(This week the amazing BAMcinématek will be presenting their annual “New Voices in Black Cinema” series. The entire lineup looks solid and our Evan Louison was blown away by Jake Mahaffy’s Free in Deed.)
You will not torment this child, you will not torment this child…
A word of warning to all who may enter Brooklyn Repertory destination BAMCinematek this Saturday evening: These are words that will repeat in the mind of every viewer who exits’s Jake Mahaffy’s Free in Deed, screening as a part of their annual New Voices in Black Cinema series, running April 21st to the 24th. Presenting an extrapolation of historical example, the film is a veritable apotheosis of the conflict between faith and medical reality, providing a glimpse of the most needy and perhaps the most at risk, and deadset in the rift of crisis between devotion in sheer numbers, and the consequences of justice in the eyes of the Law.
A visionary achievement, Mahaffy’s third feature effort and first produced outside the confines of micro budget execution, the film premiered at Venice last fall, where it garnered the prestigious Orrizonti Prize, and took bows at AFI and SXSW earlier this year. Immersing his unflinching, exacting focus in the well of both chaotic human relations and the genuine, empathic charity often found in deeply fundamentalist, Pentecostal communities, Mahaffy’s narrative hints at the coded language of disdain reserved by authorities for both poverty and desperation, and the impact of such dismissive treatment on the lives of those the most in need, of genuine intervention and support, be that of a divine nature or otherwise.
You will leave this child.
Open the doors Demon, I cast you out…
These aforementioned words are bound to echo and resonate long after the houselights return, as they are the last words uttered by a man of faith and charity, before his act of ministry crosses over into the realm of tragic accidental happenstance. Delivered with such force, they come from a place so desperate and human that the tragedy and injustice that follows their utterance, and the frustration of their original intent, feels all the more palpable an affirmation, a journey rife with foreboding, ridden with underpinnings at times unsettling to endure.
Brother Abe, our man of faith, is just one component part of the more detailed strata that Mahaffy’s picture seeks to articulate. These contributions to the greater work include a profound score by freshman composer Tim Oxton, and evocative imagery by DP Ava Berkofsky (known for the beautiful Postcards from “HERE” – the companion piece to Braden King’s 2012 film set in Armenia). But all other efforts aside, it is the character of Brother Abe, portrayed in riveting, breathtaking restraint by British-born David Harewood, in a performance that is truly, undeniably, for the ages, that makes the picture what it is. In the cinema, there are actors, there are showmen, there are model stand-ins for real people – and then there is that select, elite class of performer, a regimen of artist belonging to a Higher Academy – and it is these performers, and only these, who have the ability to leave you with chills not only throughout their performance’s duration, but long after. David Harewood, in Free in Deed, is one of these.
When we meet Abe, he is at first a secondary character. The narrative focuses primarily on the challenges faced by Melva (Edwina Findley, in a likewise staggeringly authentic portrayal), a Black single mother of two with dwindling patience and resources – her son, Benny Jr. (played to excruciating, shocking levels of realism by newcomer RaJay Chandler), suffers from an unnamed, unspecified mental illness, that leads him to repeatedly lash out violently, committing extreme acts of self-harm, and screaming bloody murder at what appears to be a storm brewing deep within the confines of his head. Melva, at the end of her rope, must make the absurd decision to either respond to reports from Benny’s school that he’s had yet another incident of violence, and leave work early to tend to his needs, or face her boss’ ultimatum of – “You leave early today, you leave your job.” She chooses her son, and in the hospital waiting room is approached by a kind, elderly Parishioner who invites her to join her congregation, and allow Christ to heal her child’s suffering, as well as her own. For a moment it is as if the clouds parted, and the heavens opened, beckoning.
It is here that Brother Abe first comes into their lives. In the beginning, it is a gentle hand with which Abe finds himself being utilized as a Mortal Instrument of the Almighty, and Melva’s family’s needs are a burden that the Lord has placed upon him. Abe is a complicated, war-torn individual, stating repeatedly that he is “here to help people, not hurt people anymore,” and never once fails to make his way to the Altar to be “saved,” no matter how many times he’s been baptized, re-baptized, confirmed, re- confirmed, and so on. But it’s never enough for Abe, no weakness or failing is acceptable in the eyes of his God, and he will do literally anything to prove God’s love for His children in the earthly confines of this world, stopping at seemingly nothing to find and make evidence of such proof. It is such devotion, such zealous commitment to the cause of Christ’s ministry that leads him down the road to tragedy, perhaps naively, perhaps unwittingly so.
Mahaffy’s picture, cast from local Memphis congregations, and the first in recent memory to confront the issue of Faith so eloquently through the prism of Race and Class, takes us through the process by which Abe attempts to cure Benny Jr, attempting in turn to edify and chasten Melva, to convert her for the welfare and salvation of her entire family, and to provide rescue and relief to each of them by treating their son and brother’s affliction with love, faith, and what is known in such circles as the laying of hands. The sessions are sporadically placed throughout the narrative, interspersed between moments at home with the family, and moments between Abe and Melva. Faith healing sessions and Pentecostal, Revivalist churches have been the subjects of a few films of note over the last 50 years, Werner Herzog’s renowned but little seen Huie’s Sermon  and Peter Adair’s almost completely forgotten, yet still essential Holy Ghost People  among them, but never before was the sense of desperation, of the brimming human intensity to be found in these locales so fully on display, without a sense of either judgement or antiquity. Rather, the modernity that these rather primal (I dare not call them primitive here, having grown up in a religious home) belief systems are extant within is the same age we encounter in the streets outside the darkened theatre, everyday — and so must be reckoned with as such; as a division and parallel to our reality that is undeniable, present, and regardless of whether or not it may very well seem inconceivable in the eyes of the majority. These are people just like us.
