The first thing I wanted to do after I watched Paul Wagner’s new documentary, The God of a Second Chance, was talk to him about storytelling. I love stories, couldn’t really be in this line of work if I didn’t, but I’ve learned over the years that just because you want to hear somebody’s account, that doesn’t mean they’ll share it with you.
As a filmmaker for the past 30 years, Wagner, a Charlottesvillian, understands this, too. And he has pulled off something remarkable—actually many remarkable things—in Second Chance. Though a white, middle-class Baby Boomer, he manages a very intimate view of his film’s subjects—impoverished black residents of Anacostia, a neighborhood in southwest Washington, D.C. It’s a hardscrabble place of needles, pipes, babies having babies, adults shuffling around without jobs, and lots of churches. It’s a place, in other words, that would be easy to stereotype. It’s also a place where no one could blame the neighbors for shutting their doors on a well-meaning Caucasian filmmaker from Central Virginia (even an Academy Award-winner, as Wagner is) who rolls through wanting to look at how religion can lift addicts out of the gutter or motivate a boy to wear a condom.
Yet that doesn’t seem to be what happened. Profoundly nonideological and respectful of its subjects, Second Chance, which will premiere this weekend during the Virginia Film Festival (see schedule, page 27), closely follows the course of two men searching for a better way. One’s a junkie and one’s a young rapper with, let’s call it, a zipper problem. It’s compelling storytelling. I want to know how Wagner pulled it off.
“I spent months without a camera just hanging out meeting people,” he says.
In time, he put together a crew of filmmakers, many black, to work with him in the neighborhood.
But given his subject—namely, people whose deep religious convictions compel them to help others who have fallen on hard times—Wagner was bound to come across some folks who were eager to spill. “If you get someone to talk about their relationship with Jesus, I don’t care if you’re white, black, young or old…they are going to talk to you. In other words, they’ve made a commitment to be open about the deepest aspects of their life and I think the issue of me being a white filmmaker was probably less of a problem than even I imagined it might be.”
Wagner admits that he worries about a different potential problem with the movie, one that stems from the very nonpartisan quality that I so admire in Second Chance. Here’s what I mean: Given the hijacking of the concept of faith-based anything by intolerant, agenda-pushing right-wingers over the past decade or more, it’s all too easy to develop an anti-faith reflex if it so happens that you object to the rhetoric of ultraconservatives. Wagner, who I think it would be safe to say is not an ultraconservative, nevertheless gets out of the way of the story he’s telling. I don’t know if he’s turned off or on by religion or its uses in getting poor people on a better path. And that ambiguity contributes to a more interesting movie as far as I’m concerned (here let us pause and invoke the opposing example of someone like Michael Moore, just to drive the point home).
“I’m aware that some people, if they looked at the film and said, ‘Oh, you see those faith-based organizations are making a difference in people’s lives,’ they could use that potentially as ammunition for some policy issues. I’m not interested in the policy issues and I certainly didn’t make the film to fulfill anyone’s desires in that regard,” he says.
Continuing, Wagner admits that his “great fear” for the film is that “it will have no constituency because I could be pissing everybody off. Which is to say, it doesn’t serve the interest of that particular political constituency supporting government-supported faith-based organizations.
“But there are also lots of people who love Jesus who may be turned off by the film because it’s profane, because it represents a collision of religion and drugs and sex and profanity. And I think a lot of us—which is to say educated white people, largely liberal and secular—will have problems with it because it is about religion and about the power of religion in people’s lives.
“I’m worried that people who like Jesus won’t see it, people who don’t like Jesus won’t see it.”
In case you fall into either category, let me lay some of the movie on you so as to persuade you to see it. At the start, we tour Anacostia, which seems marked by burned-out buildings and churches. Sleepy Curry, the fatherless rapper whose story is one of two threads in Second Chance, narrates as he walks, casting the neighborhood reality that is like a third protagonist in the story. “The world is set up for us to be failures,” he says. “Look at the jails. Look at the job opportunities we ain’t have.”
Richie Barkley is the other man chronicled in Second Chance. Anacostia has the highest rates of drug abuse in the city, and Richie is one of the guys who sent those numbers to the top. But when we meet him, he is on his way back from the hard bottom that left him homeless, penniless and friendless. He’s part of an organization called Community Action Group, a neighborhood rehab program where it is not unusual to find hundreds of addicts gathered to literally sing and play God’s praises, as Wagner shows in an extraordinary scene in his movie.
Hal Jordan directs CAG, and he occupies the complex moral core of the movie. A burly man with a lot of living behind him, Jordan is not sentimental about his calling—to put God first in the war against drugs, as CAG’s slogan puts it. “I’m stuck with my belief in God and my belief that what they say about black men is not true,” Jordan says.
“Hal totally blew me away as a person,” Wagner says. “He embodies a lot of what I’ve talked about—about a film that is profane and deeply spiritual. He is that as a person. He’s a rough and tumble, four-letter-word-using kind of person who’s seen it all, who’s had a lot of personal issues in his own life, who deals on a daily basis with people that have big issues. And yet he has a really deep faith in God that inspires him to do amazing work.”
Richie and Hal strive to support Richie’s wife, Cassey, in a new life. Wearing 30 years of heroin abuse on her face, Cassey talks plainly about the impoverished self-esteem that made drugs an easy choice for her. Like all the people in Second Chance, Cassey is stingingly self-aware. In the end, however, she goes back to the drugs.
Faith takes a role in handling other social problems, and Steve Fitzhugh, a barrel-chested former NFL player leads an organization, The House, that’s geared toward neighborhood teens. Unabashed in the divine inspiration that led him to leave professional football to return to “mission” work in the ’hood, Fitzhugh, like Jordan, nevertheless operates in the real world. When we first meet him he is speculating on what Jesus would say about Monday Night Football. Later, he tells a group of boys at the club, including Sleepy, “God has a plan for your penis. God has a plan. Are you going to trust him to give you the hook-up?” It’s abstinence counseling of a different stripe, entirely.
Though Sleepy is wise in the ways of a fatherless childhood (his mother had him at the age of 14), somehow he cannot quite incorporate Fitzhugh’s message. We find him dealing with multiple pregnancies through the course of the film (and afterward, Wagner says).
In the end, The God of a Second Chance does not tie people’s problems neatly into a bow. If it did, that wouldn’t be very effective storytelling, it seems to me.
But there’s an even more significant way that it counters cliché—in the very intimacy it manages with the folks of Anacostia. Leaving God aside, the film has many other accomplishments.
“The crack addict, the irresponsible black teenager who doesn’t care how many girls he gets pregnant, the welfare mother—these are all the classic stereotypes of the inner-city black community,” Wagner says. “You know what? As soon as you meet them as people, all those stereotypes just sort of wash away and really don’t help you at all in terms of going, ‘Well, do I approve of this, do I disapprove of this, how do I feel about that, how do I feel about their behavior in that regard?’ Suddenly they’re just complex human beings who demand to be met on their own terms by the audience.”
Go see The God of a Second Chance this weekend. Support your local sophisticated filmmaker.