Credit is due to director Giancarlo Esposito for attempting to generate discussion on the issues the film wants to bring to light, and some credit I’m giving to him, as well as his cast of veritable, tested talents, including the always earnest Angela Bassett as an iron-jawed grade school teacher, and Danny Glover as an aging mechanic, as well as Bassett’s depressed husband, still trying to come to terms with the death of his father, played in black and white flashbacks by Samuel L. Jackson – a civil rights leader in the mold of Malcolm X (coincidentally, or likely not, his name is Paul Malcolm) who was assassinated by a white man, we eventually learn. Although, I actually chuckled at the ham-fisted manner in which the assassin is revealed to us. But you’ll have to see the film to understand what I mean.
Rounding out the cast are Esposito himself, the town doctor, and resident “sell-out,” who acts as “errand boy” for the outsider white-owned development company intent on building a golf course on sacred land – a historically significant African American community.
And a rather ripe Nia Long flirts with us as Esposito’s unfaithful wife; Julia Stiles is a new teacher at the local grade school with a self-righteous streak; and Taylor Kitsch is her blue collar landscaper suitor, whom she eventually dumps, because of what she believes are his questionable capitalistic-driven initiatives, when he aligns himself with Esposito’s “errand boy,” who offers him landscaping work at several homes he owns.
Tom Bower plays the resident aging white racist, and father of Taylor Kitsch, as well as Adam Baldwin’s character (who, by the way is having an affair with Nia Long, Esposito’s wife – an affair he eventually ends, because it’s the “right thing to do”). Both sons are distant from their father and his ignorance; we are led to believe that clearly, they’ve embraced MLK’s dream (I suppose sleeping with a married black woman is one way to show that), while their father, who, by the way, was the town’s sheriff at the time of Paul Malcolm’s assassination, still insists on “damning all those niggers to hell!” Naturally, he’s wrestling some demons of his own, one of which is the young black man he fired from his driving business, apparently for his perceived stereotypical “black man laziness.” However, by the film’s all-too-tidy ending, he rehires the kid, after reaching some catharsis of his own.
All that said, the characters in Gospel Hill, the eponymous community at the center of thespian Giancarlo Esposito’s directorial debut – a small town, a fact we are constantly reminded of – are too simplistically defined, cardboard cutouts, lifted from other “race” dramas, and felt false.
As a narrative on the miscellaneous connected lives of the residents of Gospel Hill, and its surrounding town (an area in which diversity means you’re either black or white), Gospel Hill could be seen as a mild success. However, that doesn’t quite seem to be the intent of Esposito and screenwriters Jeff Stacy and Jeffrey Pratt Gordon. There’s clearly an attempt at a core narrative that’s meant to be the film’s compass, but Esposito isn’t quite able, or sure how to share it with us, with so many characters, entering and leaving the frame, each with their own burgeoning stories that aren’t ever really fully realized.
The result feels like an unfocused 90-minute lesson in morality, full of speechifying that frequently jaunts into melodrama, which might explain the name of the community in which the characters live – Gospel Hill, where residents speak in sermons.
In this so-called “post-racial” era, one could say that residents of the town have maybe been influenced by Obama-mania. Despite it’s history of racial intolerance – a history that still lives with some of its aging residents – Gospel Hill and its surrounding town are full of men and women with oh-so virtuous intentions; working and middle class whites and blacks in this small southern society who seem to have embraced MLK’s dream of content of character trumping color of skin. I’m sure people like this exist in the real world; however, to find them all so heavily concentrated in one tiny southern town requires some reach.
Esposito seems to want us all to believe that MLK’s dream is indeed achievable, as well as in the resilience and intellectual insight of younger and future generations – both noble causes certainly. But the key words here are “seems to.”
A decent first effort from director Esposito, and I applaud him for taking the risk. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite earn the message(s) it wants its audience to take from it.
As an aside, I have to express my dissatisfaction with the DVD cover of the film, for its lack of imagination, and relying on the same old trite uses of imagery in marketing “black films” to black audiences. I’m sure you can guess what exactly I’m referring to – the hand holding the gun. It encourages an entirely false perception of the film’s content by including an image that is so inconsequential to the overall picture – a cheap and unfortunate marketing trend that I believe is to the film’s detriment.
I give Gospel Hill 2.5 out of 5 stars.
The film was released in a limited theatrical release in 2009. You can currently find it on DVD and VOD/digital download.