The Fighting Temptations
If advertising really is a liar’s game, Darren could be rookie of the year. A fast-talking junior marketing executive in New York City, he’s an ambitious con man poised to climb the corporate ladder. But when his deception catches up with him, Darren gets fired. Mounting debt is hot on his heels as well, so when a relative dies in his one-horse Georgia hometown, he heads south to see what she left him.
Uptown meets small town as the dapper Darren discovers that a $150,000 stock inheritance awaits him if he can lead his dead aunt’s gospel choir to glory at the annual Gospel Explosion talent contest. Desperate to lure anyone who can carry a tune, he passes himself off as a big-shot music producer and recruits all sorts of diverse personalities. His big score is Lilly, a pretty, single mom resistant to his charms, but willing to lend her golden voice to the group.
No story is complete without conflict and antagonism, which is personified in Paulina Pritchett, a senior member of the congregation as insensitive and as schemingly self-righteous as they come (she’s the one who ran Darren’s mom out of the church years earlier for spending Sundays in a choir robe and Saturday nights singing R&B at the local gin joint). Paulina does whatever she can to make Darren’s life miserable, invoking church bylaws when it suits her vindictive agenda. As the weeks pass, Darren makes progress with the choir (and Lilly) just in time for the big contest.
The gospel music is terrific—substantive and edifying. Churchgoers worship enthusiastically. Throughout the story, characters toss out comments acknowledging God, expressing mercy or supporting others. For the most part, Darren’s acts of kindness and decency are sullied by ulterior motives, but the deeds themselves are positive. He turns a corner late, doing things for people out of genuine affection. He even gives his entire inheritance to the church in a selfless act of charity.
Although Darren is a compulsive liar and deceiver, we see the consequences of poor choices (he gets fired, loses the respect of others, etc.). Sickened by the exploitative nature of his advertising career, Darren finally develops a conscience and returns to his roots for good. He forsakes his dishonest ways, explaining, “The truth felt better.”
Lilly has a healthy way of dealing with critical, nasty people. She compares them to sandpaper; they may actually make the targets of their attacks smoother for the encounter, but will remain abrasive themselves. Choir members learn to put ego aside and work as a team.
The best and worst about The Fighting Temptations relates to this area. On the plus side, a funeral attendee consoles Darren with the truth, saying, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” The Christ-honoring gospel music and energetic spirituals are a joy to behold. They praise the Lord, rejoice in His mercies, urge hurting and lost people to lay down their burdens, celebrate baptism and anticipate heaven’s glory. It’s great to see people—including T-Bone, Shirley Caesar and The Blind Boys of Alabama—singing about God with such abandon.
Outside of the musical numbers, however, the story uses spiritual themes to preach unbiblical tolerance and cheap grace, vilifying Paulina, the one churchgoer with any sense of duty to live to a higher (albeit in her case self-righteous) standard. Firmly entrenched as the pastor’s sister and church treasurer, Paulina is a nasty, conniving, self-serving shrew whose attitudes and conduct hurt the credibility of her conservative ideals. Now and then she raises valid points about aspiring to holiness and resisting worldliness, but her insensitivity and venom make the appeals themselves seem absurd and grossly intolerant. This is no accident.
With the help of a church setting, the filmmakers undermine many of the “set apart” values God calls his people to espouse. For instance, the protagonists’ ultimate goal is to win a gospel music competition, which means putting together a choir that produces a good sound irrespective of the members’ attitudes toward their material. A comical ad even invites atheists to throw on a robe if they can carry a tune. It’s not inherently wrong to invite outsiders to take part in church activities, but here it’s all about the packaging and presentation of the songs, not about a change in people’s hearts. In fact, the number they sing for the big show is all about God accepting us as we are. Great. But in the context of this story and sung by these characters, it comes off as justification for continuing to live however they like. It’s not a case of Jesus taking us as we are and remaking us in His holy image, but just graciously accepting us and our flaws, period. Sing about the Lord, live like the world. And no one has a problem with that. Forget iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17). The church portrayed onscreen is a social club where no one dares challenge (no matter how lovingly or biblically) anyone else’s attitudes or conduct. And it’s held up as a warm, fuzzy model of the way things should be.
