This disturbing documentary from University of Kansas filmmaker K. Ryan Jones reveals the truth about homophobic “minister” Fred Phelps and his twisted Topeka congregation, as they move from gay-bashing to such equally appalling acts as desecrating the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. “Wisely maintains an even keel, letting the garrulous subjects hang themselves,” says “Variety.”
A must-watch on Showtime, starting Tuesday, Dec. 4th with multiple showings. Then on demand after Dec. 5th.
A few thoughts after watching Fall from Grace: Jones did an excellent job handling this material. He must have really talked a good game to get such close access to Phelps’ family. Including “on the fly” interviews with many of Phelps’ young grandchildren. Seeing 5-year-olds declare “fags are going to hell” was unsettling, to say the least.
But Jones’ main focus seemed to be differentiating Westboro Baptist from other religion. An exception to this is that he quoted Falwell, Robertson, and others spouting much the same rhetoric as Phelps, albeit less colorfully. Clearly, Jones was not trying to tar all religion with the same brush, but rather to encourage a less literalist interpretation of the bible. Both a pastor and a theologian spoke out eloquently against Phelps’ treatment of the subject of homosexuality, saying it is out of all proportion to how it is actually treated in the bible. They also notably discussed how the homosexuality referred to in the bible is actually pederasty–not the committed same-sex relationships we see today.
A total of 15 credited interview subjects appeared in this film, including the mayor of Topeka, Kansas, and two of Phelps’ estranged children. Both of these adult children were only heard on the telephone. They told a story of daily anger and frequent floggings and beatings at the hand of the senior Phelps, who ruled his family with an iron fist. They claimed he was addicted to anger, and that was his real motivation for attacking gays.
But the most powerful part of the piece was the profile of a 20-something Iraq widow, whose husband’s funeral was picketed by Phelps’ family. A posse of bikers showed up at the funeral to drown out the haters. She was a total innocent caught in the crossfire. Very sad.
All in all the documentary was a great showcase for this unfortunate chapter in U.S. religious history. It’s proof that whackjobs can use the press and pseudo-religion to cynically gain worldwide attention and further their agenda.
Two other interesting notes on this story:
- President Bush signed a bill into law prohibiting picketing within 500 feet of funerals. The ACLU has now mounted a challenge to the federal ban on free speech grounds.
- The film was completed sometime in 2006, and therefore omitted the recent $11 million judgment against the Phelps family, a move which should go a long way toward stopping the protests, and will probably force sale of their assets and put them on the street. (Yay!)
I’ve come down hard against the Phelps family on this issue. I think we can preserve the principle of free-speech without permitting such blatant hatred and incendiary conduct to occur. As far as I’m concerned, Westboro Baptist repeatedly picketing funerals (over 22,000 demonstrations in 15 years) is no different than Nazi skinheads repeatedly picketing synagogues. The ACLU is wrong on this one, it’s not free-speech, it is harassment and should not be tolerated.