The title of "Woman Thou Art Loosed" will be familiar to the thousands, indeed millions, of followers and fans of Bishop T.D. Jakes, the charismatic Pentecostal preacher who has built an awesome fortune and following over the past decade. Indeed, Jakes's success started in 1993 with the publication of the self-help book on which the movie is based. Weaving between a fictional account of one woman's struggle with poverty, sexual abuse, drug addiction, prostitution and prison, and documentary-like footage of Jakes's sermons at one of his famed weekend-long revivals, "Woman Thou Art Loosed" will no doubt garner Jakes a plethora of new devotees, not to mention add one more conquest to his multimedia empire.
Judged by the conventional standards of mainstream entertainment, "Woman Thou Art Loosed" isn't terribly special. Kimberly Elise stars as Michelle Jordan, a young woman who has just been released from prison and comes home to confront her mother (Loretta Devine) about their troubled past. In one scene, Jakes visits Michelle in prison and asks what her childhood was like. "Black," she responds matter-of-factly. When he presses her to explain what that means, she replies, "I called my grandmother mama, my mother by her first name and her boyfriends uncle. Does that answer your question?"
This sequence alone suggests that "Woman Thou Art Loosed" is anything but conventional entertainment, propelled as it is by the painful realities of so many African American lives and by the unapologetic belief that they can be overcome only by spiritual surrender. Jakes's ministry has been especially geared toward women, and this is very much a woman's picture, both in the old-school sense of highly pitched, Lifetime-style melodrama and in its cast of formidable actresses, all of whom deliver powerful performances. As refreshing as it is to see the woefully underused Devine ("Waiting to Exhale") on-screen again (she delivers a particularly potent monologue on the plight of single black women), the undisputed star of "Woman Thou Art Loosed" is Elise, who carries the film in a role that asks her to be sullen, haunted, wounded and radiant. (Many viewers will remember Elise for her glowering turn in "Beloved.")
She carries it off and takes command of the screen with power and assurance as a young woman at war within her own nature between rage and repentance.
Although "Woman Thou Art Loosed" is a vehicle for Jakes's ministry, he takes on a surprisingly minor role in support of Elise's mesmerizing performance. But the clips of his sermons, as well as his scenes with Michelle in her jail cell, provide ample evidence of his talent as a speaker and spiritual motivator. Delivered less as speeches than as incantations punctuated by growls, yelps and purrs, Jakes's sermons provide a stirring commentary on the fictional drama transpiring offstage (which, at its most contrived and awkward, just as often seems like an illustrated sermon).
As part secular entertainment and part spiritual tool, "Woman Thou Art Loosed" probably belongs on the same shelf as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," and in many ways it serves as an appropriate bookend to that film. Whereas Gibson sought to dramatize Christ's crucifixion in bloody detail, Jakes is more interested in portraying how that sacrifice is played out in contemporary lives as a difficult day-to-day reality. As he intones repeatedly, "There's room for you at the cross." At its best, "Woman Thou Art Loosed" conveys the unfathomable meaning behind those words.
Woman Thou Art Loosed (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, sexual content and drug use.