Memphis conquered Sundance a few years ago, but this week the city's film scene looks to make a splash in a different cinematic subculture: the growing world of Christian-themed and Christian–targeted feature films.
The local entry in this field is The Grace Card, a locally shot feature conceived, directed, and co-produced by David G. Evans and "sponsored" by the Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova. The Grace Card made its local public debut last fall at the Indie Memphis Film Festival but goes national this week via Sony's Affirm Films, which had success with the similarly church-sponsored Fireproof as well as other niche-marketed Christian films such as Facing the Giants and the crossover-oriented Not Easily Broken.
The film, which was shot at a variety of Memphis locations in 2009, uses local talent on both sides of the camera, most notably cinematographer John Paul Clark, who makes the film look professional after doing even better work on Daylight Fades.
The film focuses on the new, uneasy partnership between two beat cops, a younger, more optimistic African-American (Michael Higgenbottom) and a surlier, resentful white veteran (Michael Joiner).
The black cop/white cop dynamic is a well-worn film cliché at this point, one that's become the grist for mockery lately. But it's probably a good — and so-far unused — conceit for exploring civic issues in Memphis. And in making the younger cop an aspiring minister, The Grace Card is able to rope three crucial Memphis topics — race, religion, and crime — into one tidy premise.
With the more open-minded young black cop trying to negotiate the latent racism of his older white partner, The Grace Card has the skeleton of a good Memphis movie. In addition to the promising premise, it adds a solid visual depiction of the city that doesn't lean too much on tourist touchstones. It's also maybe the only local film to take note of the city's shifting racial and ethnic demographics.
While the film, which features a cast heavy with local nonprofessionals, can be forgiven for inconsistent acting — especially since newbie Higgenbottom is such a strong, engaging presence at the center of the action — it ultimately undercuts its early authenticity with a trio of preposterous — yet somehow predictable — second-half plot twists.
More troubling than these aesthetic limitations is a self-congratulatory take on "racial reconciliation" that the film seems to think is beyond criticism because of its Christian perspective but is instead highly problematic. In this film's worldview, "racial reconciliation" means putting the onus on black forgiveness while glossing over exactly why forgiveness might be needed. This culminates in a final scene in which a black minister — speaking in the words of a white screenwriter — admonishes a mostly black congregation not to "play the race card."
The Grace Card does offer a passing visual acknowledgement of the violent white resistance to the civil rights movement, but it builds a key scene — and, indeed, its very title concept — around the story, handed down from an elderly black man to his grandson, about a kindly slave owner. The details of this set piece feel designed to assuage any potentially uncomfortable introspection — much less guilt — in a core audience (upper-middle-class white conservatives) that needs to be challenged more boldly in any film serious about addressing racial problems.
The Grace Card further reveals a hermetically suburban civic perspective in likening the current state of the city to the powder keg of 1968 (cue younger city-dwellers furrowing their brows in confusion) and in a consistently rancid, dismissive attitude about public education that, if nothing else, feels more telling now in the wake of the current school-district controversies.
Opening Friday, February 25th