On the same day that I watched a screener of Selfie Dad, Brad J. Silverman’s new Christian movie about an African-American video editor aspiring to be a YouTube comic, Dave Chappelle released a comedy set on YouTube about police brutality and protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Four days later, Chapelle’s video has twenty-one million views, which Selfie Dad’s son, a cute tyke who practices fractions, would be quick to tell you is upward of five million views a day.
Were I in a less angry mood, I would use that juxtaposition to make light of Selfie Dad‘s stunning moment of colossally bad timing — a tepid joke about the titular hero (played by Michael Jr.) being pulled over by a police officer…who turns out to also be Black…but who ends up assaulting the Black driver anyway.
In a radio interview provided by the studio, Michael Jr. calls director Brad J. Silverman “a little Jewish dude” and the film’s producer (unnamed) “a White dude as well” and throws them under the proverbial bus for being unaware that his character would not get out of that car, which is how he says the the scene was originally written. As he describes the creative meeting between them, he claims they had “no idea” that there would be “a difference” between the way a Black and White character might respond to being pulled over by the police. “Are you sure there’s a difference?” he reports one of his White colleagues asking skeptically.
It’s hard to know who comes off worse in that story — the White writer who is purportedly oblivious to racial tensions between drivers and police or the Black actor who uses the teachable moment to insist that if his character got Tasered by a Black police officer, now that would actually be funny….
Christians have never done comedy particularly well…at least not in my lifetime. Mom’s Night Out and Christian Mingle represent the two most notable attempts since the rise of “Christian” production companies to induce Christians to laugh at themselves, one by overtly claiming that Christian funny needn’t be all that different from secular funny and the other by looking at the peculiar eccentricities of Christian practice.
My personal hypothesis on why there is such a dearth of Christian comedies is not that the world is so besot that it won’t laugh at anything clean but because (American evangelical) Christians are so committed to the metanarrative of cultural persecution that they can’t abide anyone–even other Christians–laughing at them.
Writer/director Brad J. Silverman is probably best known for Grace Unplugged, another cautionary tale about a Christian performer who must subordinate professional success to Christian witness in order to have both. What drives me — a White, American Christian circa 2020 — nuts about both that film and Selfie Dad is the way they represent the broader culture as being uniformly and aggressively hostile to Christianity. Watching Selfie Dad lose thousands of hard-earned subscribers because the audience doesn’t think serious evangelism is as funny as fixing a broken toilet, one might forget that Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the NFL for protesting during the national anthem or that Christians burned Dixie Chick records because Natalie Means said she was ashamed of her president. I’d be happy to see an interesting, provocative, even funny movie about cancel culture, but serious topics, even when treated comedically, require genuine reflection and introspection. Simply asserting that the world will turn on Christian performers, no matter how charming, who are vocal about their faith makes sense only to those who live in a conservative echo chamber.
Now here’s the part of the review where I pivot to some nice things about the movie to try to avoid being labelled anti-Christian myself. Every now and then one catches a glimpse at the fringes of this movie of something authentic and not just formulaic. Dad’s interactions with his daughter (who is sneaking out of the house to be with her boyfriend) and son (who feels rightfully ignored in the wake of his father’s professional success) are sweet and natural. The mixed-race marriage in the film is presented as normal enough to not be all that noteworthy. An online bit about Dad jogging behind a nervous white lady managed to force a smile to my miserly lips.
In other words, the best parts of the new Christian movie are the parts that have nothing intrinsically to do with Christianity. It’s a cross between Home Improvement and The Cosby Show which is neither a damning indictment nor a stirring testimonial. I doubt whether twenty-one million people are going to be talking about it four days after its release, but one can’t live on Dave Chapelle videos alone, can one?
Selfie Dad premieres on VOD June 19, 2020.