Yet he'll almost certainly go down as one of the greatest preachers of our time. No one even dares copy his virtuoso delivery -- sometimes on his knees, speaking in a quavering whisper, then rising to let out a soul-busting roar. But preaching is only a part of his game: The new film Woman Thou Art Loosed is very loosely based on Jakes's spiritual book of the same title, which was self-published in 1992 and has since sold some three million copies. Why? Jakes connected like no one before with the struggles of black Christian women, who'd endured generations of dogging and degrading within an African-American church tradition that couldn't function without them but preferred them subjugated to a male clergy that was allowed to operate by an entirely different set of rules. To these women Jakes proclaimed spiritual liberation -- backing up his talk by inviting into the pulpit previously unknown female preachers, propelling the careers of women such as Juanita Bynum.
In the film, Michelle Jordan (The Manchurian Candidate's Kimberly Elise) is Jakes's everywoman, sold out by her mama (Loretta Devine) and an indifferent church. Jakes, playing himself, finds her on death row, where she ends up after taking revenge on one of the many people who let her down. The camera pulls you right into her wrinkled brow and dark, angry eyes, the look of harsh living. "What was your childhood like?" Jakes asks. "Black," Michelle says. "I call my grandmother Mama, my mother by her first name, and her boyfriends Uncle." Her story unfolds in flashbacks, from a childhood tragedy to her last-ditch decision to attend a revival meeting where Jakes is preaching.
The strength of Woman is its unflinching look at people trying to grab onto a little dignity in their lives. This is a Christian film, a moralist's Waiting to Exhale, but Jakes's take on his own church milieu is savagely true to life -- and not a little shocking, coming from a lifelong "church boy" himself. Here, God's House is crawling with all manner of slimy characters, from doggish men to butt-shaking ladies on the make in pink dresses and enormous holy-roller hats. Michelle's mother has sought some kind of twisted refuge there, thinking a church dress will hide her guilt; the only differences, it seems, between this world and the pimps and hos of Michelle's street life are the wardrobes and the unctuous smiles.
But this is also a place where redemption is found -- at least for the few who throw off the religiosity and brutally confront their sorry lives -- and the film is interspersed with clips of Jakes preaching at L.A.'s renowned West Angeles Church of God in Christ. Michelle finds her way to the altar, with more than a couple of surprising turns along the way, but Jakes and director Michael Schultz (who made 1985's Krush Groove) steer clear of the sap. Michelle, who evidently is based on the many women Jakes and his wife have ministered to over the years, doesn't go from bitter ex-con to hankie-waving church lady. About all she leaves with is hope.
It's powerful stuff, affecting for any woman who's been bitten by life, and it's sure to provoke the same kind of cathartic response and word-of-mouth crowds that accompanied the first few weeks of The Passion of the Christ. It's also stirring up its own controversy in Christian circles -- apparently sight unseen -- for the mild profanity and brief but graphic sex and rape scenes that give some semblance of authenticity to Michelle's life. This is too close to home for a lot of church folk; the same people who pretend they've never heard the word "bitch" are the ones Jakes holds responsible for letting a generation of young women and children suffer horrific sexual and emotional abuse in the shadows of their own righteous, white-robed and tongue-talking religion. While the direction and performances in Woman are effective but not great -- and the line early on likening the Bishop to Billy Graham is off-putting, though arguably true -- this is above all a film experience that will have the big studios wondering again how they managed to miss the fat pockets of yet another untapped audience.