Woman, Thou Art Loosed (2004)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-5; L-5; S-5/N-1

O Give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good:
For his mercy endureth forever.
O give thanks unto the God of gods:
For his mercy endureth forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords:
For his mercy endureth forever.

Who remembereth in our lowly estate:
For his mercy endureth forever.
And hath redeemed us from our enemies:
For his mercy endureth forever.
Who giveth food to all flesh:
For his mercy endureth forever.
O give thanks unto the God of heaven:
For his mercy endureth forever.
From Psalm 136

And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.” And he laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.
Luke 13:10-13

Woman, Thou Art Loosed

Like a Protestant Dead Man Walking, director Michael Schultz’s film leaves you feeling like you were hit by that proverbial ton of bricks. The compassionate Sr. Prejean is replaced by A.M.E. Bishop T.D. Jakes; Matthew Poncelet by Michelle, also a composite of several real life persons, and she too is on death row because of a murder. And this film also is unabashedly religious—no, not just religious, but Christian. Beyond these similarities, however, they are very different, it becoming apparent that Michelle is far more of a victim than Matthew ever was.

The film opens cold with an African-American clergyman preaching to a large, mixed race crowd. He apparently has reached the Invitation part of the service, because he says several times, “There’s room at the cross!” At the back of the auditorium a young woman enters. There is an anxious look on her face. “There’s room at the cross!” the preacher exclaims again. People are coming forward, the woman joining them. She looks up and sees something that displeases her. She pulls from her purse a gun. Shouting something, she fires at someone we cannot see. Cut to the credits, a brief close-up shot of the eyes of a little girl, and then—

The same clergyman, Bible in hand, is walking sown the corridor of a prison cellblock. The incarcerated women call out to him, some taunting and making fun of his vocation. As he enters a cell, its occupant barely acknowledges his greeting, so engrossed is she in finishing a model of a house (apparently made of match sticks?). The prisoner is Michelle Jordan (Kimberly Elise), who apparently has had a connection with the clergyman earlier.

The film cuts back and forth in time from the Bishop’s fervent conversation with her to past events in Michelle’s life, beginning when she was a little girl. Her mother Cassie (Loretta Devine) has brought home another “uncle,” which means little Michelle must make herself scarce and keep out of the way. Something about this new beau, named Reggie (Clifton Powell), does not seem right to the girl, so Michelle backs away, even though he smiles and sweet talks her. Later on Michelle learns that her instincts were right: Reggie molests her, and then threatens her if she tells anyone. When Michelle does tell her mother, Cassie refuses to believe her, the mother telling her that she is afraid of scaring him off. However, Cassie does go ahead and confront Reggie, but the smooth talker too easily convinces her that he is innocent, that it must have been a neighborhood boy who deflowered Michelle.

During the next few dark years in the young girl’s life the only one who sympathizes with her is the neighbor Twana (Debbi Morgan), who had often watched over Michelle while Cassie partied with Reggie. The latter has moved in with the Jordans. Perennially out of work, Reggie contributes nothing to the family living expenses—and thus is always on hand to impose his sexual desires on Cassie while her mother is away at work. Finally, when she is a teenager, Michelle runs away. Her mind and spirit messed up by her years of abuse, Michelle falls into a life of crime—prostitution, drug abuse and stealing. At this low point in her life she had met the Bishop while she was in jail, He had secured her release on condition that she attend his series of revival meetings, the judge apparently agreeing that it might be beneficial.

Ironically, her mother Cassie has become an important aide in the revival, something that takes her daughter aback—the very idea that the woman who looked the other way during her daughter’s years of abuse now espouses a faith that calls for love and justice. Still, Michelle plans to accept the Bishop’s invitation to come forward and accept Christ. She has put into a bag her little girl’s dress in which she had been raped to take and lay on the altar as a symbol of leaving her past for a new beginning. Her cynical social worker is so moved by the sight of the dress that she passes on Michelle’s drug test mandated by the court. Unfortunately Michelle also has in her purse the gun that her friend had given her for protection. It would have been better for all had the troubled young woman been able to place that also on the altar, but the overpowering emotions generated when she saw another party also coming forward proves too much for her.

