The recently released motion picture, Courageous, is the fourth film released by Sherwood Pictures, a church-based film production company that is an extension of the mission of Sherwood Baptist Church (SBC) in Albany, Georgia. The first hit-movie from Sherwood was Facing the Giants, a film with a football theme. This film was surprisingly successful, both commercially and among a significant number of Christians and churches. The second film, which was much better, was Fireproof. This is a film about marriage, Christian faith and conversion. The first film that director Alex Kendrick did for Sherwood Pictures was Flywheel, a not so widely-known feature about an unscrupulous used car salesman who resolves to win back his wife, become a better role model for his son, and stop ripping off his unsuspecting customers.
Courageous is, in my judgment, the best of the four films. (I have seen the three films that have appeared in theaters in wide-release.) The producers, writers and directors have all demonstrated noticeable improvement in film-making as they go along. They have also demonstrated that a church can actually make films that go mainstream.
This is the good news. But Christianity Today’s reviewer, Steven D. Greydanus, in a September 30 review, is surely correct when he says, “Right from the start it is evident how far the filmmakers have and haven’t come. Courageous opens with an unexpected grabber that establishes the main character as a competent hero, in the process introducing themes of fatherhood and self-sacrifice by showing rather than telling—all while demonstrating technical chops to boot.”
But this new film, like previous Sherwood productions, still feels more like a sermon than a film. Perhaps this is because it is rooted in a church, and a particular kind of church at that.
Courageous focuses on the lives of five men—four police officers, including an African-American, and one construction worker, who is Hispanic. The plot follows their domestic and professional lives, especially as this relates to their being good fathers. This is the central plot line of the film—how genuine fathers can and do make a real difference in the family when it is self-evident that their absence is destroying the next generation. (Though Sherwood reached out for consultation to Roman Catholics during development via marketing, they seem unable to actually acknowledge anything positive about Catholics on screen, a glaring result again of the producers own religious expression!) The film is, like all the previous films, has a simplistic sub-cultural Baptist and Southern context.
The film’s story lines overlap again and again and the texture is damaged in the process. I found myself asking questions about characters that came and went without any clear connection to the story line.
A criticism of most popular evangelical films, and one fairly made about Facing the Giants, is that the troubled protagonist can commit his life to God and everything will turn out just right in the end. While Courageous avoids this directly it cannot escape it indirectly. Once the lead character gets his life together it will not be long until his son embraces his dad and all is well. But this is not how many family struggles end in Christian homes. If a parent sees this film who has loved their child deeply and well and lives with alienation then this formulaic plot will miss the mark in a profoundly harmful way.
As with many such films there is a sermon scene where the characters are all in church and men stand up to commit their lives to being good fathers. While this is moving, if you understand the sub-culture as I do, it will miss the mark with scores of fathers and children in our culture. For this, and a half dozen other reasons, Courageous will play well with conservative evangelical Christians who want inspiration and encouragement. I have no doubt that for this reason it will do much good.
There is a deeply moving scene in this film. It is one that has never appeared in a Sherwood film. One of the lead characters, the black man whose father is deceased, seeks to make peace with his bad father. He writes a note and goes to his grave to read it to his dad. I believe a lot of people can relate to this powerfully. There is even welcome ambiguity at this point. Can the deceased hear our prayers? Can we ask God to speak to those we love in the next life? The film doesn’t answer this, which gave the scene even more credibility in my estimation.
Fireproof focused on a marriage that had failed but there were no children involved. Courageous does much better by focusing on marriage and children. It would have been greatly improved if all the prayers were not answered just right and all the outcomes were not so perfect. (There is one exception in this film, but even this exception is used to make the point that it too can turn out well in the end!)
Sherwood films is clearly making better pictures but they have a long way to go if they are to touch real people who live and function outside the sub-culture of the film’s characters and story line. I enjoyed the film but I was, as I often am with such “Christian” films, disappointed at the lost opportunity to reach a much wider and more critical audience.