News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

Rae Dawn Chong, left, as Jenita Boxer, and Lesley Ann Warren as Nancy Boxer reach out to each other after years of estrangement in 'Constellation.'
Courtesy photo
Rae Dawn Chong, left, as Jenita Boxer, and Lesley Ann Warren as Nancy Boxer reach out to each other after years of estrangement in "Constellation."

makes connection with faith leaders

By Melanie B. Smith · 340-2468

HUNTSVILLE — Can a fictional movie set in Alabama be a catalyst for positive change?

Gabrielle Union and Daniel Bess portray young lovers whose relationship is doomed in 1960s Huntsville.
Courtesy photo
Gabrielle Union and Daniel Bess portray young lovers whose relationship is doomed in 1960s Huntsville.
Makers and supporters of the new $4.5 million independent film "Constellation" are putting time, money and energy toward making that happen, and a major target audience is the religious community.

Nearly a theater full of religious leaders showed up for a free presentation of the film, which was made and set in Huntsville.

In the Sunday afternoon crowd were Christians and Jews, clergy and lay people, black and white.

The connection between a film and the religious community in Alabama could be seen as unusual for a secular movie that isn't a biblical tale. The theme of "Constellation" isn't even overtly one of faith, although a funeral is a device to tell of a family facing its fears and failures.

But the film's makers and supporters are promoting it as rife with spiritual values and positive depictions of the state. One supporter, Ralph Petroff of Huntsville, said "Constellation" is not "Sweet Home, Alabama" or "My Cousin Vinny."

The Interfaith Mission Service of Huntsville sponsored the showing as part of its work to build racial and religious harmony. An interfaith couple, Cathleen and Daniel Klibanoff, funded the event.

Cathleen Klibanoff, who said she is Catholic and her husband is Jewish, introduced the event as a "divine time together."

"I hope that this message of union and reunion is universal and crosses denominational boundaries," she said in a later interview.

The film's cast and creators seemed to welcome a religion angle.

Actors Billy Dee Williams and Rae Dawn Chong and director Jordan Walker-Pearlman served on a panel with ministers and others to answer audience questions after the showing.

One viewer asked whether a character couldn't have exhibited stronger biblical values.

Williams said the strongest value of the movie is love, which is certainly biblical.

Walker-Pearlman, who also wrote the script, said he thought several characters showed faith influencing their lives. He described the female lead as a woman of God and the male lead as "an old prodigal son."

Actors brought up the film's broad spiritual themes.

"Each character is searching for truth and peace," said Tonea Stewart, an ordained minister and a drama professor at Alabama State University who played a pastor in "Constellation."

Chong said no matter how deep a sin is, "you have to start with self-forgiveness."

Petroff, volunteer coordinator for the Huntsville premiere, commented later that "just because someone doesn't quote Scripture doesn't mean he or she doesn't have biblical values."

Religious leaders and other viewers seemed at ease with "Constellation," its makers and each other.

Petroff said the movie has done more to help race relations than anything he's aware of in Huntsville.

"Folks mingled together who don't normally mingle, not because they are racist but because they are creatures of habit," Petroff said.

The Rev. Paul Koch, specialized ministry consultant for IMS, said the crowd of 350 Sunday represented 30 or more faith groups and denominations.

He said the connection with IMS came when the Rev. Frank Broyles, who is a Presbyterian pastor and an IMS consultant, attended an early screening. Koch said Broyles immediately saw that the film resonated with IMS's mission.

Walker-Pearlman also is a person of faith and wanted his film to be a vehicle used by the faith community, Koch said. The nephew of actor Gene Wilder, Walker-Pearlman has an interracial, interfaith background.

Some Sunday viewers asked what more religious groups could do to cross lines of race and religion.

"We were thrilled to work together for one afternoon. I hope this is a springboard for further unity efforts," Koch said. He said faith-based screenings are being organized in other cities.

Koch told viewers before the film started that there would be some "adult" language and situations. "Constellation" is rated PG-13.

"We didn't think it would be a problem, but we wanted to be respectful of people's sensitivities," Koch said.

No complaints about language or content came in on comment cards, he said.

Afterward, the Rev. John Herndon of Huntsville, pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church and a former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter president, said race has been ignored in Huntsville in the past but perhaps now there is more openness to discussion.

Audience member Stephanie Moore-Mitchell said she saw in the film how demons from the past can hurt a person's future.

"You have to release them to God. I don't think enough people do that," she said.

Cathleen Klibanoff said the film is a reminder of how separation, whether seen in stories in the Bible or in families today, causes great suffering. "Personally, my return to Alabama after an absence of 18 years living in New York City has been a blessing beyond measure," she said. Her parents, Donald and Marie Jackson, live in Decatur.

"Constellation" opened Friday at Hollywood 18 Cinemas, 3312 Memorial Parkway S.W., in Huntsville. No Decatur showing is scheduled.

For an IMS "Constellation" discussion guide for religious groups, call 536-2401. Churches and other organizations may get group discounts by calling 990-0224.

Synopsis of ‘Constellation’

Successful black artist and expatriate Helms Boxer, played by Billy Dee Williams, is estranged from his two daughters. They and their mothers, from whom Boxer is also cut off, are compelled to go home to Huntsville when the family matriarch dies. One daughter has left her live-in boyfriend after he had a fling with her good friend.

Underlying the plot is a theme of racism. Despite the film’s depiction of contemporary interracial relationships as commonplace and normal, the story turns on a past incident of ugliness: Whites turn on a young black woman after she and a white soldier fall in love in Huntsville in the 1960s. Helms Boxer is the younger brother tortured by the memories of his sister’s abuse.

Huntsville is a “star” in “Constellation,” and one of its small urban churches plays a role in the story of forgiveness.

“Constellation” has won awards from several film festivals.

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