Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
“Honor your father and mother” —this is the first commandment
with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may
live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Over the years a lot of people have been surprised that I, a Presbyterian minister, have been so in volved covering the movies. Many of my critics have described Hollywood as a den of iniquity that Christians should avoid at all costs. I wish then that I had known DeVon Franklin, or that his new book Produced By Faith: Navigating the Road to Success Without Compromising Your True Self had been available. He would have been Exhibit A for making a case that many of the denizens of Hollywood are indeed people of integrity—and of faith. And not sequestered in some small company producing films filled with God-talk aimed at church goers, but working amidst one of Hollywood’s powerful secular companies, the films of which have entertained millions—Columbia Pictures, where he is a Vice President for Production. He has overseen such movies as The Pursuit of Happyness, the remake of The Karate Kid, and Hancock.
This May is a big month for DeVon Franklin because this is when his new book Produced By Faith is being published, and the film he has helped produce Jumping the Broom is being released to theaters. When we talked over the telephone, I mentioned a quotation that has informed my approach to film ever since I was a fledgling pastor. Fr. John Culkin, S.J., a pioneer in getting Christians to take film seriously, wrote, “If Jesus were to come today and wanted to reach a mass audience, he would become a filmmaker.” DeVon (after asking if I should address him as “Mr. Franklin,” he immediately put me at ease by replying, “DeVon” ) exclaimed, “Yes, yes, he would!” I added, “While reading your book I thought, that is just what you have done.” “Yes, I have. Very early on in my life, after other options were closed off, I felt called to make movies. God has so blessed me and been with me in this.” (In Chapter Two of his book DeVon chronicles his early life and the sad addiction and early death of his father, leaving his mother to struggle to support herself and her three children, and then the years when his church and the movies played such an important part in his development.)
DeVon Franklin’s Produced by Faith is a fascinating combination of memoir (even though he is just in his early thirties), devotional testimony, and what some might regard as a self-help book. Actually, he would reject the last label, many times throughout the book insisting that only when we submit to God and his discipline, will we find happiness or success. He would probably prefer the book to be called a “God-help” work instead.
On page 3 DeVon writes about how it was while he was Sony’s point man in Beijing China, where he was overseeing work on the remake of The Karate Kid, that the idea for writing the book came to him. He states that he was sitting on a park bench reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans at the time. I asked him if there was a particular passage, thinking of how this Letter had been so influential in the spiritual awakening of Martin Luther and John Wesley. His answer, “Well, I had had a busy week. Flown to London for a premier, and then back to the US, and then on to Beijing—clear around the world. Some would say that I live in the fast lane, so busy, always on the go and all. But it really isn’t that way for me. I am always taking with me and reading my Bible, and God is with me. I see myself as living in the ‘faith lane.’ Anyway, I had been reading Romans, and when I got to the 8th chapter, I knew that I should write a book to help those seeking success in their lives, and that they do not need to downplay their faith, that God wanted to bless them and bring them success, if they stay with their principles.” In his book DeVon writes how standing up for one of his basic principles, that of keeping the Sabbath, has had a very positive result in his career and life. You need to know that DeVon is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and indeed a preacher filling the pulpit once a month at an Oakland church, and thus his Sabbath is not a Sunday, but begins with sundown on a Friday. He was part of a crew at the time when it became necessary to film a shot before the end of the day. He nervously looked at the sun lowering in the sky. I asked if there had been many such incidents, and he replied, “No there haven’t been. On that shoot they wanted me to help with the camera, but when I told them I couldn’t work on the Sabbath, they were okay with that. I have found that people in Hollywood have been very understanding of my beliefs. I’ve talked about them at times with members of the film crew, and we’ve prayed together and such. People sometimes think of Hollywood as being so full of evil and such, but it’s not been that way for me.” I expressed my appreciation of his clever use of film production terms as applied to his life and to the potential development of the life of the reader. (The book’s 14 chapter headings include, Ch. One “You the Movie;” Ch. Two “What’s the Big Idea?” ; Ch. Three “Selling It;” Ch. Four “Writing the Script;” Ch. Five “Getting Notes;” Ch. Six “Development Hell;” and jumping ahead, Ch. Nine “God’s Green Light;” Ch. Ten “Lights, Camera, Action,” and more.) He commented, “I had been keeping a notebook on ideas, pages of them, so I had lots of these to refer to when I worked with writer Tim Vanderhey on the book—he was a real blessing. I always write down ideas and such as the Spirit inspires me. It just seemed so natural to write about my life and that of those whom I want to reach through the book in terms of producing a movie.” I expressed my fear that when I first opened the advance copy sent me that this might be another of those “Gospel of Success” sort of things peddled by so many TV preachers, you know, “God wants you to be rich and famous things.” He quickly said, “No, it isn’t that at all, although I do think that God wants to bless us, both spiritually and physically. But it’s the spiritual that is the most important, not success in terms of money and prestige and all. It’s about being equipped so that we can be a blessing to others. And God expects us to do our part, God expects us to get ready, prepare ourselves and all. He doesn’t just take over and do everything for us.” Although I suspect there are many doctrinal differences between us, the exuberant faith of this Hollywood producer was enough to make me feel I was conversing with a brother in Christ. His book is obviously addressed to young evangelical Christians seeking guidance along the bumpy road of life, and wanting to avoid traveling down the tempting byways that become dead ends. I believe that it will be helpful as well to all believers, conservative or liberal; and even those who are not believers, the book will be a fascinating read that gives us a peek into the inner workings of the movie making industry. DeVon writes at the conclusion of Chapter One: “My primary God-given assignment and goal is to inspire you. If I can take my personal ambition and my service to Christ and make both more successful without compromising, you can. Let this be your handbook for progressing in your career and your faith at the same time, without compromising either one.” DeVon means it when he says “without
compromising.” He even shuts off his cell phone on the Sabbath. How’s that for an ambitious rising film executive? And so I highly recommend Produced By Faith: Navigating the Road to Success Without Compromising Your True Self. Because it is being launched by a major publishing house, Simon & Schuster’s Howard Books, you should have no trouble finding it. This would make a good gift for a new college graduate, instead of one of the platitude-filled tomes usually given out this time of year by family and friends. Because of its movie tie in and language, the recipient probably will actually read it.
