by Tene Croom
For New Pittsburgh Courier
The latest foray into movie making by nationally syndicated morning DJ Russ Parr is astounding. He wrote and directed his fifth movie entitled, “The Undershepard.” It’s sure to have people, particularly those deep in the Black church, saying a lot more than amen. For example, this one scene from the movie illustrates what I mean.
“You’re a fraud and an insult to this church (First Baptist Church) and God.” Deaconess Carter, with controlled anger, deftly portrayed by Vanessa Bell Calloway, said to the Rev. Lawrence “L.C.” Case, whose played by Isaiah Washington. Looking at her straight in the eye, with an air of self righteousness, Rev. Case replied, “I am God.”
It seems Parr was destined to write this story. His mother took him to the Black church as a young child. However, it was not a good experience he said. “I was really invested into the church and the church I was going to. Then I started seeing things that didn’t make sense. My mom, who was a very religious woman, pulled me out of the church. She thought I was losing myself.”
Politics also had something to do with why he felt the need to make this movie, explaining, “It was the 2004 election and I had a Republican friend of mine say, hey I’ll tell you a little secret when the election is over. We’re going into a lot of swing states and buying off the Black ministers and giving them talking points.”
Parr said he did research and found something out six months after George Bush won the presidential election. “I saw evidence of what he said. A lot of these pastors would donate money to their church. A lot of these pastors would put it in their pockets. Then he started to see a lot of the pastors were under federal indictment.”
Parr was quick to point out the pastors were not all Black. There were White pastors involved in corruption too. After looking at the situation he said, “That encouraged me. There’s a story here.”
But he says he held back when he wrote the script. “I didn’t want to go too far with it. I didn’t want to get into the Bishop Eddie Long stuff. (Long was accused of sexually abusing several teenaged male members of his church.) I wanted just enough on this man’s plate that it was real and honest and very believable.”
Being Rev. Case wasn’t easy, especially when he was extremely verbally abusive to his wife Cassandra, played by Malinda Williams. So much so that Washington said he needed to take a break after filming one intense scene. “I stormed out after every take. I think I maybe did two takes. I almost walked back to my trailer. I think the wardrobe person asked me where was I going. I said I hate Russ Parr (laughing). I told them I’m not being difficult. But, if you don’t get it in this take, I’m not doing this again.”
Williams, perhaps best known as the hair stylist Tracy “Bird” Van Adams in the Showtime acclaimed drama series, “Soul Food,” came into this film during an extraordinary year last year. She made five other films in 2011.
She heaped much praise on her co-star husband. “Isaiah was so incredibly powerful in this role, as he is in all of his roles. For me it really was somewhat of a dream come true when Russ told me that Isaiah would be playing L. C. Because once he said that, I said, of course, there is no one else who can do that.”
Williams said she wanted to show the face of abuse for personal reasons. “I’ve lived it. I’ve had friends who have lived it. I’ve had family members who have lived it. Various levels of abuse. And, initially when Russ approached me to be a part of the film, he approached me about playing Deaconess Carter. So, I took a look at the script. But, immediately Cassandra resonated with me. Part of the reason why she resonated with me is because I do understand certain levels of abuse. I understand them on a personal level and I understand them on a level, you know, just watching someone else go through a situation.”
However, “The Undershepard” is not a single issue movie, about a pastor abusing his wife. Williams, when asked to describe the movie said, “The character is representative of many ills that we have to address, particularly in our community when it comes to power and how one abuses it, misuses it or underuses it or undervalues it. There have been many of our leaders that have been put in situations of power and for some reason it’s been corrupted. Probably, historically for very simple reasons, maybe it’s just different philosophy, ideology, maybe money. I think what Russ was able to do or trying to do is create a character that would put a face on how one has to be accountable for every action that they do. ”
A number of other top notch actors are in the film, including Lou Gossett Jr., Lamman Rucker and Keith David.
Net proceeds from “The Undershepard” will be going to The Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts in DC.