Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla Shirer) with her daughter, Danielle (Alena Pitts)Photo credit: David Whitlow, courtesy of AFFIRM Films/Provident Films
Christian-themed film War Room is a surprise box office success in the slow summer week before the Labor Day holiday, grossing $11M during opening weekend. Predictably, has been panned by traditional reviewers, as represented by an 18% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
The title of the film led me to presume that this was actually a war film, and I likely would have skipped this film had not a good friend been thrilled to see it. War Room is the fifth movie written and produced by Alex and Stephen Kendrick of Kendrick Brothers Productions. Their previous movies include Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), and Courageous (2011).
War Room marks the first time the Kendricks feature a cast that is predominantly Black, bringing both great strength and some weakness to the film. The film tells how prayer transforms a family on the verge of collapse.
Tony and Elizabeth Jordan appear to have a perfect and affluent life, complete with an adorable daughter, Danielle. We quickly realize that Tony, a pharmaceuticals salesman, is angry at home, dismissive of his daughter’s needs, and controlling and belittling of an increasingly sullen Elizabeth, a successful realtor. Neither parent appreciates how talented Danielle is at Double Dutch.
Elizabeth meets a new client, Clara, an elderly widow looking to sell her 1900s-era home. Miss Clara takes Elizabeth to task, serving her lukewarm coffee as a rebuke that Elizabeth is neither hot nor cold in her devotion to God. Joking aside, Clara reveals her favorite space in the home is her “war room,” a small closet where the widow prays as though it matters, complete with notes and scriptures tacked to the wall to focus her pleadings on behalf of those she loves. Elizabeth agrees to let Clara coach her on prayer, willing to trust Clara’s promise that the Lord can fight for Elizabeth more powerfully than Elizabeth could ever do for herself.
[Spoilers – highlight hidden text to read.]
Elizabeth’s prayers turn desperate when she receives a text from a friend, reporting that Tony is at a restaurant with a woman. Tony shows every sign of adulterous intent, but as Elizabeth prays in her closet, Tony mysteriously becomes ill. Tony returns home to a curiously meek Elizabeth. Irregularities in Tony’s accounts then lead his bosses to fire him.
Tony discovers Elizabeth’s prayer closet and falls to his knees, realizing how far he has fallen from the man she loved. We learn that he has been stealing drug samples, and has sold part of the stash for $19,000. Despite risk of being prosecuted, Tony turns himself in, returning the stolen drugs and promising to repay the $19,000.
While Tony waits to see whether his former bosses will bring charges, he throws himself into applying his physicality to Double Dutch, planning to compete with Danielle’s team at the upcoming championship. They win second place, and Tony learns his former bosses have decided not to press charges. Blessings flow, as his involvement in the tournament leads to a job running the Community Center.
The movie ends as we learn that Elizabeth has answered Clara’s prayer of finding someone in whom to confide the lessons Clara had not learned until after her husband died. The Jordans have become earnest believers, transformed by God’s grace, and passionate about passing this knowledge on to others.
Why traditional critics might pan this movie
War Room has solid production values, but there are moments that fall short of the artistry we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. And in fact this film was produced and shot in North Carolina. The stars are more noted for their personal Christian lives than their starpower.
Elizabeth is played by best-selling author Priscilla Shirer, who is co-founder of Going Beyond Ministries. Her attractive screen husband, Tony, is played by T. C. Stallings, a former football player at the college and international level. Young Danielle is adorably played by Alena Pitts in her film debut. The key role of Miss Clara is played by Karen Abercrombie, whose press bio indicates she “is a godly, Christian actress with limited film experience.”
The stars’ relative inexperience in the acting craft shows in moments, moments that perhaps should have been reworked during shooting or left on the cutting room floor. At other times there is a feeling that the script was written by a white man who almost captured the passionate joy unique to Black members of southern evangelical Churches, a failure in writing the actors tried their best to make work anyway. This showed most during certain scenes with Karen Ambercrombie, whose character, Miss Clara, is required to be the most uncharacteristically bold in her devotion to the Lord Jesus.
The family dynamic in the Jordan household reads as authentic, with T. C. Stallings believably negotiating the vast transformation from arrogant sinner to humble servant of Christ. The relationship between Priscilla Shirer and her screen daughter, Alena Pitts, is very natural. In real life, Pitts is Shirer’s niece, but undoubtedly earned the role because she was the best young actress considered for the part.
The minor editing and characterization issues, however, are no more bothersome that what we saw in low-budget 2008 blockbuster Twilight.
For those who do not believe Jesus is Lord, War Room can be uncomfortably counter-cultural. The attractive young mother and professional is urged to humble herself before God and submit herself graciously to the leadership of her husband. In response to Elizabeth’s submission, the sinful Tony is inspired to become the servant leader of his family, forsaking other worldly interests. The elderly Miss Clara proudly displays on her wall a list of answered prayers, and is unmistakably militant in her prayer strategy. Young Danielle is the only universal character, a child who wilts under the tension of her parents’ arguments, then blossoms in the atmosphere of love that reigns when the parents embrace Jesus as Lord.
Never openly expressed but implicit is the idea that the woes of this world can be righted if believing prayer warriors plead to God. Those who self-identify as citizens of the world could be expected to feel that this is a threat, imagining ‘prayer warriors’ rebuking certain behaviors the world embraces and even celebrates.
Yet this same unwillingness to dilute an overtly righteous message is exactly why War Room has been embraced by evangelicals and their religious cousins.