If a film has good intentions, and attempts with a certain earnestness to be of substance and merit, but falls short of what it is trying to be and say, does that make it a bad film? Or is it more of a disappointing film, something of an unfulfilled promise that never quite delivers, and as a result leaves its audience feeling empty and unsatisfied? These are the questions that surround Gospel Hill, a Southern-fried melodrama that wants to be...well...it seems that it wants to be several things all at once.
Set in a small Southern town of Julia, Danny Glover co-stars as John Malcolm, a relatively soft spoken and somewhat cynical man whose Civil Rights leader father was gunned down forty years earlier. The killer of Peter Malcolm (Samuel L. Jackson, seen in a handful of flashbacks) was never caught, and the mystery of the murder still plagues much of the town, including terminally ill Jack Herrod (Tom Bower), who was sheriff at the time of the killing. Herrod has two sons, Joel (Taylor Kitsch), who is dating the new school teacher Rosie (Julia Stiles), and Carl (Adam Baldwin), a half-ass lawyer having an affair with the black wife of Dr. Palmer (Giancarlo Esposito). Rosie works with John's wife Sarah Malcolm (Angela Bassett), who in addition to being a school teacher is a town activist opposed to the greedy corporation that is buying all the land in Gospel Hill, the poor black community of the town of Julia. Like most evil corporations, these bastards want to run out all the black people, so they build a golf course and some newer, better houses. The scheming Dr. Palmer is in the back pocket of the developers, doing their evil bidding while his wife regularly humps the son of the most hated white man in town. And while all this is going on--as if it wasn't enough--there is even more racial tension, as employed husband and father Lonnie (The RZA) struggles to look for work, while a disabled vet fired by Jack Herrod, who now runs the local factory, plots revenge.
If this all sounds like a bit much, it really is. There are enough characters and subplots in Gospel Hill to fill two movies, which makes the empty shallow feeling the movie leaves you with all the more frustrating. With all the material there is to work with, the film is never more than a cursory and surface examination of the obvious and predictable. There is a plot here, but very little story. We are introduced to characters, but we never get to know them. We watch scene after scene of characters interacting, without knowing (or caring) what drives the relationships. And when all is said and done, the film that wants to be an examination of racism as well as the shifting tides of culture and power and, for good measure, a portrait of redemption and forgiveness, never manages to be any of these things. Instead, it is all a nicely put together film that sort of sits there, hoping that through sheer force of will--and the best of intentions--it will become more important, heartfelt and relevant than it will ever actually be.
Director Giancarlo Esposito gets solid performances from his cast, and he has enough creative flare to elevate Gospel Hill above your standard made for television aesthetic (at least visually). The problem is that Esposito and his cast have more going for them than the script, and as a collective force, the director and the actors make Gospel Hill better than it really is. The script, despite whatever intentions the writers may have had, simply isn't that good. That's not to say the script is terrible, so much as it is lacking in depth, character and the emotional resonance required to make this a memorable movie (or at the very least, keep it from being forgettable). But as it is, this is what you call a "stumble flick"--the sort of movie you "stumble" across on cable one night, and watch because it seems engaging enough that you're willing to stick it out in the hope it will get better. And then you wait and wait and wait and then wait some more, thinking that eventually the film will make good on the promise of all it sets itself up to deliver, only to realize once the final credits are rolling that this is not the film you'd hoped it would be. You were hoping for a good film, and what you got was a movie that was barely okay.
Gospel Hill is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The picture quality was good, but I was watching an advanced screener, and cannot comment on final product.
Gospel Hill is presented in English in 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English, Spanish and French. The sound quality was good, but I was watching an advanced screener, and cannot comment on final product.
There were no bonus features on the screener disc.
If you can see Gospel Hill on cable without paying for it, then it might be worth watching. But any scenario that involves paying more than a dollar to watch this movie is likely to end in disappointment.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]