Black Christians shocked Hollywood last September.
War Room, the mainstream, prayer-themed film starring unknown black actors, dethroned the hit N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, at the box office over Labor Day weekend. But this was no fluke. Black Christian entertainment has been broadening its appeal for years.
Veteran entertainment journalist Jawn Murray, who powers his own popular lifestyle website, AlwaysAList.com, credits Oprah Winfrey’s talk show for this new gateway of opportunity for black entertainers.
“I think Oprah Winfrey kind of got the ball rolling when she would give platforms to artists like BeBe and CeCe [Winans] and Donnie McClurkin and other prominent faith-based artists,” says Murray. “And then we saw people like Bishop T.D. Jakes and Tyler Perry launch faith-based film projects that were very lucrative.”
Tyler Perry’s first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, released in 2005, starring Kimberly Elise, Shemar Moore and Perry as the grandma-esque Madea, topped the box office with nearly $22 million in its first weekend on just a $5.5-million budget, on its way to over $50 million. Perry’s 2009 film, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, starring Taraji P. Henson, topped the box office opening weekend with $23 million and also passed the $50-million mark. Video sales added another $20 million on a production budget estimated at between $13 million and $19 million.
T.D. Jakes’s 2004 film, Woman Thou Art Loosed — starring Kimberly Elise and Jakes, himself, as a pastor exploring the devastating effects of sexual molestation — generated $2.5 million in a limited release on its opening weekend, on its way to nearly $7 million overall.
“How did it wind up in the top 10 on a weekend where we had Shark Tale opening?” box office expert Paul Dergarabedian asked about this unexpected success.
Not Easily Broken, about a disintegrating marriage with God as a subtle, but important, influence, starring Taraji P. Henson and Morris Chestnut, grossed more than $10 million and added $15 million via home entertainment — five times its initial budget.
“We are seeing it also transfer over to the television realm.” Murray says. ”You have networks like UP and TV One doing lots of original, faith-based content with movies and sitcoms …”
UP produced several TV films through its one-time Faith and Family Screenplay Competition at the American Black Film Festival, including Comeback Dad (2014) with Charles Dutton and Tatyana Ali and Somebody’s Child (2012) starring Lynn Whitfield and Michael Jai White.
Now, at TV One, former UP head Brad Siegel has greenlit films re-telling biblical stories such as that of Job with the recent To Hell and Back, with Vanessa Bell Calloway and Ernie Hudson, and last year’s For the Love of Ruth, starring Tyler Perry alum Denise Boutte, Gary Dourdan and Loretta Devine.
And Winfrey will unveil Greenleaf, a megachurch TV drama starring Lynn Whitfield and herself, on her OWN network this summer. Bounce TV has found success with gospel stars David and Tamela Mann’s sitcom Mann & Wife and the dark drama Saints & Sinners, which has broken audience records.
“They’re not the stereotypical church [fare],” Murray says. “Christians live real lives, so they’re real-life stories. They’re stories of relationships and infidelity. They’re stories of addiction and abuse. They’re stories of struggle and triumph. Whatever anybody is dealing with on a day-to-day basis, Christians and people of faith deal with that, too.”
Brett Dismuke, president and COO of the Atlanta-based production company The Swirl Group, which has created many black Christian TV projects, cites the popularity of gospel stage plays in the early 2000s as a major catalyst.
“When any play had any hint of the Word in it, the playwright was allowed to come to churches and promote,” says Dismuke, a former stage-play producer whose company created Saints and Sinners. “So when you looked out at the audience of these plays that were touring the country, it was largely church congregations coming out en masse.”
Both Woman Thou Art Loosed and Diary of a Mad Black Woman began on stage.
Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett, Jr., who plays a blind pastor in the recently wrapped independent, mainstream Christian film The Reason, says Christian entertainment is becoming more popular because “we have gotten our fill of dropping bombs and shooting people.”
The veteran actor — who also appeared as a bishop in Russ Parr’s 2012 black church drama The Undershepherd — believes the rise of black Christian entertainment is a good thing.
“We need to lead the way now,” Gossett says. “We have to be children of God.”