Lisa Schwarzbaum
September 15, 2009 AT 06:36 PM EDT

Tyler Perry knows he doesn’t need the often mystified reviews of predominantly white critics to sell his movies to his predominantly black audience. That’s why I Can Do Bad All By Myself was released, as Perry’s movies usually are, without a press preview. I bought a ticket for the show in my neighborhood last Friday, and I wasn’t the only one: I Can Do Bad fulfilled industry expectations, coming in first at the box office with some $24 million in revenue. My own expectations were surpassed, though, when I found myself weeping during scenes of worship at the church that plays such an important part in the story. As fictional Pastor Brian, real-life minister and gospel star Marvin Winans preached messages of strength, support, and praise while a choir raised the roof. And if that wasn’t enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, Gladys Knight, resplendent in pink suit and grand black church hat, joined Winans in a duet.

I’ve been thinking of my intense, unfiltered reaction to the movie–particularly its warm, inclusive, unself-conscious spiritual component, as accessible to this white Jewish critic as to the black Christian women sitting beside me in the movie theater. I’ve been thinking of Tyler Perry’s church scenes because—well, because as pollsters often remind us, we Americans like to think of ourselves as a religious nation. Yet we almost never see religion taken seriously and without jokiness in a mainstream movie aimed at a white audience. We certainly almost never see the unique, specific, authentic ritual that distinguishes one sect from another, something beyond a non-denominational minister waiting for a bride to walk down the aisle. (I’m still reeling from the who knew? authenticity and profound attention to detail Joel and Ethan Coen bring to their depiction of 1960s suburban Hebrew school in their new movie A Serious Man–more about that another time.)

I don’t want to bait politicians or partisan media pundits or anyone who brandishes faith like a mallet in service to a political agenda but I do want to ask you: Do you agree with me that white-oriented, mainstream American movies are generally squeamish, sugary, bland, embarrassed, apologetic, or ironic when it comes to depicting modern religious observance?

Or am I wrong? Are there a whole bunch of titles I can’t think of?

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