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