is mentioned but just accepted, throughout the film.

It was sort of inevitable that Hollywood would begin to see the profit margins available in these lower-budget, Christian-themed films and begin to release them more often. Inevitably, when this happens we begin to see films with common themes and, sadly, the "Hollywood" trend of rehashing success stories takes hold. "Preaching to the Choir" recently won three awards during the American Black Film Festival, including the coveted Audience Award.

If you enjoyed "The Gospel," Tyler Perry's films or any other number of Black-themed films then, odds are, you will enjoy "Preaching to the Choir."
 
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
    The Official Rating Guideline
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