The 2017 British Urban Film Festival opened with Free in Deed by New Zealand-American writer/director Jake Mahaffey and starring the ever-dependeable Bajan-Brit David Harewood,
Based on real events in the distinctive world of American, usually deep South, storefront churches, Free in Deed marks a long-overdue big screen leading role for Harewood (Supergirl, 2015-17, The Night Manager 2016, Homeland, 2011-15), which he handles with a hugely effective complexity and fervour.
Melva Neddy (Edwina Findley) is a single, African American mother of two, who is becoming increasingly isolated in a poor district of Tennessee. Her oldest kid, Benny (the astonishing RaJay Chandler in his acting debut), is an 8 year old, severely autistic child who screams/shouts his limited vocabulary and lashes out or self harms by way of communication. His baby sister Etta (the delightful Zoe Lewis) is the only one who can get through to him at times.
Melva is desperately juggling disinterested doctors and sky high pharmacy bills for meds that Benny often refuses in violent tantrums; an impatient school, ill-equipped to manage Benny’s special needs; an employer indifferent to her difficulties, and brief encounters with men who are unwilling to deal with the challenge of Benny.
Nearby, Abraham ‘Abe’ Wilkins (David Harewood) lives a curious existence of hard physical work and The Church, both as a pastor, and through simply helping people. He has a deeply troubled past, which still casts a long shadow over his life, and he clings to the tiny congregation of the local store-front church with an intense need for redemption.
After witnessing one of Benny’s outbursts in the local emergency room, one of the church sisters approaches Melva and invites her to join them, just as Abe is gaining the confidence of the congregation in recognising that he may have the gift of healing prayer. Melva’s curiosity is piqued, and she too is soon swept up in a wave of desperation towards the church, which seems to offer her so much of what is missing from her life. Abe has already caught her eye by the time a church sister recommends she try his faith healing to help Benny, sealing his fate.
What begins in brotherhood and faith, a group’s desire to perform a miracle and save a little boy, ends in tragedy.
Shot on location in and around Memphis, Tennessee, Free in Deed is a harrowing tale of the unimaginable consequences of either the best intentions or the worst delusions.
Mahaffey does a palpably good job of maintaining his objectivity here, and takes a truly secular view point. As such, he creates an inclusive, encompassing story which uses the formidable talent of two professional actors and some gifted amateurs. What results is a considered examination not just of the ecclesiastical, but of the harsh societal realities and human frailties which motivate the inspirational and the devotee. His innovative eye also spotted the ambience gold of the real-life basement church of Faith Temple, founded by Prophetess Libra, the entire congregation of whom appear as the supporting cast. Mahaffey immerses his fact-based fictional drama within documentary-style scenes of Faith Temple group worship. Attendees regularly burn up with fervent synergy, catch the spirit, and claim their little piece of that night’s miracle, never mind what the film makers are shooting in their background. DOP Ava Berkofsky captures on the one hand an aloof, stormcloud quality which seems to permeate the shabby, makeshift, blue collar Memphis life, then transmutes it into an almost otherworldly fugue, where desperation lives and a group of decent individuals could become morally confused.
Melva is the poster girl for when different facets of disadvantage collide. However, drawn sympathetically and played with exquisite vulnerability by Findley, the viewer finds and maintains an empathy for her, even as she slides insidiously into parental neglect.
But, it is in Harewood’s Abe that Mahaffey’s lean, observational screenplay finds perfect juxtapositions. He is of young-ish middle age, but he visibly carries the considerable weight of his past. Mahaffey gives us no details, yet Harewood communicates so much – something unforgivable, which is allowed to colour his entire outlook, and for which self-destructive behaviour or self-imposed punishment have failed as inadequate. Now, he is trying redemption and it drives him to make amends. It is a powerful enough motivator, you come to realise, to feel like (and possibly be confused with) the Divine to Abe!
He feels driven to save other people, but with the denial of any degree of happiness for himself. Mahaffey manages to convey how even this unfortunately contributes to the tragic outcome.
Faith-based filmmaking is currently on the rise in the U.S., and, whilst there is a counter-movement of similarly independent agnostic cinema, Mahaffey isn’t quite part of it. Instead, he has managed a nuanced account, free of sensationalism or judgment, and which pays a degree of respect to the events on which it has is based. Harewood admitted that extensive changes were made after he got the part, because the original lead, byMichael K. Williams (The Wire, 2002-08), had to depart the project along with the significantly distinct physicality he had brought to the role. Therefore, what we see on screen is a remarkable collaborative improvisation of which each cast member should be deeply proud, and with which any viewer will be profoundly impressed. Perhaps, in the end, this is why the film works so well on a human level.
Free in Deed won Best Film in the Horizons section of the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, where it received its world premiere in 2015, and was well-received at the 2016 South By South West (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin. It received its US release last month, and had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017. It has been nominated for 4 Film Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Male Lead for David Harewood and Best Supporting Female for Edwina Findley.
For more information on this film, visit the film’s website here.
Reference: Terrance Cottrell Jr., an autistic 8-year-old, diagnosed at 2 years, died of asphyxiation, on Aug 27 2003, a victim of the prayer service intended to save him. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide at the hands of Ray A. Hemphill, a 45 year-old, 150-pound preacher who led the spiritual healing service. He was convicted of felony child abuse of a child causing great bodily harm, and sentenced to 2½ years behind bars (max. 5) and 7½ years under state supervision (usual max is 5). He was also ordered to pay $1,225 in restitution, and to refrain from performing exorcisms until he receives “extensive training” in them. A former maintenance worker with no formal religious schooling, Hemphill was ordained as a pastor of the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith by his brother, Bishop David Hemphill, who founded the church in 1977. Read more here.