What’s perpetrated by “God Forbid” isn’t exactly bait-and-switch, but this documentary is hardly as tawdry, tacky and sordid as it promises to be. Not that anyone’s complaining. But in recounting the notorious 2020 sex scandal involving Jerry Falwell Jr.; his wife, Becki; and their “pool boy,” it also takes a deep dive into evangelical politics and how the Christian right came to be what it currently is. Useful information, in other words. Not just dish.
You might well recall the basic elements of the salacious scandal that toppled Jerry Falwell Jr.’s reign as arguably the most powerful evangelical in the country, with Falwell and his wife Becki getting involved in some sort of ongoing “throuple” relationship with a Miami pool boy. But as we’re reminded in the wildly entertaining Hulu documentary “God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty,” there was a whole lot more to the story.
The skilled and versatile veteran director Billy Corben is a native of South Florida and he has consistently mined his home state for fast-paced, visually “popping” films that often play like non-fiction versions of Scorsese’s work, from the “Cocaine Cowboys” docs to “The U” and “The U Part 2” on ESPN to last year’s “537 Votes,” which revisited the 2000 U.S. president election in Florida. With “God Forbid,” Corben serves up a neon potpourri of slick visuals, quick cuts, clever re-creation techniques, needle drops such as “Jesus Piece” by The Game, the use of archival footage and sit-down interviews to tell the incredible but true story of one of the most stunning sex/religious/political scandals in of this century. (And let’s face it, that’s saying a lot.)
“God Forbid” may be seen as a seamy peek into a couple’s private life, an exposé about the religious right, or both. But what gives it substance is the history recounted. As portrayed by several interviewees, Mr. Falwell was always a canny businessman but one without the genuine religious fervor of his father, Jerry Falwell—Baptist preacher, media fixture, founder of the Moral Majority and the first president of Liberty University (a position from which his son would resign). What got the elder Falwell involved in politics is perhaps the most intriguing part of the tale, aside from the hotel shenanigans: When, in the late ’50s, racial integration was imposed on Southern schools, churches started their own. But when the IRS threatened to remove the tax exemptions of those still-segregated schools, Falwell decided that he and people like him needed friends in high places—i.e., Washington. His “Old-Time Gospel Hour” was devoted to promoting what are usually referred to as family values, though it was an evolving agenda: As recalled by Anthea Butler, chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Falwell Sr. didn’t preach his first anti-abortion sermon until five years after Roe v. Wade. But, by then, abortion had been agitated into a useful political issue.
There’s a princely sum of schadenfreude in “God Forbid” for those who find the often-excruciating details of the Falwells’ private life just payback for hypocrisy (making political hay by preaching one way of life while living another). But the film is not entirely unsympathetic to the Falwells, either: As various observers tell it, Jerry Falwell Jr. was temperamentally ill-suited to being the son of the country’s leading televangelist; Becki Falwell was 13 when she met her husband-to-be and never had a typical adolescence; those interviewed speculate that the Granda affair was a not-quite-midlife crisis. There’s nothing particularly elevating about watching people brought low, however, and “God Forbid” would have been a lot less worthwhile if it hadn’t followed its nose and sniffed out some revelatory and relevant peccadilloes, not necessarily of the sexual variety.
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