Some might say a higher power is working through Sparkle, the forthcoming remake starring late R&B diva Whitney Houston and feature-film first-timer Jordin Sparks. In the movie, which opens Aug. 17, Houston plays the God-fearing mother to three daughters who hope to make it big in show business. But in what may seem like a divine twist, filmmaker Mara Brock-Akil unwittingly gave the church in Sparkle the same name (New Hope Baptist) as the church in Newark, N.J., where Houston honed her vocal chops and later had her funeral services.
The black church was an integral part in pivotal parts of the 1976 original as well. Watch Irene Cara belting out the hymn "Precious Lord." The Root looks back here at other black church moments in film — from foot-stomping, choir-swaying dramatic turns to more satirical sanctified scenes.
The Devil Made Him Do It
The biblical power struggle between good and evil wreaks havoc on common-folk couple Little Joe (Eddie Rochester Anderson) and Petunia (Ethel Waters) in the 1943 classic Cabin in the Sky. After accompanying Petunia to church and promising to confess his sins and go straight, Joe sneaks out of service to play craps, only to be mortally shot. What ensues is a battle between God's General and Lucifer Jr. — aided by temptress Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) — for Joe's soul.
To Glory in Style
Glamorous actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) spares no expense on the lavish funeral for her housekeeper, friend and confidant Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) in the climactic finale of The Imitation of Life (1959). The scene is sheer melodrama as the camera pans throughout the church, focusing on a stained-glass window, the pulpit, the multitude of lush flower arrangements and black and white mourners. Added bonus: Gospel great Mahalia Jackson makes an appearance as a choir soloist, sorrowfully singing "Trouble in the World."
In Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) the handsome, charismatic and conning Rev. Deke O'Mally (Calvin Lockhart) swindles uptown residents out of their hard-earned money by selling them on a Garvey-esque back-to-Africa scheme. Things heat up when Harlem detectives Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymon St. Jacques) catch on.
In an early scene, O'Malley delivers a rousing oratory that's an exaggerated take on the street speeches given by Malcolm X and various preachers and black nationalists during the 1960s and '70s.
Brother and Sisters
Sidney Poitier took on all kinds of roles early in his career but the one that earned him an Oscar was the interracial-interfaith feel-good flick Lilies of the Field (1963) in which he played Homer Smith, a wandering Baptist handyman who happens upon an order of humble European immigrant Catholic nuns living in the Arizona desert. One odd job for the sisters turns into several, culminating in the building of their desired chapel and his eventual exit. But before he splits he leads them in a spirited rendition of the gospel classic "Amen."
Director Steven Spielberg caught plenty of criticism for deviating from the storyline of Alice Walker's harsh and gritty novel The Color Purple (1985) and transforming it into what New York Times critic Janet Maslin called a "flower-filled wonderland." But the scene where his creative license works best is when secular singer Shug Avery leads her band of sinners — her musicians and the audience assembled to hear her sing — to the saints that make up the congregation of her reverend daddy's church.
Part of why Coming to America (1988) is so knee-slapping funny are the multiple roles played by Eddie Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall. In one of the film's more memorable moments Akeem (Murphy) and sidekick Semmi (Hall) attend a farcical community Black Awareness Week program featuring Hall as the Rev. Brown, a whooping throwback of an older protestant preacher, complete with unruly processed hair. The realistic quality of this and the film's other prosthetic effects earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup.
The highlight of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) is the talented youth cast members, led by a teenage Lauryn Hill, who give church standards a youthful spark. Faced with the possibility of their troubled Catholic school closing, they are primed for a state choir competition by lounge singer Delores Wilson (Whoppi Goldberg) aka Sister Mary Clarence. Their spirited and hip-hop inflected rendition of "Joyful, Joyful" takes the prize and saves the day.
A Joyful Noise
The Preacher's Wife (1996) is to the 1947 film The Bishop's Wife what The Wiz is to The Wizard of Oz: a soulful take on a beloved Hollywood classic. Unlike its predecessor, which kept the religion of the central characters vague, The Preacher's Wife is unabashedly black Baptist with gospel singing throughout. With her celebrated gospel roots, Whitney Houston must have felt right at home in the final scene belting out "I Love the Lord" with the renowned Georgia Mass Choir backing her up.
In The Best Man (1999), Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) heads to New York City for what's supposed to be a chill few days with his best friend before his wedding. Instead, he ends up in a raucous episode involving old friends, an old flame, a wild bachelor party and he and his main man coming to blows on the eve of the nuptials. Everyone manages to pull it together in time for the wedding, however, and the only evidence that something ugly occurred is the shiner that Harper sports with his tuxedo.
Four Sisters and a Funeral
Deliver Us From Eva (2003) opens in church, more specifically at the funeral of Ray (LL Cool J), a notorious ladies' man hired by three friends to distract their bossy, meddling sister-in-law Eva (Gabrielle Union). As the camera pans across the faces of attendees, Ray seemingly speaks from the beyond before the film goes into flashebacks to tell the story of how he became the dearly departed.
Come All Ye Faithful
There's a reason why Tyler Perry's films appeal to churchgoers: There's usually a church scene and some type of redemption going on. I Can Do Bad All By Myself doesn't deviate from Perry's tried-and-true formula, and in an instance of art imitating life, real-life Rev. Marvin Winans of the famed gospel music family plays a reverend in the movie.
In his review of the 2004 indie film Woman Thou Art Loosed (based on the self-help novel by mega-church minister T.D. Jakes) New York Times critic David Kehr aptly described it as a return to "an important tradition of African-American filmmaking: the movie as revivalist sermon." Ex-con Michelle (Kimberly Elise) turns to God and the church to help her stay on the righteous path after a life of waywardness. She is particularly moved by a powerful sermon delivered Rev. Jakes himself.
Spike Gets Sanctified
Director Spike Lee returned to his beloved Brooklyn, N.Y., to create Red Hook Summer (2012), the story of Flick (Jules Brown) a middle-class boy from Atlanta who is nudged out of his comfort zone when his mother deposits him to the notorious Red Hook housing project to stay with his grandfather (Clarke Peters) who just happens to be a holy-roller preacher.