Preaching to the Choir
At the risk of sounding racist, white people don’t know how to make religious movies. Flicks like The Omega Code, Mercy Streets, and Left Behind are but conventional genre pictures hot-wired with unveiled religious themes-qua-paranoia in which the motivating force behind belief is fear of, well, death—be it actual, spiritual, or, sigh, metaphysical. Hell, even the art house isn’t immune: Wings of Desire could have only been made by a Catholic.
The belief fluttering through director Charles Randolph-Wright’s Preaching to the Choir comes from a completely different place. Almost everything in this charmingly cliché dramedy takes place under the watchful eyes of the church, but its central conflict has less to do with the dire circumstances between man and his eternal fate than that between man and a much more imperative issue—his fellow man. More specifically, the friction between two brothers: After the problematic deaths of their father and mother, Southern boys Wesley and Teshawn move with their aunt June (Novella Nelson) back to what she calls paradise—Harlem in 1988. The streets are busy, the rap is tough, and the neighborhood church is the only place that feels familiar. Wesley finds his calling in the pulpit, Teshawn in the choir.
Flash-forward many years. Wesley (Darien Sills-Evans, who has Ernest Thomas’ straight-arrow Raj thing down tight) is now the church preacher troubled by his dwindling congregation but happily engaged to Rachel (Rosa Arredondo). Teshawn (Billoah Green) became the West Coast gangsta-rap star Zulunatic, admired by many but practically a stranger to his brother and aunt. When Teshawn runs afoul of his label honcho, Bull Sharky (Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, playing the mogul like a cross between Suge Knight and center square-era Paul Lynde), he hightails it back to Harlem and his estranged brother, where he thinks he’s merely biding time but ends up, you know, finding himself in faith, family, and friends.
Yes, Choir is that hokey, but if you don’t adversely react to the feel-good, you’ll find a disarming treat. And it’s the bit parts that make the whole thing sing. Everybody Hates Chris’ Tichina Arnold pops in as the church’s sometimes inappropriately dressed administrative assistant. MuMs muscles along as one of Bull Sharkey’s henchmen. Patti LaBelle is the choirmaster who first spots Teshawn’s gifts. And the flabbergastingly gorgeous Janine Green plays the smart, with-it woman who sees the Teshawn fighting through Zulunatic’s facade. Besides, any movie in which a still pretty Eartha Kitt dances with more agile grace than any septuagenarian has any right to is enough to make even committed skeptics consider believing in something.