Denzel’s Profane Preaching: A Religious Movie for the Rest of Us

Flight—a gripping film in which Denzel Washington plays a pilot who miraculously lands a broken plane while drunk and high—opens with a scene of a naked woman smoking a joint. But even amid the sex and drugs, this film makes perfect sense as the latest installment of an acting career birthed in Pentecostal spirit.

Ever since a woman with the “gift of prophecy” signaled a young Denzel out for future preaching prowess, he has been serious about his spiritual contribution to Hollywood film. In 2007 he explained:

When I was about 20 years old, when I first started acting, I was sitting in my mother’s beauty shop. And a woman just kept looking at me… and she said, “Someone give me a piece of paper.” And she wrote down a prophecy. She said that I would speak to millions of people, and I would travel the world and preach to millions of people. And I didn’t know what she was talking about. But this was March 27, 1975, 32 years ago now, almost 33 years ago. So my work has been my ministry. In fact, I asked my pastor, years ago, “Do you think I should become a minister or a preacher? And he says, “Well, that’s what you’re doing already.” And he felt, as I feel, that that’s what she was talking about back then. 

It is fitting, then, that when Whitaker’s careening plane mercifully settles for a moment into a glide, the wasted pilot clips the wing of a Pentecostal church—sailing over the heads of a white-robed gathering—on his way to a lurching belly-flop in an adjoining field.

But Flight, like most of the other religiously-themed scripts to which Washington agrees to lend his star power, is no Kirk Cameron morality play. As in The Book of Eli, in which Washington played a post-apocalyptic loner who creates a trail of gore during a violent spiritual pursuit of the lone remaining copy of the Bible, the celluloid preaching in Flight is rated R.

In addition to the early lingering shots of full-frontal and rear nudity, the film provides a steady stream of f-bombs, and from nearly start to finish it is awash in booze.

At one point Don Cheadle’s character, a morally ambiguous lawyer named Hugh Lang, screams out, “Do we have any f**ing grace, here?”

Spoiler alert: Yes, we do!

Flight is so chock-full with intertextual Christian references, both of the heavy-handed and subtle varieties, that it’s a veritable “Where’s Waldo?” of religious allusions. Pay attention, for instance, to when and where Bibles, crosses, and crucifixes appear.

Jesus may be ubiquitous, but Satan is the big scene-stealer—in the unsurprisingly charismatic form of John Goodman.

Goodman’s Harling Mays is Whitaker’s boisterous drug pusher, whose first appearance is accompanied by the sound of Mick Jagger crooning: “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.” Yep, we got it.

It will take keener attention to catch the lighter and defter examples of religious intertextuality, such as a scene in a hotel room where Whitaker anxiously awaits an impending hearing that could send him to jail for his chemically-enhanced flying techniques.

As he flips furtively through channels, trying to keep his alcoholic thirst at bay, he quickly bypasses a preacher saying “Whosever,” after which Whitaker hears a haunting knock. To connect the intertextual dots here, turn to Revelation 3:20.

You may see the denouement coming like an altar call in a Pentecostal church, but Washington animates those concluding scenes with such stirring spirit that they are riveting nonetheless.

The supporting performances are also solid (save the role of the aggrieved wife of Whitaker’s co-pilot whose robotic exclamations of “Praise Jesus!” may send your suspension of disbelief into a momentary nosedive). But the big drama is reserved for Washington, who evinces an array of Whitaker’s emotions with a blood-soaked tear.

One wonders whether the Pentecostal prophet in the barber shop could have envisioned Washington so at home in this muddy mix of the sacred and the profane.

Or, better yet, whether she and other Pentecostals will cross the threshold of an R rating to sit through a profanity-laced, sexually explicit film, with a message that otherwise fits the lost-found motif so common in Pentecostal circles.

If Washington is preaching, he helps you forget you are listening to a sermon—f**ing grace, indeed.

soneil@ufl.edu'

Sean Samuel O'Neil is an instructor in the departments of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Tennessee. He has taught Religion and Film at the University of Florida and St. Thomas University (in New Brunswick, Canada). His research interests include religion in the Americas; religion and sports; and religion, film, and popular culture.