Film Review by Kam Williams
Headline: Bassett and Glover Co-Star in Civil Rights Saga Set in the South
Giancarlo Esposito makes a decent directorial debut with this multi-layered drama set in Julia, South Carolina, a mythical oasis of intolerance which has never been forced to own up to its ugly legacy of racism. At the point of departure, we learn that civil rights activist Peter Malcolm (Samuel L. Jackson) had been shot dead there in broad daylight 40 years earlier in front of several eyewitnesses. Yet the murder was never solved, primarily because Jack Herrod (Tom Bower), the sheriff then in charge of the investigation, was a bigot with no interest in bringing the perpetrator (Ted Manson) to justice.
Today, Herrod is retired and ridden with cancer, while Malcolm’s son, John (Danny Glover) remains traumatized by the loss of his martyred father. The latter lives with his wife, Sarah (Angela Bassett), in Gospel Hill, the town’s African-American enclave.
The point of departure is the beginning of a school year during which a mind-boggling number of coincidences will messily enmesh about a dozen local yokels into each other’s lives. It all starts when seasoned teacher Sarah befriends novice Rosie Griffith (Julia Stiles) on her first day in the classroom. Rosie is new to town, and oblivious about any of its sordid history.
So, when her automobile breaks down, she thinks nothing of flirting with the helpful hillbilly who gets her car going again. In fact, it’s not long before she’s dating Joel (Taylor Kitsch) who just happens to work as a landscaper for Dr. Ron Palmer (Giancarlo Esposito), the city’s most successful, black businessman.
Joel is also the offspring of Sheriff Herrod’s sons, whose other son, Carl (Adam Baldwin), is having a steamy affair with Mrs. Palmer (Nia Long). It is implied that Ron deserves to have his wife cheat on him since he’s partners with the Valley Corporation, a real estate developer with designs on the black community. For with his considerable influence, the company has been gradually gobbling up all the land to turn the ‘hood into a golf course.
Thank God Sarah Malcolm figures out what’s going down, and she rallies her neighbors to fight city hall before it’s too late. Besides preventing the impending gentrification, the other pressing issue is cracking the cold murder case before the terminally-ill sheriff kicks the bucket.
Despite the convoluted, over-plotted premise, Gospel Hill proves easy enough to follow, because the story has no surprising twists and the characters are such simplistically-drawn archetypes. This one’s pure and virtuous, that one’s dastardly and spineless, and so forth.
By the time the closing credits roll, all the loose ends have been tied in a pat fashion which enables you to exit the theater with a sense of satisfaction. A well-meaning, modern morality play which telegraphs its punches, like a Sunday school parable about the difference between good versus evil.
Can I get an Amen?
Very Good (2.5 stars)
Running time: 98 minutes
Studio: Art Mattan