Marjoe is the best documentary film about evangelical religion that you have probably never heard of. I don’t recall exactly how I came across it–but somehow it found its way into my Netflix queue, languished at the bottom for months, and finally made it to my mailbox and DVD player. And what a wonderful, unexpected treasure it was.
The subject of the film, is one Marjoe Gortner–what kind of name is “Marjoe” anyway, you are asking? Why, it is a portmanteau of the names Mary and Joseph! If that gives you a feeling for what his parents must have been like, wait till you see them in the film. For Marjoe was groomed very early on by his devout family to be a child preacher. As the beginning of the film documents, this sort of thing was wildly popular decades ago in the South (and if you’ve seen Jesus Camp, you’ll know the tradition of having children “minister” is still alive). The old footage of a red-haired child shouting from a pulpit is at once a comical and disturbing sight. But the point of the film is not about Marjoe the child, but about the expose he’d create during his adult life.
As he grew older, Marjoe luckily came to reject the religious beliefs that were instilled in him, though he continued to preach as a way to earn a living. Once his conscience began to bother him about the way he and the others of his profession so easily fleeced the gullible, he came up with the act of contrition that is this film: he invited a crew to go “on tour” with him and document the tricks of the trade – not only those he used, but those of his unknowing fellow preachers. As you might imagine, the results can be rather hilarious, in the same way that Sacha Baron Cohen’s films are, since the behaviors captured on celluloid are genuine.
My favorite scene involved a conversation with another minister and his family. They all somehow find themselves discussing the possibility that a charlatan might parade as a preacher with no intent other than to defraud the sheep, but conclude that they’d rather easily be able to spot such a fake. I wondered if they ever saw the film and realized just how badly they got owned?
Marjoe won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1972. Apparently it did not have a widespread distribution at the time, especially in the American South, where there were concerns that it would spark outrage. Yes, it would, and it still would, I’d venture. I’ll hold out hope that eventually, our public schools will provide an objective Survey of Religion curriculum and that this film will be part of it. Probably not in my lifetime, though.