Faith and family are at the core of Netflix's 'Greenleaf'

Nowhere in the series do you find anyone blaming their sorrows or their thwarted ambitions or their victimhood in any given situation on racism.
Barbara Kay
Barbara Kay Montreal, QC

I am a sucker for soap operas, and always was.

One of my favourites was the CBS series, Dallas, which ran from 1978 to 1991. Its plotline had family patriarch Jock Ewing, founder of Ewing oil, presiding over all the ways in which such an apparent blessing can go wrong through no fault of his own, but plenty of fault shared out amongst his offspring, especially the Machiavellian older of his two (legitimate) sons, J.R. (All fun soap operas need a wealthy, but often feuding and unhappy family as their premise).

The Ewings lived together at their cattle ranch, Southfork, where J.R. and younger brother Bobby (the good son) work tensely through their various character-driven, often clashing  ambitions, while their beautiful, but dissimilar wives–one glamorous and sullen, the other wholesome and upbeat—strive to avoid becoming collateral damage. Unflappable matriarch Miss Ellie keeps it all together whenever complete meltdown threatens.

Nowadays I am hooked on another soap opera, Netflix's Greenleaf: five seasons, 60 episodes in all. I've watched four seasons so far, and am committed to seeing it through. It is no schlockier than Dallas, which is to say that the schlock is there, but not so intrusively you can't suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the plot, and the characters in Greenleaf are more nuanced.

Spoiler alert: I try to be circumspect in my descriptions, but I do give away a few plot outcomes.

Although set in Memphis, Tenn., rather than Texas, Greenleaf and Dallas share the common elements of wealth and three generations of a family living together under one roof. But in Dallas, there's far less ostentation. The home is a sprawling, but unpretentious looking ranch house at the end of a long dirt road anyone can access. In Greenleaf, the family lives in a dazzlingly white antebellum mansion with classical pillars and covered balconies off every bedroom, from which residents can survey acres of parkland and a private lake, all protected by electronically-controlled gates and a guard. (How they came by it we only learn in the fourth season.)

There's also a family business in Greenleaf, of course. But it isn't oil or any other commercial commodity. It's Calvary, a big, 4,000-member evangelical church patriarch James and matriarch Mae Greenleaf built from scratch. Everyone in the family works there in one capacity or another—community outreach, youth programs, administration, choir. It's a going concern, but its economic viability depends on the popularity of its pastors. Numbers up means income up, and the Greenleafs do enjoy their high standard of living. Most of the members are married, middle-class people with ordinary jobs raising ordinary kids.

Oh, and one other thing. The family is black, and so are all the church parishioners and just about all the principal characters. James is called "Bishop."  "Lady Mae" is equally invested in the business of the church. She rocks as a preacher too. When she's not engaged with church politics, she steps into her equally powerful role as a tiger mother and grandmother, always up for combat when she perceives threats to her family's or the church's well-being from outside, but equally feisty in intramural confrontations when she deems them necessary for her children's moral growth.

All the Greenleafs are believers, but only the two founders' faith strikes the viewer as truly fierce and unshakable, coursing through their beings and their relationships with passion and depth–even at the very moments when they betray that faith and each other. Bishop and Lady Mae are wont to consult God when faced with a hard choice or apparently insurmountable obstacles to their hegemony in church affairs. They're often seen with a book in their hands, but it is invariably the Holy Bible, which both can recite chapter and verse.

The series' real protagonist, though, is Grace Greenleaf, the eldest child who, we discover in the first episode, left home and her natural role as the family's pastoral successor to Bishop – she's acquired a certain celebrity for her preacherly gifts–and has been away for 20 years. She has returned for the funeral of her younger sister Faith, who has killed herself for reasons that bear heavily on the plot for the entire first season and beyond. Then, falling under the seductive sway of her father's preaching once again, she decides to stay and take up duties at Calvary in what seems to be God's plan for her.

Tension between Grace and her mother, smoldering with resentment at her reappearance, are palpable, but (initially) puzzling. Grace has brought her beautiful, light-skinned adolescent daughter Sophia, the fruit of a mixed marriage, with her. (Why Grace and her Phoenix-based husband divorced and why relations remain acrimonious, is not made entirely clear.) There's also a lot of tension between Grace's younger sister, the lushly beautiful Charity and everyone else. She is a bit of a kvetch, and can be prickly and emotionally irresponsible, but when she sings gospel, you forget all that, and fall in love with her over and over again. Every service features fabulous music, by the way; I couldn't get enough of that, and wish there had been more.

The most important thing to know about Greenleaf is that it is a collaboration between writer Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Lost), who apparently grew up Jewish but ended up as a Christian minister for a time, and Oprah Winfrey. Wright met Oprah when she made a documentary series called Belief for her production company, OWN. Intrigued by Wright's background, Oprah opened up to him about her history with the Black church, and listened to his experiences in the "white/everything else" church. The creative seeds planted in those conversations "just grew."

In an interview, Wright said of their joint purpose in Greenleaf, "We declared early on that our intention with this show was to lovingly and respectfully interrogate the black church, not to tear it down at all but to make it even better by asking tough questions. We both had experiences where we tried to ask more questions than people wanted to answer."

