"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent
about things that matter."
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the fall of 1995, I spent a semester away from college for an internship in Colorado Springs. That Halloween, I went to a local Walmart to buy supplies for my costume: yellow face paint, a yellow swim cap, black pipe cleaners, yellow dishwashing gloves and giant blue sweatpants. I was Homer Simpson, and I looked killer--although the cheap paint left a yellow glow on my face a few days afterward (my friend went as Spider-Man, and he had a blue hue).
I hadn't thought about that Walmart since, but there's a troubling story in Sole Journey involving anti-gay sentiment that brought the store's memory back to my mind. To think this could be the exact same store that I visited 14 years ago is strange, and a sad sign that despite plenty of progress in the gay rights movement, there's still a long way to go. That's where this mostly feel-good documentary comes in: Filled with a positive message about standing up for injustice, Sole Journey serves as a nice counterpunch to the far-more incensing Fall From Grace, the outstanding documentary that explored the message and movement of Rev. Fred Phelps.
The target here is James Dobson, one of the most powerful evangelical leaders in the country who reaches millions of radio listeners. His Focus on the Family, a powerful organization that promotes "straight family" values, does its best to stop gay rights progress: "Western Civilization itself seems to hang on this issue," Dobson says with supposed sincerity in one of many news clips presented here (he wouldn't agree to be interviewed for the film, so we just see him via television appearances).
The bulk of this hour-long documentary from Kate Burns and Sheila E. Schroeder focuses on Soleforce, an organization founded in 1999 and inspired by the non-violent resistance principles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, who "teaches us that minorities are not obliged to obey laws which are repugnant to their own conscious." Soleforce applies those principles in its effort to end religion-based oppression: "The unbelievable lies that are perpetrated by James Dobson and people like him...it's not even offensive, it's just vile," notes one supporter. The documentary intersperses member stories about coming out and fighting oppression with footage of a peaceful six-day march from Denver to the Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, the film's unifying event.
Soleforce was co-founded by Rev. Dr. Mel White, who many of you may know as the father of actor/writer Mel White--both are gay, and they appeared together in the 14th season of The Amazing Race in 2009. He discusses his upbringing and coming out, a remarkable story with many surprises: He grew up in an evangelical home (which he loved), and later served as a ghost writer for evangelical leaders Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson, some of whom became the No. 1 source for anti-gay rhetoric. But his priorities changed, which landed him in jail. White's intriguing story--he also tried electro-shock therapy to "cure" himself--is worth its own documentary; you'll find yourself wanting to hear more.
The most compelling moments come from the stories of three "non-traditional" families. Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soleforce, talks about life with his partner and their three adopted sons (two of whom, like his partner, are deaf): "We just tell people that we have a traditional Gay Deaf Jewish Baptist Chinese Hispanic family." Also getting ample screen time is couple Linda Royster and Barbara Kinsman, who are raising two grandchildren--both of whom are happy, well-adjusted, positive souls that are encouraged to be themselves.
But the most memorable moments come from couple Jamieson Allen and Ken Lewis, shown with their four sons. The two share a story about their conversation with demonstrators outside a local Walmart before a Colorado election. One anti-gay demonstrator was black and one was Jewish, but the gay couple's efforts to draw parallels to the struggle were unsuccessful. Allen also talks about his upbringing--he was excommunicated as a Jehovah's Witness at age 13, when his mother had some hurtful words for him: "I can't imagine my children doing anything that would make me never want to talk to them."
Lewis also provides the film's most poignant moment when he's being filmed around the house, a seemingly throwaway clip that catches him making sandwiches: "I did these circle sandwiches one day, and now it's the only thing I can make...I should have never done it," he says with a laugh. "I'm sure some people would be surprised to see we have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just like everybody else." He also provides another heart-tugging story, sharing a conversation he had with one of his sons after the march.
Seeing all of these loving families interact--and seeing how happy these children are--makes it unfathomable to believe that anyone thinks gay people aren't suited to be parents. "We're all just people," notes Lewis. It's these more candid, spontaneous moments that give the film its real power. Other gay couples and peaceful demonstrations are shown--and there are a handful of arrests made at the request of Focus on the Family.
Passionate pleas also come from actor/activist Chad Allen and Judy Shepard, the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She makes an emotional delivery to the Focus on the Family headquarters, and also has a profound effect on Laurin Foxworth, who appears with his partner. Professor Judith Stacey also talks about how false claims are being misrepresented in court room decisions and political rhetoric, a dangerous trend that I also wish was discussed more.
But I was most energized by former civil rights attorney and LGBT supporter Dani Newsum, who has an excess of passion pouring out of her ("What part of equal do you not understand?!"). She talks about the days when her interracial marriage was seen as scandalous, and notes Coretta Scott King's influence in recognizing the commonality of fighting institutionalized oppression.
Sole Journey has a big heart, a positive message and a point of view I agree wholeheartedly with. Despite the stories of oppression, there's a feel-good vibe running through most of the film. But that doesn't always equate to a cohesive, compelling documentary. You get one side here, and while I certainly support that side, the film starts to feel like a PR piece for Soleforce--not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, but it's pretty much preaching to the choir. Things aren't helped by the overbearing soundtrack, a collection of manipulative, sappy selections. The ingredients for a stronger work are here, and you'll wish you knew more about the families and their stories.
As it stands, Sole Journey is an encouraging effort, a small film that has pockets of power with some emotional stories. I can only hope that this quote from Dr. King, shown speaking on an old television show, comes to pass:
"I think as time goes on, the negative side will get smaller and smaller, and those who are willing to be open-minded and accept the trends of the ages will grow into a majority group rather than a minority."
This low-budget documentary is presented full frame, a format I'm guessing was used for the news clips and archive photos. But just as much of the footage (primarily the interviews) are letterboxed, resulting in a non-anamorphic widescreen appearance. The picture isn't awful or great; it's just about what you'd expect, and never detracts from the film (although I wish it were anamorphic widescreen).
The stereo track is equally modest yet gets the job done; dialogue is all that's important here, and it's never a problem.
The best extra here is the short film Marriage Equality Action (8:05), which combines television news reports and new footage of filmmakers Kate Burns and Sheila E. Schroeder as they stage a sit-in at Denver's clerk and recorder's office after being denied marriage rights. It fits perfectly with the main documentary, and has a few emotional moments as well (although it also shows the sometimes staged nature necessitated by broadcast news--we see two "takes", one in raw footage and one on the TV broadcast, of a clerk asking the women to move). The two are supported in the cause by some of the people seen in the documentary, like gay couple Lewis Thompson and Laurin Foxworth.
Also included is a text-based directors' statement that explores the filmmakers' motivation and purpose: "People stand up for their Constitutional rights every day in every region of this nation, and it is our hope that someone with a concern is present to capture those moments and share them with the world, just as we have done with Sole Journey. Why do we do it? As Dr. King, one of the many heroes featured in our film says, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
A list of resources, trailers and a PDF press kit (available as a DVD-Rom download) round out the package.
Energized by a positive message about facing and conquering fear, channeling love instead of hate, standing up for your rights and refusing to be silenced, Sole Journey is a feel-good hour that promotes non-violent resistance in the face of religion-based oppression. The documentary chronicles the fight of Soleforce against James Dobson and Focus on the Family. While I support and agree with those views, it doesn't always make for the most compelling watch; this sometimes feels like a PR piece for Soleforce (look to Fall From Grace for a more complete, thought-provoking work). Still, there are some great moments here with families sharing their emotional stories, making this worth a watch for those interested in civil rights fights or gay-themed documentaries. Rent It.