Pastor Fred Phelps is familiar to U.S. gays for his virulently homophobic campaigning over the past decade-plus — and more recently to a broader outraged public since his minions began picketing and ridiculing funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq. While Phelps & Co. seem to welcome negative publicity and gloat over their perceived superiority to just about everybody, K. Ryan Jones’ documentary wisely maintains an even keel, letting the garrulous subjects hang themselves. Chilling portrait has a train-wreck fascination that could attract multinational fest dates, select broadcast sales and possible home-turf rep-house exposure.
The elderly Phelps is a disbarred lawyer who’s been pastor at the Westboro Baptist Church for 50 years. Its congregation, which looks scant in glimpses we get of services, seems to consist largely of his relatives. Nonetheless, they have a large profile in Topeka, Kan. — to the embarrassment of the mayor and police chief, among those interviewed here — and farther afield.
This is because since 1995, Phelps and flock have made a highly public spectacle of themselves all around the country, pushing an agenda summed up by their de facto motto: “God Hates Fags.” Their unique brand of apocalyptic Christianity sidesteps biblical notions of love, forgiveness and compassion, focusing on an obsessive belief that homosexuality is responsible for mankind’s imminent and deserved date with everlasting hellfire.
To this end, the group has lauded AIDS, mockingly attended funerals for gay-bashing victims (including Matthew Shepard), and generally yelled abuse anywhere it might get an appalled audience or, better yet, a TV camera. One matter the pic doesn’t address is where the money comes from to fund so much travel.
When student pranksters planted a pipe bomb at Westboro (as well as at their own school) a few years ago, Phelps’ agenda became more complex. Now he and minions think 9/11, global terrorism and all IEDs (Improved Explosive Devices) are God’s revenge on America for this single instance of vandalism. They travel to the funeral of U.S. soldiers (signage: “God Hates Dead Soldiers”) to harangue the bereaved.
At first the reptilian-looking Phelps seems frail and disconcertingly reasonable. But by the end of the film, when he’s cheerfully piping “I just wish it would be not 2,000 (American military killed in Iraq) but 2 million,” it’s clear we are not dealing with a well person. The grown children who are active in Westboro likewise spew venom with glint-eyed relish. It’s chilling to see their own young offspring parroting the same sentiments.
Among Phelps’ 13 progeny, four are estranged. Two are heard here in phone interviews calling him a “rageaholic” who used bizarre biblical interpretations to justify domestic violence.
Pic is a true one-man show by U. of Kansas film student Jones, since he figured the principal subjects are too volatile to risk bringing in collaborators. Far from amateurish, however, “Fall From Grace” is smartly assembled from original and archival footage. Only repetitious element is overuse of the group’s admittedly jaw-dropping but limited repertoire of button-pushing slogans.