How ‘Faith-Based Film’ Became a Dirty Term

Hollywood is getting hip to the Christian box-office boost, but the directors of movies like Captive don’t want to be lumped in with the religious flops of the past.


At times, it seems like religious films have become an entitlement program for former A-list actors who are low on work. September’s 90 Minutes in Heaven nabbed Kate Bosworth, of early-aughts Blue Crush fame, and Hayden Christensen, who hasn’t done many big projects since he played baby Darth Vader in the last Star Wars reboots. Nicolas Cage joined the beloved-by-teens star Chad Michael Murray in Left Behind last fall. Exodus: Gods and Kings crammed in wasted speaking roles for Sigourney Weaver and John Turturro, and Heaven Is for Real featured Thomas Haden Church from Sideways and George of the Jungle.

Captive, however, is no retirement scheme. The film features David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, two actors near the top of their game: In 2014, he was nominated for a Golden Globe, and she an Emmy. The movie definitely has religious themes; it’s based on the true story of Ashley Smith, a single mother from Georgia who was taken hostage by a convict, Brian Nichols, after he escaped from jail and went on a shooting rampage. The two spend a night locked in her apartment, sometimes in conflict, sometimes talking about the meaning of life. By the end of the film, she has sworn off her addiction to meth, and he has effectively decided to turn himself in. As the real-life Ashley Smith said in an interview, “I honestly, that night, gave God every bit of me ... God wanted me to lay down my garbage before him so he could turn it into something beautiful.”

At first glance, this would seem like a perfect movie to make for Christian America. But in interviews, both Oyelowo and the film’s screenwriter, Brian Bird, swore off the term “faith-based film.”

“It’s a film that is not easily boxed into what has now become known as ‘faith-based,’” Oyelowo said. “Often, [in] films that have a faith element to them, the writing is sometimes substandard; they’re very heavy-handed from a [proselytizing] point of view.”

Bird agreed. “There is sort of a faith-based filmmaking ghetto—a lot of the films are not up to par,” he said. “But people are so hungry for them that they’ll go plunk down their $10 for them and watch them. Our goal with Captive was to make a real movie.”

To a certain extent, Oyelowo and Bird are putting on airs. The Purpose-Driven Life, the book by the megachurch pastor Rick Warren, is a rather-too-obvious plot device scattered throughout the story. At least once, Kate Mara’s character calls out to God and asks for help. But it’s true that this movie has more in common with John Q than Left Behind; it looks and feels like a Hollywood blockbuster, not a piece of Christian spin.

So why does Captive succeed where others have failed? In part, it may have been strengthened by the filmmakers’ skepticism about the norms of the faith-based genre. As Bird put it: “I don’t think evangelistic filmmaking is either good evangelism or good filmmaking. I think it’s actually pretty bad propaganda most of the time.”

“I’m not interested in a film that suffers from myopia because it only appeals to a certain subset of society.”

This is an interesting claim coming from this particular Hollywood writer: Bird is a veteran of the Hollywood faith-media machine. For years, he worked on the series Touched by an Angel, and since then, most of his film credits have been on Hallmark movies about Amish women. But he fully admitted that most faith-based art is made in a “ghetto.” He traced this to what he says is a Reformation-era tendency in the church: the instinct to turn inward and create communities apart from the broader world.

“The church became a real sort of prison for people in terms of their talent,” he said. “There were people making movies in the ghetto, but they didn’t have access to the talent of the greater filmmaking community. There was a fear of dipping outside of that ghetto.”

Oyelowo, who is also a Christian, expressed sympathy for these kinds of Christian filmmakers—“their hearts are in the right place,” as he put it. But he pointed out that many faith-based films have the opposite problem. “A lot of times, they are made cynically, by people who don’t really believe the story they’re telling,” he said. “From a marketing point of view, you think, oh yeah, people are going to come along. [But] you’re not serving that audience.”

It seems, though, like there’s a deeper reason why Captive is compelling. There’s one scene at the end, when David Oyelowo’s character is emerging, hands up, from the apartment where he had taken Kate Mara’s character hostage. He locks eyes with her from across a police line, and in that moment, there’s unmistakable ambivalence. She recognizes that he has committed heinous acts, but he’s also human; she sees that he’s a sinner, just as she has been. This is the fundamental tension at the heart of Christianity, and of many religions: Humans are flawed, but there is also a possibility of redemption. It’s true that only incredible actors could pull off a look full of that much meaning, but it’s telling that this moment was captured in body language, rather than a preachy script. This is the fundamental difference between Captive and most faith-based films: It’s steeped in Christian themes, instead of being about Christianity.

“If the film only appeals to Christians, then to me, personally, the film has failed,” Oyelowo said. “I’m not interested in a film that suffers from myopia because it only appeals to a certain subset of society.”

For an actor who could probably have his pick of projects in Hollywood, this seems like a smart choice. But it may also be a good choice from a business perspective. “I hope it leads people to get free of their demons,” Bird said. “If that happened, and the movie did great at the box office, what a huge success that would be.”