American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel, directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler, is yet another new documentary about the changing role of religion in American society. However, as the title would suggest, the film and its subjects are more concerned with politics than they are with anything else, and the result is a mostly entertaining documentary.
This movie follows a group of Christian ministers and congregations who take a stand against the religion’s fundamentalist status quo to promote a form of the religion with more diversity and inclusivity. The catch? These ministers are working in Oklahoma, in the center of the Bible Belt, where the pushback is sure to be the most severe.
As a result, there is plenty of conflict to be shown in the film, and it is surprisingly cinematic. We get to see both external conflict with fundamentalists who are trying to fight back against the subjects (including a riveting case study involving a female minister who is trying to lead prayer at a state Senate meeting) and the internal conflict within the congregations as they try to decide between the Christianity with which they grew up and the Christianity which they now know.
The filmmakers also do an excellent job of making this movie feel not only relevant to modern politics, but also strikingly urgent. Topics addressed by the film range from gender equality to the immigration crisis. Particularly in relation to the latter topic, this documentary feels important because it explores the ethical implications of both sides of the argument in a way that is earnest and thought-provoking.
In terms of pacing, the movie is mostly very solid. Butler has cut the movie together in a way that the different stories blend together seamlessly. Though it will (accurately) seem like this film has bitten off a whole lot to chew, it manages to balance all of its themes and subjects effectively and with enough depth to make the end result feel substantial.
The main subject, Dr. Reverend Robin Meyers, is presented in a way that is quite interesting and sympathetic way. Even if you don’t agree with all of his political beliefs, it will be hard not to admire what he is trying to do in order to make the world a better place. Other interviewees and subjects, such as Reverend Lori Walke and Reverend Bishop Carlton Pearson, are also compelling, even if they aren’t developed with as much complexity.
On a technical level, the film was also quite good. The story is told mostly through interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage with a bit of archive material thrown in when necessary. Butler opts for a more straightforward and simplistic style, which benefits the movie in the long run, as it allows the story and subjects to speak for themselves.
Although American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel doesn’t reinvent the wheel of political/religious documentaries, it is still compelling and meaningful. This film is very much designed to be impactful in this day and age, so definitely check it out if you get the chance.
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is now in theaters.