When I asked DeVon about the film, the enthusiasm of his voice matched that of his words, “I’m very excited about it! It has such good people as Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Julie Bowen, Paula Patton, Laz Alonso, Mike Epps, Tasha Smith, Gary Dourdan, Valarie Pettiford, Vera Cudjoe, Meagan Good, Romeo Miller, DeRay Davis, and Pooch Hall. It’s about a wedding and a love relationship in which people wait until marriage to come together. And this isn’t preached. It’s just there in the story for people to see.” In his book DeVon writes of how the man who had helped him get established in Hollywood, Glendon Palmer, had lost his Hollywood job, falling onto such hard times that he had to apply for unemployment compensation, but for several years had kept on working with a friend on a script about a wedding. When Palmer was at last hired by another film production company, and DeVon was working with Bishop T.D. Jakes (producer and one of the stars in Woman, Thou Art Loosed?) to produce a new movie, DeVon called his friend to see if he had any ideas or scripts on hand. After describing several that did not seem suitable, he brought up his idea for a wedding picture. This sounded more promising, so DeVon read the script and discussed it with his associates. After a few months he suggested to Palmer the idea of turning the film into a faith-based picture. Hesitant at first, Palmer agreed, discussing it with his co-writers Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs. They assented, and so the film went into development, Palmer apparently switching to producer and the two women finishing the script. Production was assured when Angela Basset, who appreciated the ministry of Bishop Jakes, liked the script and signed on at less than usual rate.
And now that the movie is out, we can judge for ourselves the result of all the efforts of DeVon Franklin and company. The film has more than a touch of what is referred to as “the outrageous humor” of Tyler Perry, well blended with some of the seriousness of Bishop Jakes’ powerful film about the redemption of a murderess, Woman, Thou Art Loosed. Loretta Devine plays the groom’s combative mother Mrs. Taylor as a toned down Madea, the kind of woman who can walk into a room and stop all conversation by one loud judgmental phrase. Compared to her Angela Bassett’s mother of the bride is a Mary Popkins, despite her off-putting snobbishness.
The plot is: Beautiful Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton), intent on her make-up and texting while driving in Manhattan, almost runs down handsome Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso). While lying on the pavement as she hovers over him, Jason is mitten, and enters into a whirlwind romance with her. Raised by his caustic mother in Brooklyn, Jason enjoys the operas and other cultural pursuits that Sabrina introduces into his life. During their six-month courtship the two never meet the others’ parents until just before the wedding, partly because the Watsons live at a posh mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. And partly, we suspect, due to Jason’s apprehension of how his acerbic mother will relate to his prospective in-laws. The Watson’s are refined, even aristocratic, whereas Mrs. Taylor is an abrasive US Postal worker who treats her customers only slightly better than Genghis Kan would have. Jason does meet the Watsons for a luncheon at a posh Manhattan restaurant, but does not tell Mom of this.
From the very start Mrs. Taylor (we are not given the first name of Devine’s character, perhaps because her total identity has been that of her role of “Mom” ) is hostile, upset that neither Jason nor Sabrina have met her at the ferry landing, Mrs. Watson having sent a car for them instead. When the families meet in front of the mansion, Mrs. Taylor manages unwittingly to insult them, and Mrs. Watson scarcely conceals her discomfort that more Taylors than she had expected have shown up—including an aunt, an uncle, and a cousin. These Brooklynites provide plenty of humor and contrast to the cultured Watsons. One of them on the ferry looks around, claiming to be looking for a sight of Michelle and Obama, and another of them observes the Watsons with wonder, “They have white folks serving them!” There are several humorous subplots involving them, such as 20 year-old cousin Sebastian’s (Romeo Miller) romantic pursuit of Sabrina’s Aunt Shonda (Tasha Smith), who is twice his age.
