Kanye Wests’ film “Jesus Is King” is now playing in IMAX theaters nationwide for a very limited time. As mixed reviews roll out, many are leaving the cinema with more questions than answers. But, there are a few questions that I can answer before you even have to ask. I’ve known Jesus is King since long before Kanye proclaimed it. However, these are some of the things that I didn’t know before watching the film.
DON’T BE LATE. IT IS SHORT.
The film is only 35 minutes. I know that IMAX movies are generally short but in buying the tickets I never specifically looked at the runtime. Thankfully, we arrived one-minute after the 7:00pm show time and made it to our seat during the opening scene. Another couple who was joining us, assumed that there were previews. They arrived at about 7:20, just in time to catch the closing scenes and the credits. Most people sat through the end of the credits because it ends so abruptly that it takes a while for our brains to process that it is actually fully over. Unfortunately, this is not a Marvel film so there are no hidden scenes afterwards. However, it’s great to watch the credits and give props to those that put hard work into the film.
OPEN YOUR MIND. IT IS AN ART PIECE.
Art films are a unique genre of movie that are aimed at a niche and tend to be a lot more abstract. This is certainly one of those. This is not a documentary or a narrative feature film that is driven by a story with a definitive setting, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, climax, and resolution. It’s a film that begins at the resolution and points to all of these elements by the very nature of what…or rather whom, the subject is about. Most films possess what is called a log-line which summarizes the general direction of the movie. This sets an expectation for what you’re paying to see. A brief description of this film exists, but you really don’t know where it is headed from scene to scene. This may be frustrating for some but it’s an element of mystery that is also works in the films favor and makes it somewhat captivating. If that were absent, you still wouldn’t want to peel your eyes away from the screen. The cinematography is beautiful, the shots are clean, the editing is surgical, and of course the soundtrack draws our focus toward all things ethereal and sovereign.
BRING SOME EARPLUGS. IT IS LOUD.
I love listening to things at full crank. I’m certain that I will pay the price in my elderly years after a lifetime of drumming and years of punishing sound systems in my car, back when that was cool (if ever?) However, the first 10 minutes of the film was so loud, I wondered if I needed to leave to purchase ear plugs. This dynamic could clearly vary from cinema to cinema, but being completely immersed in the sound is part of the goal behind releasing it in IMAX. My mother was a Gospel choir director and it was amazing how much vocal power she extracted out of just a small group of singers. Not to be unhealthily afrocentric or egotistical; but we traveled to places where choirs of other ethnicities three times our size sang, and it was super quiet. When our singers began to hit, it would sometimes sound like the walls are about to leap off of their foundations. This film and the audio engineering certainly captured that reality with the Sunday Service choir. Despite the beauty and the power of the compositions; I was certain that my (super sensitive to loud noises) wife would be unable to bear it. But I was wrong. As the choir is slaying a bridge about “Joy” that takes me directly back to 1994 at our family’s Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church; I glanced over at my daughter and my queen to see them both giggling with delight.
WORSHIP THE LORD. IT IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT, IT IS AN ENCOUNTER.
Because it was mainly choir-driven black Gospel music, many who do not have a trained ear for that genre will not understand the lyrics to some of the songs. At one point I considered how helpful lyrics on the screen would be for the viewers, but Kanye chose for the only text to be the text that matters most: scripture. Each song was woven together by simple yet powerful biblical truths that I heard people in the audience whispering aloud as the were reading. What other mainstream film has people of all faith persuasions, excited to read the Bible? This is one of at least four other really powerful takeaways for me beyond the aforementioned points. Unfortunately, I will need to provide detailed coverage of those in another article at another time.
But here’s a hint:
-Kanye is normally the center of attention. We don’t fully see him until almost 30 minutes into the 35 minute film. When we do get a glance of him prior to that, his back is turned to the camera. In other words, he’s saying “It’s not about me.” In fact there are no cameos by well-known Gospel artists. Finally, Kanye sings…which makes it abundantly evident that he’s singing from his heart and not for entertainment value. (Let’s just say, there is a reason why he made his fortune rapping and doing other things.)