There is indeed a lot of love and respect for the black church, but this is probably not a series anyone but a black celebrity of considerable influence and power—Oprah—could have seen through to completion. Because the tough questions really are… tough.

The series dives headfirst, for example, into the thorny topic of homosexuality and traditional Christian homophobia with a plotline in which second daughter Charity, pregnant with her first child, has failed to grasp that her beloved husband Kevin's sexual diffidence is related to homosexual desires he is desperately trying to suppress. (There are a few scenes of Kevin submitting to group "conversion therapy" sessions that make painful viewing.) The marriage ends when Kevin resolves his tortured conflict between Christian faith and self-acceptance by maintaining his faith privately, but coming out to the family.

From his particular case, a spool of episodes follow: a gay choirmaster is valued for his musical talent, but can't get contractual benefits for his partner; the church's gay lawyer comes out (in fact, partners up with Kevin) and forces a confrontation between his rigidly conservative father and his father's old friend, Bishop; a rival church bruits its choice to feature gay-friendly inclusivity, forcing Calvary to have the internal "discussion" it wants to avoid in order to retain its more progressive members.

The gay men are all extraordinarily attractive, sensitive, gracious to those who find acceptance difficult, and faithful to their partners. No limp wrists, no Pride discourse, no camp—and no hint of promiscuity. Schlocky? Sure, but it's a reasonable tradeoff to see the issue dealt with openly.

Greed, adultery, overweening pride, political ruthlessness: It's all there in abundance in Greenleaf. Buried secrets erupting in disclosures that point to hypocrisy in high places. Bribery, tax and insurance fraud too. Worst of all, sexual abuse of underage girls by one of the church's inner circle.

On the one hand, you might say, well of course, these are the human weaknesses that keep us glued to the screen in all soap operas, aren't they? Yes, of course. But these are people committed to living—or trying to live—their faith. If true belief in Christianity can't make people behave better, then what use is religion at all?

In Greenleaf, its use is to create a community in which people are at least striving to be better human beings than they are. They may hold traditional beliefs about sexuality, but they also hold traditional beliefs about family being the rock on which solid communities are built. In this series, both men and women break their marriage vows, but they are deeply remorseful when they do. Fathers take their responsibilities seriously, and are there for their children. And, it is made clear, fathers are key to encouraging self-respect in their daughters and giving them the confidence to walk out on exploitative or abusive boyfriends. It's their faith and their church community that has shaped those values. Sure they sin, but sinners can find redemption through remorse and recommitment to their ideals. People fail, but they continue to be loved and supported. Those who love them don't give up on them.

A few personal takeaways from Greenleaf: I watched Dallas to be entertained, and nothing else. Scheming, selfish J.R. Ewing was just a character you loved to hate. Dallas was a simple and simplistic microcosm of capitalist America, a pre-woke society where complete non-diversity reigned (there weren't even any Jewish accountants!). It went easy on the minds of white people, and probably annoyed the hell out of black people. Greenleaf is something else entirely: a soap opera informed by wokeism that refuses to be governed by wokeism's negative political traits. It makes demands on both black and white minds, but while I didn't find Greenleaf's messaging annoying at all, I do wonder how BLM activists–both Blacks and their white allies–might view it.

For if there is one big message to be found in Greenleaf, it is that human failings are just that: human. Nowhere in the series do you find anyone blaming their sorrows or their thwarted ambitions or their victimhood in any given situation on racism. Only once does a young black male (in dreads and a hoodie) refer, almost as an aside, to the fact that he has been accused of a store theft because of the way he looks. But his real grievance is not the white man; it is the fact that his black mother gave him up at birth and consigned him to a miserable series of bad foster homes that led to petty crime and prison, because she was too ashamed to tell her Christian family that she had had premarital sex.

In fact, the words "white privilege" are never uttered, even though one of the series' main plotlines revolves around Calvary being swallowed up by a church mega-corporation headed up by a wily white man, Bob Whitmore, whose (alleged) purpose is to nurture diverse Christian worship.

At first it looks like Bob will play out as the archetypal southern racist. But that would be simplistic, and the Greenleaf team refuses that easy way out. He certainly has ulterior motives–Bob's diversity dream is a strategy to enhance his image for politically ambitious ends–but you can't pin racism on him. He treats everyone the same, and he is eager for his daughter–a bitch, but a bitch to everyone, both white and black–to marry his black right-hand man.

Bishop and Lady Mae resent him deeply for stealing their church, (literally, by bribery of a deacons' board member for her crucial vote and influence), and Mae quite rightly fears that ending church segregation will have a negative impact on the black community by diluting and erasing their unique cultural connection to Christian faith (including the gospel music that cannot co-exist in harmony with white church music). But it isn't the colour of his skin they despise; it is the content of his character.

In short, I think Martin Luther King would have enjoyed this series very much. Activists in the BLM movement and critical race theorists? Not so much. From a classical liberal's point of view, that's a good thing.

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