Last fall at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, I saw something that I never expected: A feminist Christian film. In the year that followed, I pondered the possibility of it being seen by a wider audience. How would mainstream Christian audiences respond to a film that questions the sexism that has been baked into the culture since the beginning? Eagerly, I waited for the film to find a distributor and be released in local Southern cinemas. Christian films often get more attention in the South, with Southern audiences making or breaking the film’s success.
Now, in 2020, I see that the road for director Chyna Robinson’s No Ordinary Love may be much more difficult than I anticipated. This fascinating Christian film tells the story of Elizabeth (April Hartman) a preacher’s wife trying to help a troubled woman (DeAna Davis) in her congregation. DeAna Davis plays Tanya, a devoted wife and mother being abused by her police officer husband Derrick (Lynn Andrews III). Her daughter Faith (Nya Cummings) is starting to pick up on the abuse, and it’s fear for her safety that pushes Tanya to seek help from Elizabeth. In one harrowing scene, Faith is playing dolls with her friend and uses the Ken doll to beat up the Barbie, while her mother watches from the hallway.
Simultaneously, Elizabeth is dealing with the sobering reality that her husband Michael (Eric Hanson) isn’t the upstanding man of God that he pretends to be. He begins verbally abusing Elizabeth, starting with criticizing her body and cooking, quickly escalating to breaking dishes and yelling at her in front of their son. At first, she’s in denial, but the more she tries to help Tanya the more she realizes that she is also in danger. As Elizabeth moves further and further away from her husband, she begins to realize the way men use Christian doctrine to demean women. Whenever Michael abuses her, he quotes the Bible, and when Elizabeth apposes him, he questions her faith.
As a girl growing up in the Southern Baptist church, I recognized Michael’s behavior all too well. He’s the kind of Christian that has been radicalized by Fox News and the GOP, believing that policing women and their bodies is his God-given right. In the film, when he witnesses a teenage boy catcall a woman, he excuses it, making a nonsensical reference to the Bible. And when Elizabeth denies him sex, he assaults her, asserting that it is her “wifely duty”. Though his tone is more measured than Derrick, his abuse is just as damaging.
In contrast to Michael, Derrick is much more physically brutal. But considering his role as a police officer, his hyper aggression makes depressing sense. He uses his profession as an excuse for his abuse, complaining about how hard it is to be a Black cop in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s upsetting that no one in the film challenges him on this if only to point out that as a Black man his choice to quit the force would be totally justified. But the truth is that Derrick loves wielding his power over his wife way too much to give it up. Of course, the department gives him cover whenever he’s caught hurting Tanya, and the court takes his side as well. All of these factors are true to life, and highlight how difficult it is for women to receive help from law enforcement.
At its heart, No Ordinary Love is an indictment of the various male behaviors that been rationalized by a conservative Christian society that refuses to view women as autonomous human beings. The ending of the film is a sobering one, reminding us of the women whose voices and bodies have been snuffed out in favor of a patriarchal interpretation of life and spirituality. Here’s hoping that men watch this film and reflect on their behavior, as well as the harmful behaviors they have encouraged throughout their lives. There are so many Tanyas and Elizabeths in the world and they deserve better.