Adjunct professor and lifelong lover of film Tyler Smith takes a historical deep dive into the sometimes contentious relationship between Hollywood and the big-C Church in his 96-minute video essay, Reel Redemption: The Rise of Christian Cinema. Rather than attempt to make a comprehensive survey of this topic, Smith opts for a thorough yet trimmed study of the matter, focusing on events and films that caused Christians delight and disgruntlement since the miracle of movies began, using a combination of voice-over narration, title cards, and curated movie clips.
While Smith clearly knows his film history, Reel Redemption is far from being a mere survey of the facts. While viewers might be tempted to see Smith as an impartial party, due to his matter-of-fact intonation and well-crafted script, his passion for both the film industry and the Christian community shines through. Like a lawyer acting as both the prosecuting and defense attorney in the strangest courtroom ever, he lays out the case for why each should care about the fate of the other. Like a marriage counselor trying to help a couple on the brink of complete separation, Smith reminds both parties of what could be lost or gained in coming together, but he does so with logic, rather than relying on emotion.
Structurally, Reel Redemption has two halves. The first half details how Christianity and the Church have been represented in film, including both negative and positive portrayals. Black-and-white title cards separate different periods of history to help viewers follow the chronology. While the first 13 minutes of history contains only brisk narration over a montage of movie moments, Smith then begins interjecting his thoughts with clips from movies. While many of the movies used will be no surprise (The Ten Commandments makes an appearance, of course), others that make an appearance (Pulp Fiction) may surprise moviegoers. From movies that contain positive representations of people of faith to ones that openly criticize Christianity, Smith uses these clips to highlight how the relationship between the Church and the film industry changed from copacetic to contentious, reflecting the culture of the time.
The crescendo and turning point of the film comes when Smith contrasts two parallel movie releases that had equal yet opposite impacts on our estranged couple, Hollywood and the Church. In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was hailed by critics and denigrated by the Christian church as a whole, mainly because of its portrayal of Jesus as a sexual being. Then, in 2004, Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, which was loved by the faithful yet besmirched by the film community for its bone-crunching violence. Smith lingers upon these events, stopping to show taped interviews of audience reactions and news coverage of both films, giving them weight as times in which battle lines were drawn as never before.
The second half of the movie covers the span of 17 years during which faith-based movies made explicitly by and for Christian appeared on the scene, marking the rise of the faith-based film market. In this half, Smith seems to be mainly addressing the film industry at large, highlighting the movies that have made a mark, pointing out the financial successes of these movies, and showing how Christian audiences have impacted mainstream movies, as well. To conclude the essay, Smith muses on what the future of Christian cinema could be, offering examples of movies that might invite respect from secular, as well as Christian audiences, due to the way they resist preaching at the audience. Smith’s open-ended yet hopeful conclusion seems to hint at a future in which Hollywood and the Church reconcile and find common ground.
The knowledge and passion Smith brings to this essay leaves nothing to be desired. The amount of information Smith packs into the film will please the scholarly yet the brisk pace and many clips and images make it easy-to-understand and accessible to casual audiences, as well. Anyone with an interest in film history and/or Christian culture will appreciate Reel Redemption, and Smith courts these two audiences with equal respect and affection and with a voice that will garner respect from both. To Christians, Smith reminds them of the long-standing legacy of films that already exists and demonstrates the medium’s potential for changing the hearts and minds of audiences, when made with skill. For film creators, the call to action seems to be to take a closer look at the faith-based film industry (which the film industry at large often treats like that weird cousin no one wants at the party) and its successes and failures. Theoretically, a skilled filmmaker, regardless of personal ideology, could use the information laid out by Smith to create a new iteration of stories that would be esteemed and appreciated by Christian audiences who desire to see themselves represented on screen and the market for these films is now well-established.
In conclusion, Reel Redemption fills a niche largely uncovered in the film community today. The study of faith-based films has been largely neglected by the film industry and, perhaps, with good reason. However, Tyler Smith’s well-researched and thorough history of Christian cinema may generate interest in seeing the reunion of these two estranged lovers once again.
Available for streaming on FaithLifeTV.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.