“Wesley say and it shall be,” pronounces Wesley (Omar Gooding) in The Gospel. It’s his job to inspire confidence in his clients, being a talent manager. He ensures they stay in fine hotels, have access to champagne and women and designer gear. At the moment, he’s looking out for David (Boris Kodjoe), a new-style R&B singer who spends most of his time on stage gyrating among fierce-looking, scantily-clothed women.
Wesley is mostly pleased with David’s career trajectory — it’s been mostly fast enough and it’s paying off very well. David’s singing “Let Me Undress You,” Wesley’s got cigars and a bright yellow Hummer, and he and David chortle in red-lit close-ups about being “superstars.” It’s a grand life, or so they think, until the other shoe drops, namely the terminal illness of David’s father, Bishop Fred Taylor (Clifton Powell).
At this point, David leaves Wesley behind and heads home to Atlanta to grapple with the past he thought he left behind. This would be the past you’ve glimpsed briefly at film’s start: a onetime singer for his father’s choir and on his way to becoming a minister himself, young David (Michael J. Pagan) is crushed when his father, too busy tending to his business, is absent for his mother’s plinky-piano-accompanied death. When Fred arrives late, apologetic and tragic, David, already mad at God for letting his mother die, accuses his father of neglect (“I hate you!”), throws down his bible, then disappears down the long, white, artily blurring hospital hallway.
The news of Fred’s illness — relayed by his loyal secretary Ernestine (Aloma Wright) — makes David think again (this is 15 years later), mostly about his own lingering anger. That he’s a big L.A.-based pop star now makes his return to Atlanta part triumphant and part anxious. For the latter, he notices especially one of the girls in the choir, pert single mother Rain (Tamyra Gray), whose initial resistance to his seductions makes David think she’s special enough to pursue energetically. She does have an adorable five-year-old, Maya (Keshia Knight Pulliam), who sees through David right off. “How old are you?” he asks, leaning down to be sweet. “How old are you?!” she asks back, and yes, he does behave childishly through much of the film.
Not that he’s not encouraged in such behavior. Aside from Wesley reminding him every day, by phone or in person, of how crucial it is that he get back on tour because he’s gonna blow up, the other girls in the congregation get all giddy when they see David amongst them, asking for autographs and about his romantic status. The glitch in this “triumphant” part of David’s return comes in his former friend and classmate, now the Reverend Charles Frank (Idris Elba), is skeptical of his intentions. After he shoos off the girls (“Where your bible at?”), Frank questions his friend, specifically wondering whether he means to resist his own plans to take over the church from Fred.
Frank’s ambition to expand the church, following the spectacular-show/mega-church model, has led him to think rather highly of himself as well. This means that he’s pushing aside Fred’s longtime accountant and trusted friend, Minister Hunter (Donnie McClurkin), who in turn starts to scout other mega-church preaching possibilities. When Frank starts describing his big ideas, Ernestine rolls her eyes, just before she reminds David that he has to protect his father’s legacy. David does so far as to sing on some weekends (and these scenes are rousing, if not brilliant) and gather his industry friends for a fundraising memorial to his dad (this includes a show-stopping performance by Yolanda Adams, reminding you just how incredible gospel singing can be, when not immersed in soapy claptrap).
The clunkiness of the film’s structure (some scenes seem cut together randomly, others fall into corny music-based montages, and still others just click time while waiting for the next choir number) detracts from its basic theme, the simultaneous conflict and sameness between pop music stardom and church celebrity and commercialism, and the emphasis on profits that drives both. On the most emphatic level, this theme is embodied by David and Frank. For like his former friend, Frank sees himself as a superstar, deserving of certain privileges and leading his flock according to his “vision.”
In this enterprise, Frank is both egged on and challenged by his wife (and David’s cousin) Charlene (Nona Gaye, mostly reduced to reaction shots). The movie’s depiction of their strained relationship is occasionally unintentionally comic (at least for the preview audience with whom I saw the picture), as she turns away from him in their bedroom and he conveys his frustrations via furrowed and earnest brow and tensed, well-muscled shoulders. While they refer mysteriously to an undisclosed “problem,” Lifetime-movie-style, the reason for their estrangement is both repressed and obvious, in the form of clichés. And so, when their secret is at last revealed — in a sensational showdown that has Charlene looking down on a furiously bereft Frank from a great height above (their home featuring palatial architectural details) — the almost immediate result (resolutions all around, at church and at home) hardly makes sense.
Indeed, The Gospel‘s melodramatic poses and situations repeatedly undermine its better inclinations. The film never does take up the problems represented by the mega-church phenomenon, but instead blames Frank for his individual weaknesses, while allowing the broader cultural and political questions to remain unasked. (Who benefits from mega-churches? Why are they on the rise now? And what are the moral and spiritual costs of mega-churches’ use of pop-star tactics to solicit paying membership and save souls?) When, at film’s end, Frank recovers himself and preaches from his heart, it doesn’t sound so different from what he’s been saying before. And when a young, aspiring rapper “comes down” the aisle to be welcomed into the church because he’s been invited by his idol, David, you might be wondering about his next chapter.
Only Wesley seems to have reconciled and maintained himself in equal parts: producing gospel tracks, he can still afford his yellow Hummer.