Journal of Southern Religion

The Apostle, directed by Robert Duvall. October Films, 1997.

        As a lifelong Pentecostal, born and bred in the South, I viewed Robert Duvall's film The Apostle with more than a casual interest. For me, watching the film was a curious mixture of agony and ecstasy. It was agonizing because I have known many preachers just like Sonny over the years who have preached a hot Pentecostal gospel with seeming success only to fall into the very sins that they so fervently denounced from the pulpit.

"In the end, Duvall's movie just may turn out to be a documentary on a rapidly vanishing way of life."

      The ecstasy came from the incredibly authentic flavor of the film from start to finish. The "real" Pentecostal extras worshipped and witnessed just as millions do each week in Pentecostal churches. The interracial church life depicted in the film harks back to the Azusa Street "glory days" from 1906 to 1909 where it was said "the color line was washed away in the Blood." The joyful evangelism that permeated the film from start to finish showed Sonny to be a true believer, even if flawed, and not a con artist like Elmer Gantry or Marjoe Gortner. From the first scene of Dewey evangelizing comatose victims of an automobile accident to the climactic scene where he preaches a full sermon complete with an altar call and a "sky blue" conversion, to the closing scene where the imprisoned preacher leads his fellow road-gang convicts in a Jesus chant, the movie shows that whatever else he was, the preacher was a sincere believer in his message.

       As the film ended, I felt deeply moved. These are my people whom I have known all of my life. The Pentecostals I have known were mostly poor country folk who ministered to other poor people who were often neglected by the "formal" (mainline) churches. Their faith was touchingly sincere and effective, even though they were largely ignorant and uneducated.

      I was also painfully and sadly aware that the simple and rustic Pentecostal faith of the people in The Apostle was not a true picture of the vast majority of American Pentecostals today. Most have risen to a more comfortable middle-class "citified" status as they have forsaken their farms to move to more urban settings. To be sure, there are still multitudes of black and white churches in the South that match the stereotypes presented by the film, but now most Pentecostals worship in nice churches in nice neighborhoods and in many places are almost indistinguishable from their Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian neighbors. In the end, Duvall's movie just may turn out to be a documentary on a rapidly vanishing way of life.

      To give accolades for Duvall's performance is to state the obvious. Not long after the release of the film, I met Duvall the day he appeared on Pat Robertson's 700 Club. I told him that his acting was incredibly authentic, even down to the preaching style and the Southern Pentecostal worship styles and mannerisms that are so familiar to an older generation of Pentecostals.

       I think that Duvall and his film deserved Oscars far more than some of the others. It should not have been surprising, however, that Jack Nicholson won the Oscar for best actor. After all, Nicholson is one of Hollywood's own and his performance in As Good as it Gets depicted a genre and lifestyle that is vastly more familiar to the Hollywood film community than the hot, sweaty, Southern country-fried, holy roller world that Duvall made so real to his viewers. I predict, though, that long after the other Oscar-winning performances of 1998 are forgotten, Duvall's film will still be viewed and acclaimed as a timeless masterpiece.

Vinson Synan, Regent University

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

contents.main page.masthead.advertisers.e-mail