-Launching into a medley of songs more common in my black southern childhood home than unsweet tea; I got teary eyed. I’m looking at a theater full of people who don’t look like me, who are paying considerable money listening to our native sound and eagerly anticipating an album about the lover of my soul (Jesus). As an extreme close-up of a young black woman broke the third wall looking directly at us singing “JOY!” with a smile; I felt the weight of four centuries of praying black mothers and grandmothers. They endured the horrors of our history by releasing a song of praise to the only righteous King. I thought, “This is the beauty of our history, and the glory of our future. We must lead the nations to the King with our song.”
-There is a prolonged shot of a choir director doing his thing. It touched something so deep within me that I could hardly breathe. I am almost ashamed for thinking it but suddenly my mind flashed to what the audiences in Europe must have felt the first time they heard Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven. What is stunning about this is not how new it is; but rather how old it is. It’s simply delivering it in the packaging of this age.
-The Holy Spirit falls on the worshippers on the screen at the end of one of the songs. They don’t cut to another scene quickly, instead they linger to allow what is happening in the room on the screen to potentially happen in the theater. It felt genuine and clean. I could tell that the fear of the Lord was beginning to manifest in the theater because a certain level of discomfort takes place as people are trying to make sense of this weird sensation or the weird thoughts they are having. I respond by opening my hands, acknowledging Him, and asking for more.
KANYE IS WORKING OUT HIS SALVATION
Kanye’s recent profession of faith is being met with a wide range of responses within Christendom. As an evangelist, pastor, and apologist; nothing means more to me than declaring and demonstrating the matchless glory of Jesus. Therefore, it is only natural that I am deeply exploring anything in the mainstream that affirms or challenges that focus. The ambiguity that surrounded the Sunday Services in the beginning most likely catalyzed mistrust. However, in recent weeks Kanye has become much more vocal about his experience with Jesus. The services are no longer held in the desert but rather in city centers; and news articles emerge almost daily with new insights into his journey.
Some say Kanye is raising up an ecumenical anti-Christ worship movement, while others dismiss it as a ploy to hoodwink gullible Christians financially. Many are watching clips from his services with cautious optimism and others have seen enough evidence to be able to fully rejoice in what they perceive to be a genuine conversion. The amazing thing about love is that it hopes all things and believes all things, and we as a Body must mature in both love and discernment.
In my view, this film is ultimately a small part of Kanye’s first major public act as a born again believer; sharing his testimony. We overcome by the Blood of the Lamb and the Word of our testimony. The film is essentially an invitation to a Sunday Service through the convenience of your local cinema. The lyrics of the album fill in gaps that the film doesn’t attempt to convey. When paired with lyrics such as those in”Hands On”; this is his foremost appeal to the household of the faith where he essentially pleads for us to examine the fruit and accept him into the family.
Finally, Kanye is harnessing his platform to declare a Gospel message that is as simple and pure, or even more pure than what we’re hearing in most churches. He’s declaring the pre-eminence of Jesus to audiences that would rather cut off their own hands than to step foot into one of our edifices. One thing is for sure, the Pew Research Center recently released a study stating that American Christianity is in rapid decline
As Western Culture rejects the historic tenets of the Bible, the rest of the world is turning to the King of Kings. This is indicative of the fact that perhaps there is something we have missed in terms of our approach to actually sharing the Gospel? I don’t think it is a stretch to say that some of Kanye’s most vocal critics in the church, will be folks that have never presented the Gospel and discipled someone into biblical maturity.
“White evangelicalism” seemingly continues to self destruct in the esteem of post-modern culture. However, America is still in love with and open to the sound and the expression of the black christian community that was forged and tested in the dark shadows of our history. But we’ve lost our way as well. This film carries some of the heavenly perfume that still lingers on our churches and hearts from the stench of chattel slavery. Along with the organic gatherings that are happening in the streets, I have faith that a pure sound is returning to the American descendants of the African Diaspora.
Those with eyes to see and ears to hear, must respond to this moment with humility and hope.