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As a rule, I am not a fan of Christian or Bible-themed movies. I find that most of them tend to be preachy and agenda driven. The filmmakers set out to communicate a message, and often that message takes precedence over the quality of the storytelling. I know there are exceptions, but in my opinion they are few and far between. So I didn’t know what to expect when I received an invitation to a private screening of the new film, Cast the First Stone.
I was pleasantly surprised.
No, let me rephrase that.
I was blown away.
Cast the First Stone is a documentary, set inside Louisiana’s Angola prison. It follows seventy-five inmates as they rehearse for a production of the Passion play. When I watched the trailer, I assumed the movie was simply the life of Christ as dramatized by the inmates.
It was much, much more than that.
Cast the First Stone takes us inside one of the most notorious prisons in America and shows us men and women preparing to tell the greatest story ever told. In addition, it tells us their stories.
I’ve been involved in prison ministry going on twenty years now. One thing that struck me early on was the realization that the men and women in our prisons are just that—men and women. They are not monsters. They are not raving lunatics. They are not “evil”—at least no more evil than I am.
They are people.
Granted, they are people who did bad things, sometimes horrible things. But they are people nonetheless. And they are behind bars paying for their crimes.
Cast the First Stone shows us those people as they rehearse their parts and scenes. And it shows us the impact of the teachings of Jesus Christ on these people in the world where they live—a harsh world where often the only freedom comes with death.
In addition to the rehearsals, the film takes an occasional detour with the actors, revealing little slices of prison life. In one scene, Bobby Wallace, who portrays Jesus, visits patients in the prison hospital and prays with them. He confesses that he doesn’t feel particularly confident doing this.
Another slice of prison life comes in the middle of a rehearsal when the correctional officer calls count. The rehearsal stops; the inmates line up; the officer counts the inmates; and the rehearsal resumes.
When the women actors are bussed in from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (fifty miles away), we see them shackled and cuffed. The ladies refer to the handcuffs as their “platinum jewelry.”
We also enter into the inmates’ personal pain. Patricia Williams, who plays Mary the mother of Jesus, tells about being incarcerated for embezzlement and how it has isolated her from her children, who now want nothing to do with her.
Justin Singleton, “Peter,” is serving life without parole. He shares how portraying Peter is part of his personal redemption from his past acts.
Although many of the actors are Christians, others are not. From the film’s website:
Amongst this extraordinary group of men and women are Christians and Muslims, believers and agnostics, those of deep faith and those with none at all. Yet, regardless of their background, the wisdom in the teachings [of Jesus] served to guide each of them on their own personal path of redemption.
Judas Iscariot is played by Levelle Toliver, a devout Muslim. (Toliver gives one of the most powerful performances in the movie.) Gary Tyler, the director, describes himself as “spiritual but not religious.”
Although this may make some Christian audiences uncomfortable, I thought it was one of the most powerful aspects of the film. For one thing, it shows the power of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ impacting even those who have not, as of yet, professed faith in him. The diversity of opinion represented in no way dilutes the power of the message of Christ as demonstrated in the lives and actions of the inmates.
Cast the First Stone is not a “Christian” film; it was never intended to be.
Highest Common Denominator Media, which has done other documentaries inside Angola, was invited to produce a film of the inmates’ Passion play. Instead, they decided to tell the stories of the actors in the play. In doing so, they allowed the power of the gospel to be displayed in a way it never would have been otherwise.
Sadly, the film is not yet available to general audiences. The producers are hoping for a theatrical release around Easter, 2015, but that isn’t a certainty. In the meantime, they are willing to set up special screenings to help build an audience. You can get more information on this from their website: http://castthefirststone-themovie.com/
I, for one, am going to try my best to build buzz for Cast the First Stone.
Whether or not it was intentional, it’s the best Christian movie I’ve ever seen, bar none.