Theirs Is the Kingdom documentary review: art is not a luxury

part of my Movies for the Resistance series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Lovely, gentle look at an artwork honoring the marginalized. A compassionate challenge to cultural assumptions, including those that decenter the poor and insist that art is a luxury, not a necessity.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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I am not at all religious. But I do despair that so many people — both in my home country of the United States and my adopted land of the United Kingdom — profess to be Christian and claim these nations themselves are fueled by Christian values, and yet absolutely stomp, individually and collectively, on the ideals that Jesus preached. Particularly when it comes to looking after the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized.

So it’s especially nice, on this Easter Sunday, to see such a lovely, gentle film as Theirs Is the Kingdom, one of the very few movies I’ve ever seen that evinces even a passing religiosity that Jesus himself might approve of. (Also: In an era of long-haul movies, this one is a blessedly brief 60 minutes… which does, by many but not all deciders of such things, qualify as feature length.) (Also also: It’s worth noting this weekend brings a rare confluence of Easter, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — which has a focus on helping others — and the Jewish commemoration of Passover, celebrating a liberation from slavery.)

Theirs Is the Kingdom
Study for the fresco of a man called Blue.

Asheville, North Carolina, is a hip, artsy, gentrifying college town surrounded by, as someone notes here, “real Appalachian poverty.” This small city, this place of harsh human contrasts (as so many others are), is home to Haywood Street church, a Methodist congregation that welcomes those not often welcomed elsewhere, including drug addicts and the unhoused. Its pastor, Reverend Brian Combs, is the sort of quietly radical man of the cloth who almost convinces a diehard atheist like me that churchy institutions might be genuinely worthwhile. (Combs did a TedX talk in 2012 about why the concept of “charity,” as a condescending practice of many today, is a “demon that needs to be exorcised.”) In 2018, he received a grant for a fresco in the church building, for which he hired artist Christopher Holt to create a work of art to honor not the great and the grand that, historically, frescoes have commemorated, but the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized.

Documentarian Christopher Zaluski, with his feature debut, follows Holt and his team as they plan and execute the fresco. And so this is a fascinating look at that exceptional artform, which is about melding pigment with plaster in a way that is extremely difficult to achieve. And that’s fascinating. But much more importantly, this is a film that is deeply, deeply compassionate, in a way that should not be so rare, as a portrait of the people Holt captures in the fresco, men and women who are or have been homeless, who are living with HIV/AIDS or mental illnesses, or who have faced other profound obstacles. We meet some of them, and everything about what they say about their lives challenges the assumptions and bigotries that permeate societal attitudes about the least regarded in our culture. One woman, Jeanette — the fresco’s subjects are identified only by their first names — talks about how she has been told that “you don’t look like someone who was homeless,” as if there were any one way that people without permanent homes look. As if there were any real distinction between the people Haywood Street church gives succor to and everyone else.

Theirs Is the Kingdom
The fresco is truly monumental in scale.

Anyway, at Haywood Street church, people who are homeless look like people who are immortalized in a fresco. Theirs Is the Kingdom is a film that centers marginalized people in a way that our culture typically does not, that affords them dignity in a way that we seem to want to shy from, down to Combs’s righteous insistence that the money spent on the fresco — $72,000, which isn’t much for the work and talent involved — does qualify as a necessity for those concerned. “Art and music and love” are essentials for those in poverty, too, and he will not hear otherwise. The inspiration, the acknowledgement, that art offers is not a luxury. It is an indispensable part of being human.

more films like this:
The Soloist [Prime US | Prime UK | Paramount+ US | Apple TV]
• The Lady in the Van [Prime US | Prime UK | Netflix UK | Apple TV]

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movie lover
Mon, Apr 18, 2022 1:51am

Thank you for this! What a deeply moving film. I also checked out Rev. Combs’ TEDx talk, as well as the church website, which is worth a read — Haywood Street Church truly seems to be doing its best to embody what Jesus talked about most, which is to embrace and elevate the most excluded among us. “Our liberation is bound up in those we most dismiss.” We desperately need more religious (and nonreligious) institutions to do the same.

This fellow atheist wishes a Happy Easter/Passover/Ramadan/Rama Navami/Vaisakhi to all who celebrate. May we all find a way to share this world in peace and fully recognize each other as human beings worthy of compassion, dignity, and justice.