Despite their opulence, the Watsons are not all that they appear to be, Mrs. Watson’s frosty relationship with her husband having deteriorated to the point at which she is convinced he has a mistress. Matters come to a boil at the rehearsal dinner when Mrs. Taylor says that she expects the bride and groom to jump over the broom that she has brought along, the very broom that she and her deceased husband had used at their wedding. She is taken aback when Mrs. Watson replies that her family has never observed that custom because they had never been slaves. Not only that, her ancestors had once owned slaves, a revelation that almost sends Mrs. Taylor into an angry rant on top of the table. Jason quickly says that it is Sabrina’s wedding, so he will go along with her wishes. The tempestuous exchange threatens to get out of hand, but Mr. Watson intervenes, trying to make peace.
It is more of a cold war than peace that prevails, and the next day Sabrina and Jason themselves are at each other’s throats, so that it looks as if there will be no wedding after all. How all this is settled makes for a delightful time. You do not have to be African American to enjoy the proceedings. (Though perhaps only such viewers will fully appreciate some of the humor. And also the subtle touch of casting: the upper crust Watsons are played by light-skinned actors and actresses, whereas the blue collar Taylors are darker hued. I probably would never have noticed this little detail had I not been educated by Spike Lee’s delightful School Daze, the first film to deal with complexion issues among African Americans.)
It is refreshing to see a film in which the lovers are Christians who have vowed to wait until marriage to consummate their union (well, one of them at least), rather than stripping their clothes off ten minutes after their first cutesy meeting. Despite the opinion of our cultural arbiters there are such folk of restraint, though you would never know this by most romantic comedies. Best of all, is the development that we see in the four main characters, especially in the two mothers. Both of the latter learn the difficult lesson of letting go of their children and to opening themselves up to a new, if uncomfortable, relationship with them. Jason’s mother grows the most, largely because she is the one most in need of changing.
This is a film that does contain life lessons, but it never preaches, not even in the brief scene in which the minister meets with the couple to discuss the ceremony, this person played by none other than Bishop Jakes himself.
In my interview DeVon replied to my question about his opinion of faith-based films, such as Facing the Giants or Fireproof, that he is glad that they have done well at the box office. This will mean that their producer (a Georgia Baptist church) will have more money to afford better production values and scripts and actors. But when I asked if he, being a Christian preacher, would prefer to work for such a company, rather than a secular one, he quickly responded, “Oh no! I am glad to
be where I am. I enjoy working with such good people, and can practice my faith here just as well. I think God has called me to where I should be.” This last line made me think of the scene in Amazing Grace in which young William Wilberforce, having experienced a revitalization of his Christian faith, visits his mentor John Newton to ask his advice about whether he should keep or resign his seat in Parliament. Like so many of the pious, Wilberforce was worried that politics is too dirty of an affair for a Christian to indulge in. The wise old man, the former slave ship captain who wrote the hymn that gives its name to the movie, assures him that he should not withdraw into a life of solitude, that he has God’s work to do, and should go and do it.
DeVon Franklin, dedicated 7th Day Adventist who will not work after sundown on Fridays, also has God’s work to do—not just on the one weekend of the month when he preaches the gospel at his home church Wings of Love Maranatha Ministries in Oakland, but also on week days when he oversees his various movie projects at Columbia pictures. Some have said that he lives “a double life,” a life of a Christian preacher one weekend a month and a life of Hollywood studio executive the rest of the time. However, I am sure he would deny this. His is a single life, one in which he serves God, both as preacher and as film executive. Take a look at the films he has worked on, The Karate Kid, The Pursuit of Happyness, and now Jumping the Broom, and see if you don’t agree. And if you want some good advice for keeping your integrity in the secular market place, as well as learning about a remarkable human being and get an inside peek at making movies, then get a copy of his Produced By Faith: Navigating the Road to Success Without Compromising Your True Self.
1. What kind of worlds have Sabrina and Jason grown up in? What does she bring to him, and what does he bring to her? Do you think that either comprehends the problems that lie ahead for them, given their different backgrounds?
2. Compare the two mothers. Both are used to getting their way, but how are their methods different? That is, who is the more blunt, and who subtler? How do you think they have affected their children?
3. What do you think of the ways in which the relatives are portrayed? Any stereotypes? What similarities do you see between this film and a Tyler Perry film? How are they both “naughty” and yet suffused with a moral code? (Were you surprised to see Bishop jakes in the film or learn that he is its major producer?)
4. What do you think of Sabrina’s vow to remain chaste until her wedding night? How is this counter cultural, given the way this is handled in most romantic comedies? How have the arbitrators of what is real convinced most people that “every body is doing it,” so why not go ahead and give in to our urges? How does this devalue sex?
5. What do you think of the Bishop’s suggestion of using the Genesis creation story for their wedding text? What do you think becoming “one flesh” means? How does Jesus use this text? How is this more difficult for Sabrina and Jason because of their different backgrounds?