Among the film’s other spiritual moments, a letter from Aunt Sally tells Darren that God accepts him the way he is. The pastor prays for safety and tells Darren to “listen to God’s voice.” A Christian warden tries to balance mercy with his need to enforce rules. Lucius says Scripture tells people to be greedy (“Get your money, man”). Men are baptized in a river out of obligation, including Darren who does his duty, then emerges from the water with a cigar in his mouth and a flip “Praise the Lord.”
Lilly is a lounge singer who slinks her way through all of “Fever,” caressing herself and crooning seductively. Lucius launches into a long monologue about “booty,” describing women’s backsides as regional delicacies with their own unique qualities. The camera zooms in on several derrières either popping out of short shorts or concealed beneath tight dresses.
Lucius fancies himself a ladies man and tells Darren, “I ain’t planning on joining the church 'til I done sowed my wild oats.” He gets a knowing wink from a married woman with a baby carriage and tells the child, “You know I’m your daddy, right?” Darren gives him a questioning look to which Lucius replies, “Don’t hate the playa; hate the game.”
When someone refers to Lilly as a sinner, Darren finds the prospect attractive and wants to know more about this wanton woman. He tries to pick her up at a bar. An elderly choir member (Golden Girl Rue McLanahan) blurts out that she was planning on sleeping with Darren. Darren and Lilly kiss on several occasions. He initially resists the temptation to push for more, mainly because she implies that he’ll have other opportunities in the future.
Minor. Inmates hurl food at an off-key choir. It’s suggested that two church ladies got into a brawl (they’re nursing their wounds). A convicted felon gives the impression that he killed people for making fun of his unusually high voice.
Crude or Profane Language
About a dozen profanities, including two s-words.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Darren drinks wine with dinner, and downs beers on several occasions. The organist drinks out of a brown paper bag and alludes to long-term alcohol use. In the beginning, Darren advises a client who makes malt liquor to market the product more aggressively to African Americans. Upon returning to his old firm, he seems recommitted to that strategy (this time encouraging the distiller to present an upscale image to southern folk who dream of city status), but realizes it’s not in people’s best interest. As a young boy, Darren travels from bar to bar while his mother pursues a singing career (alcohol is consumed by patrons). A roving deejay rarely appears without a lit cigarette. Darren enjoys Cuban cigars and is even smoking one when he gets baptized.
Other Negative Elements
After Darren’s wholesale deception, his boss is only concerned that the firm was embarrassed by someone finding out about it (“You broke the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not get caught”). Despite God’s position on divorce, when the reverend reveals that Paulina’s husband left her for a better life and a prettier woman, he says it with a grin and a chuckle that betray his approval of the man’s decision.
Paulina’s very appropriate concerns about gangsta rap music (“It’s polluting my grandson’s mind”) are belittled. Her live-in grandson complains, “This is a no smokin’, no drinkin’, no fornicatin’, no point of livin’ at all kinda house,” a statement meant to draw sympathy from the audience. Young Darren follows his mom from one smoky club to the next, and is shown beating grown men at poker.
The story at the center of The Fighting Temptations isn’t a celebration of faith, but a trivialization of it. Here, people are involved in the church less to glorify God and spur each other to holiness than to get what they want. Power. A mate. Money. First prize at Gospel Explosion. And it doesn’t matter what they have to do or who they must recruit to satisfy their goal.
Sexual content and some profanity notwithstanding, the film’s biggest problem is summed up in a seemingly innocent line by Lilly. She says she loves gospel music because it “makes people feel better about themselves.” A subtle travesty. Gospel should glorify God and challenge us to live for Christ. It’s about Him, not us. The people onscreen don’t get this, which is why the movie goes wrong. Furthermore, the filmmakers vilify voices that promote anything but 21st century tolerance and an accountability-free community.
The Fighting Temptations wants audiences to feel better about themselves and leave the theater validated, not the least bit convicted. Wonderful songs have solid spiritual points to make, but in a context of moral relativism, they lose their potency.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Darren; Beyoncé Knowles as Lilly; LaTanya Richardson as Paulina Pritchett; Mike Epps as Lucius; Wendell Pierce as Rev. Lewis; Steve Harvey as Miles the DJ
Jonathan Lynn ( The Whole Nine Yards)