African-American director Michael Schultz returns to filmmaking after 9 years (among his films are Which Way is Up?; Carbon Copy; Living Large; and the wonderful biopic about slain CR leader Medgar Evers, reviewed in these pages, For Us the Living.). Directing from Stan Foster’s excellent script, based on the novel and stage play by Bishop T.D. Jakes, he has give us a memorable film that captures the meaning of gospel grace as surely as did Dead Man Walking. Beginning with Kimberly Elise’s intense portrayal of Michelle, the cast is outstanding—Bishop T.D. Jakes plays himself: we expect him to be convincing in the preaching scenes, but he is also effective as the compassionate counselor in the prison scenes as well—he could well have taken up an acting career. Michael Boatman’s Todd is just the kind of childhood friend we would want were we in Michelle’s predicament, Loretta Devine’s Cassie conveys the desperation that makes us pity her, despite her neglect of her daughter, and Clifton Powell as the handsome and smooth Reggie convinces us that a lonely woman could easily fall under his sway. The camera work and editing seamlessly interweave present and past, cellblock and church scenes in exciting ways.

It is good that Bishop Jakes agreed for the film to be R-rated, the “R” elements conveying the grittiness and sordidness of so much of the proceedings. Let us hope that churches, which accepted the R-rated The Passion of the Christ, will take to this one too. By spreading the word about this marvelous film, they can help insure its success.

(Note: A friend who speaks to crowds throughout the country and is familiar with Bishop Jakes’ writings and ministry informs me that his view of women and their role in home and church is very much “old school,” so my enthusiastic review should not be regarded as an endorsement of his total ministry. I can only say that from this film I believe he is very much an instrument of the amazing grace of God.)

For Reflection/Discussion

Note: This section contains several spoilers, so you might want to wait until you have seen the film before reading on!

1) Did the opening shock you? How effective is the filmmakers’ refusal to show who was the target of Michelle’s pistol?

2) What do you think of the exchange between the Bishop and Michelle: “People give the devil too much credit.” “No, they underestimate him”?

3) As a little girl what does Michelle have hanging on the door of her bedroom? What happens to it when Reggie rapes her? What did it symbolize before? What meaning does it take on when it falls to the floor? Later on, how does Michelle’s telling the Bishop that it is too late for her express this?

4) Did Cassie’s confronting Reggie about her daughter’s rape raise your hopes? Why do you think she was so easily taken in by Reggie’s explanation? At what point do we see how lonely and desperate she is? How is this typical also of women whom themselves have been abused but fail to leave their abuser?

5) What do you think of Michelle’s conversation with her mother in the church’s Prayer Room when she asks accusingly, “How can it be a house of God with hypocrites like you here?” Have you heard this charge before? (What films can you recall in which the church or a member was used as a symbol of hypocrisy?) What can you say in answer to such a charge?

6) What do you think about the Bishop’s remarks in his sermon concerning “The get over it generation”? How is this often the advice of self-help books and gurus (such exhortations as “Move on.”)? Has something “hit you so hard” that you could not rely on your own resources but had to deal with the questions raised by the Bishop: Who is God and how can he affect change? Does he even know I am here?” 7) How is Michelle’s story of the dog sitting on a nail true for anyone who is in bondage to something? Have you been moved to take some action or seek some help only when the pain from your problem drove you to it?

8) How is Todd a channel of grace for Michelle? What do you think of the way he dealt with Purvis at the restaurant? Compare his method with that of the usual hero in a cop or adventure film.

9) What changes the parole officer’s attitude toward Michelle? How is bringing a tangible item like the soiled dress helpful in the process of repentance and renewal?

10) Were you surprised at the church service to see Reggie decide to go forward? What makes you think he was not sincere—that is, is he really dealing with the truth about himself when he answers Cassie’s question? Do you think he changed? What might make you think that he did? What about his later statement that he needed more time?

11) How does Michelle react in a way similar to that of the leader of the synagogue in the story of Jesus healing the woman? How do Michelle’s words of remorse show that God is ever so much bigger than her understanding? (It really is “amazing grace,” isn’t it?)

12) What is the last thing we see in the film? What do you think of the model house as symbolic of Michelle’s life? What does the Bishop see as the meaning of the windows? Can Michelle yet see this? What does she say when he points out that there is no door to the house? What does her answer say about hopelessness? What does the house have in this last shot? Stay and listen to the choral anthem that accompanies the closing credits. What phrase is repeated over and over? Can we ever hear this too much?

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