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'Woman, Thou Art Loosed' makes the case for spiritual healing

By Richard von Busack

AN EARLY SCENE in Woman, Thou Art Loosed seems to lay it on thick. A bishop is visiting death-row prisoner Michelle (Kimberly Elise), who says she recognizes the pastor from the cover of Time: "They said you'd be the next Billy Graham." The line bugged me. Screenwriters always inflate their characters' résumés. And Michelle had been a crack addict; why would she bother with Time? Moreover, the idea of a new Billy Graham is in itself dismaying. Does the world need a new Graham: a minister for the seemingly difficult but apparently all-too-easy job of soothing the conscience of George W. Bush and his kind?

But the impious don't know everything. Bishop T. D. Jakes, who plays himself, was indeed on the cover of Time in September 2001. The news magazine called him "America's Best Preacher" and claimed that he was one of the five possible successors to Graham. The source for Stan Foster's script was Bishop Jakes' screen story, based upon a popular sermon that he adapted into a bestselling book and a hit sacred recording. Jakes' preaching is nothing but impressive; he's a portly, powerful-looking figure in a gold suit, with a warbling, organlike voice that draws the worshipers to the altar. Watching him, I experienced a sensation of what a spiritual urge would feel like—if I could feel it. Sort of like the buzzing in a phantom limb, really. No minister who got as far as Jakes has could fail to make a good show onscreen.

Michelle tells the story of her life in flashback. It begins with her last release from prison. She tries to mend fences with her mother, Cassie (Loretta Devine), who's become sanctified since Michelle went into jail. Though Cassie is at peace with her God, she has never dared to admit that she knows that her husband (a very snaky Clifton Powell) raped Michelle when she was 12. This rift between mother and daughter sent Michelle on a downward spiral that ended with her waiting for execution.

Director Michael Schultz—whose long-ago hit Car Wash inspired Shark Tale—uses confessional interviews with the characters in which they explain their motivation. As always, this is a tacit admission that something is missing from the screenplay or the acting. Yet Elise's rage and despair are convincing and moving. Her moods turn on a dime. Note how she teases a too-gullible man with a fake prison horror story, and then suddenly gets furious when he thinks she's patronizing him. Debbi Morgan, as a comedy hairdresser, provides witty relief from the tragedy. Michelle says, "I called my grandmother mother, my mother by her first name, and her boyfriends 'uncle.'" Hearing a line like that, you don't need the end title that assures us that this film was based on the case histories of real-life women.

The problem of making Christian movies is always fretted over. When they're done, they should be done as Jakes and Schultz have done here: making sure the difference between a religious tract and a drama is observed. All it takes is one simple step—don't claim to have all the answers.

Woman, Thou Art Loosed (R; 99 min.), directed by Michael Schultz, written by Stan Foster, based on the novel by T.D. Jakes, photographed by Reinhart Peschke and starring Kimberly Elise, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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