For much of its length, the made-in-Memphis, faith-based movie "The Grace Card" is surprisingly tough, confronting potent, distressing issues of social inequity, family dysfunction and personal despair without the overt religious cant and Sunday school perkiness that can make so-called Christian films a trial for skeptics.
"I love my city, but she is torn right in half," says a usually cheerful but increasingly frustrated African-American "patrolman preacher" (Michael Higgenbottom), whose new squad-car partner is a bitter racist.
Everything can change in an instant ... and take a lifetime to unravel. When Mac McDonald loses his son in an accident, years of bitterness ...
Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Length: 101 minutes
Released: February 25, 2011 Limited
Cast: Michael Joiner, Mike Higgenbottom, Louis Gossett Jr., Rob Erickson, Cindy Hodge
Director: David G. Evans
Writer: Howard Klausner
"This good Lord you prattle on about, why would he let two little boys die and let some miserable wretch who doesn't want to live anyway go on?" asks the partner, a desperate white officer (Michael Joiner) still angry over the death 17 years earlier of his young son, accidentally killed by a fleeing drug dealer.
That unanswerable question is tied to the events of the narrative, but the officer follows it with a dark, existential query of universal relevance -- a conundrum that has kept everybody awake at night: "What is there to believe in? What's the use of any of it?"
These are questions that stymie theologians and philosophers, not to mention filmgoers and moviemakers. If "The Grace Card" ultimately succumbs to formula, scoring a series of increasingly unlikely final-act plot twists with anthemic contemporary Christian power pop, at least it has the courage of its convictions, and the bravado to suggest solutions to meaningful dilemmas.
And if "The Grace Card" -- like "The Blind Side," which could be called the most successful modern Christian film of all time, even though it did not define itself as such -- makes the idea of racial reconciliaton easy for white audiences by showcasing a reassuring black protagonist who is not just likable but downright cuddly, at least it plunges head-first into the race-relations quagmire.
In fact, one of the film's primary virtues is that it presents a reversal of "The Blind Side" set-up: This time, a loving, well-adjusted black family comes to the rescue of a white person, who is spiritually if not literally homeless. The depiction of this family is a welcome alternative to the portraits of African-American dysfunction found in most movies.
Shot with gritty style and -- yes -- grace by Memphis cinematographer John Paul Clark (using a Red digital camera), "The Grace Card" is a well-acted (the two leads are excellent), technically impressive feature that belies the inexperience of its first-time writer-director, David Evans, a Memphis optometrist who funded the project with his wife, executive producer Esther Evans, and managed the production in partnership with his congregation, the Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova.
Evans was inspired by the success of Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia, which struck pay dirt and -- so church leaders would tell you -- saved souls with its highly profitable, Christian-themed feature films, most notably "Fireproof," which was the highest-grossing independent film of 2008, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The fact that Sony-owned "faith film" affiliates Provident Films and Affirm Films -- the companies that also released "Fireproof" -- are putting "The Grace Card" into theaters is evidence that Evans has crafted a highly professional-looking production, even if church volunteers were as frequently on set as paid cast and crew.
Hollywood screenwriter Howard Klausner revised Evans' original script. Memphis' Darian Corley -- a veteran of many high-profile area film projects -- was the production designer. Joiner, who plays the white cop, is a Hollywood veteran, but Higgenbottom, the black cop, is a Memphis actor, perhaps best-remembered for playing the unjustly accused rape suspect in a 2007 Theatre Memphis production of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Other major cast members were pulled from the Calvary Church family, including second-grade Shelby County Schools teacher Joy Moore, who plays the white officer's weary wife, and Cindy Hodge (in what might be called the Kathy Bates role) as "a counselor who just happens to be a Christian." Rob Erickson -- a trumpet-playing member of the University of Memphis' "Mighty Sound of the South" marching band -- scores as the white officer's "screwed-up" teenage son, whose experiments with not just pot but crime set up the melodramatic conclusion.
As for production values, with its frequent drive-by shots of abandoned storefronts in prime locations along Madison Avenue's business district, "The Grace Card" demonstrates you don't have to shoot in the 'hood to make Memphis look 'hooded-out.
The film starts out as something of a police drama, as the white officer, "Mack" MacDonald, is angry to be passed over yet again for promotion by a younger officer, Sam Wright, "who just happens to be black -- what a shock," in Mack's assessment. Mack becomes especially surly when Sam -- "Sgt. Daddy" to his wife and two daughters -- is made his temporary partner.
A brooding, hair-triggered presence at home, where economic woes add to the family's depression, Mack begins to abrade the generous nature of Sam, who can't decide whether he wants to devote his life to police work or to be a full-time preacher at his Eternal Light Gospel Church. With Mack, Sam says, "I can feel white eyes burning through my black skin just because of that black skin."
A tragic burst of violence and a medical emergency precipitate the inevitable foregrounding of the movie's Christian message. "It's not justice we need or even want, it's grace," says Sam an idea that may frustrate some secular viewers, who will notice that the movie's black characters do most of the accommodating.
In one scene, a veteran minister played by Louis Gossett Jr. tells an anecdote about a group of slaves who went to work for their former master after he freed them and apologized to them, because "they loved him." He said the slaves decided "to forgive all the white folks whether they'd asked for forgiveness or not." The story is supposed to demonstrate that one shouldn't "underestimate the power of grace," but it's an odd illustration, more historical whitewash and white wish-fulfillment than instructive parable. A more practical notion is expressed earlier in the film, when a police lieutenant played by Shelby County Commissioner Chris Thomas simply tells his officers: "Y'all take care of each other out there."
"The Grace Card" opens Friday, nationwide and in Memphis.
-- John Beifuss: 529-2394