Mahaffy’s picture depicts the callous indifference, the degree of disregard with which those in positions of caregiving and public health (read: Whites) treat the most unfortunate, be it the Social Worker who barges right into Melva’s apartment in the opening scene, or the White Doctor who tells Melva plainly, as if discussing the weather: “When mothers are having as much trouble as you are in providing for their children, we usually recommend an institution.” The options are not there, the help is not available, any mode of support or counsel is completely out of reach for these people. If it is a mystery to any in this era as to why those so susceptible to risk should turn to Faith to find some sense of solace, look no further – Free in Deed does the detective work for you. It’s a matter of hardship, and the hard-won sense of belonging and purpose that is born of that hardship’s amelioration. It is neither ignorance, nor stone-age mentalities. It is a matter of time; caring for a child in need (Benny Jr. being a most exemplary personification as such) takes more time than people in most walks of life would even be able to fathom. So for those in these situations, in order to have even the most basic requisite amount of time to provide such care, community support – like that of Brother Abe, and his Congregation – is needed. It is that simple. Lives go on, indifferent to limitations –They just adapt and take shelter.
An electric, meta-dynamism flows through these scenes of Ministry, with Abe holding Benny Jr. down on the Dias alongside Melva and a handful of other parishioners, each speaking in hushed, meditative tones, Abe’s commandments and exclamations growing louder with more passion and fury as the sessions go on, Benny Jr. all the while thrashing and screaming, like a wounded animal. It is painful to experience, and this is precisely the point. These people, these lives, there are those for whom these realities are not fiction – and it is through such disappointment and difficulty that reaching out for another, perhaps Higher solution occurs.
Abe’s quiet conviction, bleeding behind his distant, pleading gaze, coupled with Melva and Benny’s dependency upon each other, so desperately intertwined and helpless, is breathtaking and tender. That this family would require the hand of another to guide and save them from themselves is easy to grasp. Whether or not the Hand of God, it makes no difference — when Abe and Melva finally meet on intimate terms, their dynamic is so loaded with need that Abe himself can see no other solution save for a retreat into prayer – for it is this same role, be it as Father, companion, or a representative of God, that both compels him towards this family, and in turn drives them all closer to disaster.
Throughout each session, Benny Jr’s self-harm is so vivid, so graphic, it can only serve to remind all of us that there is reason to every form of madness, especially if said madness is an unequivocal, undying faith in Christ’s dominion over all things — including the human body -– for something unexplainable, such as a child in ungodly distress, must surely have cause. At one point, when Melva breaks a glass and Benny gets a hold of a piece, only to attack his sister almost immediately, there is a wave of terror and immersion that emerges from the frame, enveloping the viewer as if to compel them in unison alongside Melva’s experience – that there is just no easy way out of any of this, no easy answers, and no wonder she would turn to the Lord.
As the Preacher says, repeatedly – “Nothing too hard for God.” Melva attempts another round of new medication, but when Benny won’t take it, she gives up, sits at the kitchen table alone, clad in only a bathrobe, and cries. It would be difficult to recall the last time loneliness was depicted so accurately on screen as it is found in these bare, meager moments following her surrender to the futility of traditional childcare. She places the pill back in the bottle, and we find ourselves praying, for something, anything, be it divine or otherwise-natured, to step in. An intervention she seems to desire with such passion that it can surely only bring more hardship and pain, and yet we find ourselves empathizing with her for wanting it so badly. Somebody, Anybody, God Help Her. We almost want the Faith Healing to work, even though we don’t believe it will, part of us knows it won’t. But it is this chance, that hers and Abe’s effort might just have some effective utility in the fight to save her child’s life, that we find ourselves banking on, rooting for her faith to be affirmed, and her trials redeemed.
We get closer and closer to the Dias, to the Healers, with every session. It is this subjective elevation of proximity that allows the audience to realize, perhaps too late, that this journey is building to cataclysm. In the heat of the exorcism, as Abe repeatedly commands the evil from Benny Jr’s body, Benny, suddenly sedated and remote, his eyes increasingly widened from the effects of his newest medication, seems to speak. His mother breaks away from the many hands attempting to restrain her son. She cries out – “What did he just say?” As indistinct as the sound is at that moment, and heartbreaking as it may seem, I could’ve sworn I heard Benny say simply, “Please…”
When it’s all over, the tragedy is sharp, grueling, and sudden. The conclusion, abrupt. And the injustice of this boy’s short, disrupted life, perpetuated and confounded by the blame placed upon Brother Abe, is in sharp contrast to his commitment that what he was trying to do was help. Without giving too much away, it should be understood that Abe’s commitment to his vocation, and perhaps his own ignorance as to the complicating factors of Benny Jr’s condition (his body covered in unseen bruises, his system experiencing the effects of a new medicine for the first time), leads him to being held responsible by the same authorities who all but abandoned Melva and her family to his ministry in the first place. It is hardly a simple set of conclusive results, and truly a traumatic series of events. One can only wonder what one Parishioner, who takes to the Pulpit during service early on in the narrative, truly might mean when she half-sings, half-cries : “Lord, You will let them hear what the Devil has to say…”
Throughout Free in Deed, an almost completely silent character, Benny’s younger sister Etta, played by newcomer Zoe Lewis, must bare witness to the tragic proceedings of her brother’s daily outbursts, her mother’s constant battles with confusion, and the Church’s effort to bring calm to the unrest in all of their lives together. It is her plaintiff, unquestioning expression that remains resilient through the thick of it all, resembling the true innocence of love, laid bare. She is unafraid, even in the darkest moments. Never once does she cry. It is her strength, the perseverance of a child in the face of abnormality, that carries the message of Book of the Prophet Isaiah’s 9th chapter home :
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.