Regular listeners to Sounds of Cinema’s weekly radio program are aware that each of my film reviews is followed by a sampling of other critical reactions from Rotten Tomatoes, the website that aggregates film reviews. I generally select and read excerpts from five reviews based on the Tomatometer score. It’s a way for listeners to get a sense of how my review matches or deviates from the critical consensus and offers the audience some other perspectives.
On today’s show I was unable to do that for The Essential Church, a documentary about three evangelical churches and how their pastors defied public health ordinances during the COVID-19 pandemic, because (at this time of this writing) there are no reviews logged for this film. That absence is somewhat understandable in the case of The Essential Church. The film only played in around 300 theaters nationwide for about a week. However, the absence of reviews of this faith-based film is part of a larger trend.
Sound of Freedom, one of the biggest hits of the summer, has only fifty-one reviews logged at Rotten Tomatoes and only seven from so-called top critics who are commentators from major publications. Compare that to Barbie and Oppenheimer which each have over 400 reviews. Flamin’ Hot, which debuted on Hulu, has over 100 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
As I’ve said before on social media and on this program, this is professional malpractice.
It’s not new. Look at the Rotten Tomatoes pages for faith-based movies and you’ll find professional critics are simply blackballing these films and have been for years. I did an editorial about this in 2015 when reviewing the Christian marriage drama War Room. At that time I found movies from faith-based production companies were usually accumulating less than fifty reviews and even faith-based films distributed by major studios had significantly fewer reviews logged at Rotten Tomatoes. Nothing has changed. Looking at recent films, Jesus Revolution has fifty-five reviews with nine from top critics. Big George Forman (produced by Affirm Films, the faith-oriented subdivision of Sony Pictures) has forty-nine reviews with sixteen from top critics. His Only Son has only eleven reviews with nine from top critics.
I get why critics might not want to review these movies. As I commented in my 2015 editorial, films from faith-based studios are rarely screened for critics and in the present cultural environment there’s little upside to reviewing these movies. Critics are putting themselves in the cultural cross hairs and are likely to be attacked for critiquing these films. (However, critics are also viciously attacked for their reviews of superhero films and those releases are well covered anyway.) And a lot of movies from faith-based studios are badly made although they seem to be getting better at least on the production values side.
But that’s no excuse. As I said eight years ago, when critics ignore these movies they let us all down. They fail the religiously motivated viewers who deserve better than shoddy filmmaking and straw man arguments. Religion and spirituality are serious issues and there is a tradition of great religiously inspired art. Critics who ignore these films are effectively pretending that this segment of the culture isn’t there. That’s irresponsible and it fuels the impression by some that the press and critics are not interested in them and are even antagonistic toward people of faith. (Some of the unhinged negative reactions to Sound of Freedom bear this out.) But critics are also failing the non-religious audience. Ignoring this film movement keeps it off the radar of people who may not be in the target audience and stops cross-cultural discourse before it even gets started.
Like it not, this genre of faith-based movies is an important fixture of today’s moviegoing scene and critics have an obligation to suffer through these movies and critique them earnestly and thoroughly. As audiences, each of you can ask the critics and editors working at your favorite publications and websites to cover these films. Or do it yourselves. Start writing reviews and post them online or start some discussion groups in real life. The point of criticism is to get the conversation going.
For my part, I’ll continue to review these films when I can. I’m not a cheerleader for faith-based movies nor am I out to get them. I’ll keep critiquing these movies and evaluating their artistic and rhetorical merits with as much good faith as I can muster. We need other critics, especially those with larger platforms, to do the same.