Christian Movie Seeks Healing In America’s Racial Hotbed

movie“Love and forgiveness, that’s what it’s about.” This is how Academy Award winner Louis Gossett, Jr. describes “The Grace Card,” a movie currently filming in Memphis. Gossett plays George Wright, a civil rights pioneer and long-time activist minister who provides wisdom and advice to his grandson Sam, who’s chosen to follow in George’s ministry footsteps. Problem is, Sam Wright’s church is too small and budget-challenged. Sam’s a full-time cop on the tough streets of inner city Memphis, preaching on Sunday.

Landing Gossett to star in the movie is front-page-news in Memphis and a huge leap for faith-based features. Until recently, most Christian movies relied heavily on unknown actors or amateurs, and typically could best be described as “preaching to the choir.” The Grace Card’s creator, David Evans wanted to change that. And he started with the script. “I’ve been writing and producing live Christian events for nearly twenty years,” Evans says. “But I’m an optometrist by trade. I’ve never made a feature film before. I knew I needed to surround myself with a team that could best bring this vision to life.”

Enter veteran screenwriter Howie Klausner. Klausner is a 20-year Hollywood writer and evangelical Christian who wrote Clint Eastwood’s “Space Cowboys” among other films. Klausner had recently left Los Angeles, relocating to his hometown of Nashville to set up shop as an independent writer-producer. “My mission statement, I guess, is to use my years as a mainstream filmmaker, and help grow the Christian movie up a bit. And I think we’re doing just that here.”

Evans enlisted Klausner to rewrite his first draft, and come on board to produce the film with him.

“We look at this project as Fireproof 2.0,” Klausner says with a respectful chuckle. “The Sherwood Baptist guys have opened up a door for all of us, proving that faith based features can stand up in the marketplace.” His point is well taken. “Fireproof,” the brainchild of Alex and Steven Kendrick, continues to break records as the most successful independent faith based feature ever. Evans even tapped actor-youth pastor Stephen Dervan to play a comic-relief role as a rookie officer. Dervan is best known for playing the hot-sauce-drinking firefighter in “Fireproof.”

“People want to see name actors, quality production values and good stories,” says Klausner. “And despite conventional Hollywood ‘wisdom’, the gospel and grace is just as real and relevant as a movie theme as it was 2000 years ago.”

“The Grace Card” doesn’t feel benign, safe, or “preaching to the choir.” This is a tough and gritty story of racial reconciliation wrapped in a police and family drama. A personal tragedy has left officer Mac McDonald, played by veteran screen actor Michael Joiner, a bitter, angry soul. He blames his downward spiral on minorities, “the system” and God Himself. All comes to a boil when Mac is paired with new a new partner — African-American pastor-cop Sam Wright, played by Memphis’ own Michael Higgenbottom. When the unthinkable happens to Mac, his only lifeline is Grace, offered by the God he’s abandoned, through the gift of a man he can barely stand.

Lou Gossett’s character George Wright sums up Evans’ and Klausner’s philosophy in one of the film’s flagship scenes: “Jesus worked right here–in the streets. Grace… is tough stuff.”

Evans wants the story to motivate Christians in his community to tackle the city’s race problems and work toward healing. The film has already made an impact on the town. “One of our most important scenes takes place in a predominantly black Memphis church,” says Evans. “Without giving the plot away, actors, crew and hundreds of extras from both black and white congregations were hugging each other and crying because of the subject matter.”

Evans’ church usually puts on an ambitious Easter program but opted to support the film instead this year. Church members help with everything from carpentry to catering on the set. Evans chose to balance the crew with many local and Hollywood-based professionals. Veterans from hit films such as “Walk the Line,” “The Rainmaker,” “Fireproof,” “Scream 2,” and “Bedtime Stories,” are on set.

“It’s a unique combination of volunteer and professional crew,” Memphis Deputy Film Commissioner Sharon Fox O’Guin told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I’ve rarely seen such passion and dedication to a project.”

It all goes back to Klausner’s vision to “grow up” Christian films.

“Christian audiences are, by nature, very forgiving. Maybe it’s just because so few films coming out of Hollywood reflect the values we hold dear, they’re turning out in droves. But that doesn’t give us license to be lazy. We don’t honor God, and we won’t serve His passion for his people with spotty production values, vanilla writing or bad acting. We gotta bring our best, we have to boldly put it out there, and let God take it from there.”

That is precisely what David Evans and Howie Klausner are doing on location in Memphis Tennessee. The film will complete production later this month and in theaters Spring 2010.

Pictured: Sam (Michael Higgenbottom) and George (Louis Gossett, Jr.) walk along the Mississippi River in a scene from the movie