Denzel Washington’s Preaching A Sermon Worth Hearing

The other week my wife’s supervisor, Eva, told me that I should see Flight.  Knowing I am a pastor, she said it’d be good for me to see it.  So I saw it.  It was a chunk of Sabbath day, right before I picked up Dawn and Bryce from work.

I usually spend those weekly observances, looking for ways to locate the Source of my work so that when I reengage, I have something to bring.  That means, on Mondays, I’m looking for art exhibits, photography, film, and other evocative creations to turn me toward the Creator.  I’m looking and listening to do less and see more.

My thanks to Eva because her suggestion became part of Monday’s celebration for me when I saw Flight.  Each actor’s performance, the story itself, and the images throughout the movie combined to turn my mental and spiritual wheels.  There was a clear sense of the Divine for me, something that, for some reason, is simpler when I’m around aircraft.  Perhaps it’s the height or the upward motion.  Perhaps it’s those early Sunday school lessons returning to convince me that heaven relates to that vertical movement pulling us toward the heavenly host.  The movie took me in, and I boarded the experience hoping to enjoy the story, to see something provocative enough to make me think harder about substance abuse and redemption.

The cockpit on the screen made me nervous.  The plane was aged and I thought back to my flight class at U of I, when I was in that simulator and, then, when I was behind a Cessna 172, listening to the air traffic controller run through directions too fast to understand.  I appreciated the story from the beginning because I had a sliver of experience pushing throttle and pressing a rudder pedal.  I have also experienced parts of the emotional context of film, knowing a little about substance abuse in the lives of people in my life.

Like every one of “Denzel Washington’s” films (what does it say that we pay attention to the main character when we write these pieces?), I was enriched for having watched a movie.  Me and Dawn never meet disappointment when watching his films.  This one left me just off enough to be empathetic, to reconnect with struggles and pains that are commonplace, connections necessary for my work and my life.

Then, today, I read this review at Religion Dispatch.  Read it if you’ve seen the film and are considering a response intersecting with theology, particularly relative to Pentecostalism.  Maybe you were put off by the explicitly theological and biblical images.  Maybe the covert messages bordered too close to overt for you.  This will give you another perspective.

The article weaves in a part of Denzel Washington’s story, something I did not know: He received a prophecy as a young actor where the person told him he would preach to millions.  The article runs through a quick history of Brother Washington’s work in order to say, I think with the actor, that his career is the fulfillment of prophecy.  The film is explicit, in many ways.  There’s nothing you haven’t seen if you’ve watched New Jack City or Mo Betta Blues or if you’ve looked in the mirror every now and then.  But the material is explicit.

It’s always a stretch to call things so material and carnal and touchable divine.  Smarter people can articulate where that bold disconnect started and what maintains it.  It’s sad that the sexual, the physical, the ordinary, bodily stuff of skin and beauty and hair and proclivities have such a hard time turning us back to the creative Artist behind us.  I’ve known many believing people who press hard to push the physical from the divine, as if Jesus did not honor the material when he took flesh.  Brother Washington’s work is profane in that sense.  I imagine it’s unspeakable for some of my mentors in the faith to accept a claim that the moving picture that is Flight could spur a viewer God-ward.  Regardless of Denzel Washington’s pronounced and faithful Christian experience in a pentecostal church.  Regardless of the promoted role of the body, the emotions, and the mind and what those three combine to form in us.

Still, in a way, his profane language (and behavior) in this film is “preaching to the masses.”  And considering the body of his work, I’d say that the man not only has an excellent last name, but he has a powerful way of proclaiming truths in accessible, jarring, and captivating ways.  Of course, it’s even more interesting to learn that all of this just may be a fulfillment of words spoken at an earlier time in his ears.

I’d love to know what you think, if you’ve seen the film or if you read the RD post.

2 Comments

  1. Last week, my wife and I chose to see the film “Flight” for our date night. We both hold Denzel Washington in high esteem as an actor, and we appreciate his contribution of versatility and persuasiveness to the art of film. From ones perspective, the tacit of this film brings to mind another film in Denzel’ s resume: The Book of Eli. It is my claim that these two films are the best “christian” films that I’ve seen so far in my short existence. Like the Book of Eli, Denzel’s central [and “sermonic”] role in Flight, captures in so many ways, the tensions between the broken flesh, the mind, and spirit. This “sermon” does not sugar-coat substance abuse, nor the consequences that such actions would beckon. It’s a sermon that invites me in to grapple with the emotional pain of the character, and in response–reflect on my own story. And, like a good one does, this sermon also engages in the celebration of truth–and the liberation that ones own truth brings.

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