To Have and to Hold
Can T. D. Jakes expand his audience and still maintain his message?
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The Dallas-based preacher, self-help author, novelist, movie producer, and sometimes actor T. D. Jakes would seem to be an unlikely candidate for the role of the modern multimedia emperor. He is rotund and bald-pated and has a tendency to squint. He speaks in a low, sibilant voice, sometimes swallowing his words entirely. But when Jakes preaches his core message, about casting off vice and making right with God, he employs a commanding singsong that frequently bursts into enraged shouting; it’s compassionate conservatism with fire and brimstone. And like all proper moguls, he is a master at finding new ways to extend what he terms “the T. D. Jakes brand.” Following the success of the dark, daring Woman, Thou Art Loosed (2004), based on his own novel, he struck a first-look deal with Sony. A second film, Not Easily Broken, based on another of his novels and co-produced by him, was released in 2009. His goal, he says, is to reach audiences where they pray and play. “People don’t go out on Friday night to be preached to,” Jakes told me this spring. “They do that on Sunday. On Friday they want to sit with a bag of popcorn and be entertained.”
This month, Jakes aims to reach beyond his faith-based, primarily African American audience with Jumping the Broom, a romantic comedy he helped develop. Set over a long weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, where well-to-do Sabrina (Paula Patton) is set to marry up-from-his-bootstraps investment banker Jason (Laz Alonso), the movie, directed by Salim Akil, plays like a less raucous version of one of Tyler Perry’s comic melodramas: Families bicker, secrets are revealed, God is invoked—and inevitably everyone lives happily ever after. It certainly goes down easy, though you might find your mind wandering: When did the intensely purposeful Jakes become a purveyor of cutesy comedy about stuffy, upper-class African Americans squaring off against down-home folks from the hood? Even his performance in the film, as the minister set to marry Sabrina and Jason, feels preternaturally soft, all politely whispered words of wisdom and munificent smiles. The fire and brimstone has been tamped with a moist towelette.
You can’t exactly blame Jakes for taking such a conventional route, not when Tyler Perry has been earning millions repeatedly connecting with a vastly underserved black female audience. But might this bid for mainstream embrace undermine the very things that first earned him notice? Jakes isn’t a natural-born coddler like Perry—he’s a stern moralist swimming upstream in a sea of sentimentalists. He grew up in West Virginia, defying the criticism of those who said a young man with a lisp could never be a successful preacher. When he founded the Potter’s House of Dallas, in 1995, he paid particular attention to those whom society had given up on: recovering addicts, former prostitutes, victims of abuse. (The megachurch now has an estimated 30,000 members, and Jakes’ sermons air weekly on TBN and BET.) With titles like So You Call Yourself a Man? and Can You Stand to Be Blessed? his more than thirty books—a number of them New York Times best-sellers—are both punitive and inspirational: Jakes will offer you absolution, but first you’ll receive a stern tongue-lashing.
Cruelty and kindness, fury and grace: These are the juxtapositions that made Jakes’s first feature, Woman, Thou Art Loosed, so intriguing. The main character is a young woman named Michelle (Kimberly Elise) who turned to a life of drugs and prostitution after being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. The story unfolds in flashback, with Michelle on death row for having murdered her molester. Murkily lit and shot on grainy-looking digital video, the film is reminiscent of a cheap horror flick; Jakes (who appears as himself) and director Michael Schultz seem intent on scaring viewers onto the righteous path. It should have been box office poison, yet Woman, Thou Art Loosed earned $7 million, impressive for an indie that played on only 521 screens, perhaps because it was vivid and original, a kind of spiritualist film noir in which the heroine is also the femme fatale.
You could see Jakes straining to remain true to his rigorous worldview in Not Easily Broken, about a high-strung career woman (Taraji P. Henson) who refuses to start a family with her husband (Morris Chestnut). The movie’s message is unapologetically antiquated and purely Jakes-ian: Wives need to learn to become more submissive to their husbands, and husbands need to better embrace their roles as providers. But Not Easily Broken also saw the producer cribbing from Perry’s playbook: There is an inane subplot about a grieving woman who develops a too-close friendship with the husband, and knowing where their box office bread is buttered, Jakes and director Bill Duke made certain to include shots of the uniformly muscular male cast without shirts. (The movie earned $10 million, a respectable figure but a far cry from the $30 million or $40 million gross of one of Perry’s pictures.)
With Jumping the Broom, the remaining rough edges—and last traces of originality—have been smoothed out. Yes, there are a couple of classic Jakes tropes: a pair of abrasive mothers (Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine) and a secret-keeping father (Brian Stokes Mitchell). But this time the main characters are goody-two-shoes types: the once promiscuous Sabrina, who has made a pact with God to not have sex again before marriage, and the almost saintly Jason, who dutifully respects her chastity. Meanwhile, the lush, Grand Guignol weirdness of Woman, Thou Art Loosed has been replaced with sunbaked images of a sprawling seaside mansion, interspersed with still more shots of the uniformly muscular male cast without shirts. More than message-oriented, faith-affirming entertainment, this movie is mostly just a lot of Pottery Barn and J. Crew catalog wish fulfillment.
“The issue is not whether your audience will enjoy it,” Jakes told me, when I asked about his mainstream ambitions. “The question is whether people outside your audience will come out.” I’m prone to disagree. Jumping the Broom, set to open on nearly two thousand screens, might well turn out to be his biggest hit. But by pitching himself so unabashedly at the mainstream, Jakes has put forth a movie indistinguishable from a dozen other forgettable African American–centered romantic comedies of recent years, like Just Wright, Brown Sugar, and Our Family Wedding. And how can any mogul thrive if he forgets what made him a mogul in the first place? Strange as it might sound, T. D. Jakes may be suffering a crisis of faith in his own brand.
Name It and Claim It: A preacher aims for mainstream appeal beyond Hollywood
Jumping the Broom isn’t the only recent effort by Jakes to carve out a share of the secular marketplace. The producer was exploring a daily syndicated talk show that looked to be close to a green light in 2009, until his limited schedule and the recession dissolved those plans. He is now working on a new sitcom, called One Love, about the lives of a Chicago pastor and his wife (Mark Curry and Sheryl Lee Ralph). According to Jakes, eight episodes of the show have been shot, and he is now negotiating with networks in the hope that it will premiere in the fall. Jakes sees these endeavors as a chance to bring a faith-based perspective to current events and social topics. “Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we’re not interested in war or health or politics,” he told me. “It’s frustrating to me personally to be confined by my faith.”