A woman's ordeal with a legacy of rape, abuse, poverty, drug addiction and prostitution is conveyed in "Woman Thou Art Loosed." Indie production is notable for Kimberly Elise's performance and for the exposure pic affords Bishop T.D. Jakes, who plays himself and whose works the film is based.

A young woman’s ordeal with a legacy of rape, abuse, poverty, drug addiction and prostitution is bluntly conveyed in “Woman Thou Art Loosed.” Frankly religious and therapeutically intended but confrontational and stylistically unvarnished, indie production is notable for Kimberly Elise’s ferocious lead performance and for the bigscreen exposure pic affords the charismatic Bishop T.D. Jakes, who plays himself and upon whose works the film is based. Considering Jakes’ wide following, pic should find a sizeable built-in audience among the church-affiliated Christian public, and to a certain extent beyond that in the black community, before moving on to a sturdy run in homevid. Opening with the startling scene of a woman making her way to the front of a giant religious revival conducted by Jakes and firing several shots with unseen results, Stan Foster’s screenplay recounts the downward spiral of Michelle Jordan’s (Elise) life and her halting efforts to reclaim it when the pastor wins her a furlough from prison on condition she attend one of his three-day revivals.

The trouble began when Michelle’s single mom Cassie (Loretta Devine) took in a new boyfriend when the girl was 8. It’s obvious from the outset the penniless “Uncle” Reggie (Clifton Powell) is an unsavory hustler, preying on the vulnerabilities of an overly eager overweight woman and making unseemly remarks to Michelle about how foxy she’ll shortly become.

While flashbacks build up to Michelle’s tragically inevitable violation by Reggie when she’s 12, followed by Cassie’s lifelong denial that such a thing could have happened, present-day material sees Michelle checking into a halfway house instead of returning to her mother, who still lives with Reggie.

Attending the revival during the day, Michelle, now a hard-bitten woman, otherwise catches up with an old friend and stripper (Isalis DeLeon), is doted upon by the mild-manner fellow who loved her as a teen (Michael Boatman), is threatened for money by a former pimp (Sean Blakemore) and receives advice and a makeover from lively hairstylist (Debbi Morgan).

A hard case if there ever was one, Michelle has been to hell, but hasn’t come back. As the onion peel of character revelation is stripped away, the pain initiated by Reggie and fostered by her unbelieving mother is seen to have led Michelle to total self-abnegation as a crack-addicted hooker. When Jakes tells her, “It’s never too late,” Michelle stonily replies, “It is for me.”

The way the climactic public shooting scene plays out when fully dramatized at the end, salvation doesn’t come in the predictably sappy, all-forgiving way; Michelle really is too far gone for that, and it makes this a more sobering and credible experience than most other modern “inspirational” films. On the other hand, although pic is well-acted, Michael Schultz’s direction is as straightforward as a self-help manual, lacking the nuances that would give “Woman Thou Art Loosed” distinction beyond its content.

The flavorful revival scenes, covered with mobile cameras that make them part of the film’s fabric, strongly convey the stature and persuasiveness of the Dallas-based Jakes, whose Time magazine-heralded status as the possible “next Billy Graham” is duly noted early on. The preacher also registers strongly in the more intimate moments of the prison sequences, leaving little doubt this is a man capable of changing lives and leading a flock.

But the film still belongs to Elise, familiar from such pics as “Beloved” and “John Q,” but never afforded the opportunities she has here. Her Michelle has a chip on her shoulder that’s fossilized; due to the endlessly bad hand life has dealt her, she is incapable of humor or lightness, although she gradually opens up to the preacher in ways that indicate there could be a smidgen of hope left, despite her protests to the contrary. Elise socks over her characterization, putting the woman’s damaged soul, frustration and bitterness up on the screen.

Devine, Powell, Morgan and Boatman bring their characters nicely to life, even if only in one dimension as dictated by the script. Tech credits are just fair. Arch and unresonant title might advisably be changed.

Woman Thou Art Loosed

Production

A Rueben Cannon Production presented in association with Touch Down Prods. Produced by Cannon. Executive producer, Stan Foster. Co-producers, Tammy Garnes, Will Griffin. Directed by Michael Schultz. Screenplay, Stan Foster, based on the book and play by Bishop T.D. Jakes.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Reinhart "Ray" Peschke; editor, Billy Fox; production designer, Liba Daniels; set decorator, Debra Jackson; costume designer, Rita McGhee; sound (Dolby Digital), Veda Campbell; supervising sound editor, Mike Le-Mare; line producer, Paul Garnes; assistant director, Molly Mayeux. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, Feb. 5, 2004. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Michelle Jordan - Kimberly Elise Cassie - Loretta Devine Twana - Debbi Morgan Todd - Michael Boatman Reggie - Clifton Powell Nicole - Isalis DeLeon Pervis - Sean Blakemore Eli - Ricky Harris Bishop T.D. Jakes - Himself

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