Movie review: ‘Paul’s Promise’

Faith-based film to be shown on Cedarville campus

By Paul Miller with Prof. Sean O’Connor

Over the past few years, movies that examine social justice issues are on the rise. Most are centered around race.

In 2022, notable releases included “Nope,” “The Woman King, and “Till.” Less often, however, do these films tackle these issues with a Christian worldview, unfortunately. But, on October 21, a lesser-known faith-based film was released in theaters nationwide with the hopes of doing just that: “Paul’s Promise,” produced by 1990 Cedarville University graduate Michael Davis.

“Paul’s Promise” will be screened on campus at Cedarville University on November 10 at 7 p.m. in the DeVries Theatre, followed by a Q&A with producer Michael Davis. General admission tickets can be purchased for $11 ($9 for children).

“Paul’s Promise” tells the true story of Paul Holderfield (played by Ryan O’Quinn, who is also a producer on the film), a formerly bigoted firefighter-turned-pastor who planted an integrated church in the American South during the Civil Rights movement.

The film mostly focuses on his story prior to his conversion. Following an opening scene showing him and his team of firefighters at work (saving a Black family’s house), we’re introduced to Paul’s mother, Minnie Holderfield (Linda Purl), a sweet, elderly woman who dearly loves Jesus and her son. When she is diagnosed with a rapid form of cancer, she increases her prayers for her son to turn to Christ, recover from his drinking addiction, and free himself from racism before it destroys his and his family’s life. As the story progresses, Paul faces the challenge of either faking a heart change for the sake of his mother in her final days, or truly getting his life in order.

Creating the world of the story is necessary for every film, especially for a film dealing with such emotional subject matter. The filmmakers behind “Paul’s Promise”recognize this. Thankfully, the film ultimately engages its audience and tells a beautiful story by creating a believable setting, compelling characters, and important, relevant themes that matter as much in 2022 as they did in the 1960s.

Presumably working with a fraction of the resources of an average studio feature film, the filmmakers (including Davis, director Matthew Reithmayr, production designer Stephan Aquila, and the whole production team) are faced with the daunting task of re-creating small-town Arkansas in the 1960s. Overall, the film succeeds, with era-appropriate houses, costumes, vehicles, and other elements to build the world of the film. Even small but important details — notably the addition of a faded “Whites Only” sign above a water fountain — help make the setting more authentic. (No doubt Davis, in particular, has experience with producing films that pay attention to these details — one of his previous efforts is the 2016 Civil War-set “Union Bound,” available to watch on Amazon Prime.)

The film’s cast also has the challenge of creating performances that not only respect the real-life people they portray, but also create believable characters that match the believable setting. In addition to Paul and Minnie Holderfield, the film portrays Paul’s wife Barbara (Shari Rigby), local Black pastor Jimmy Lipkin (Josef Cannon), several friends of Minnie’s, like Judy (Nancy Stafford), Paul’s firefighter co-workers, like Captain John Ratliffe (Dean Cain), and more.

Admittedly, the distinctive Southern dialect and slang that the majority of these characters have may be a bit distracting from the outset. However, the consistency of these performances helps them come across as believable. Additionally, with a wide supporting cast (including Paul’s father and younger self in flashbacks), a film like this may struggle to juggle all these characters and give each of them appropriate payoff, with a clear arc for each one (including the racist firefighters). For the most part, the film succeeds.

Beyond the production and performances, however, “Paul’s Promise”faces the challenge of successfully conveying its spiritual themes in a way that engages with its audience — Christians and non-Christians alike. While the film spends a handful of scenes showing Paul Holderfield as a firefighter, the story is much more concerned with Paul Holderfield as a man, father, husband, son and friend. The relationships between characters (and their actions, not simply their dialoguewith each other) is the emphasis throughout, which is no surprise for a low-budget, faith-based film like this.

As the story develops, themes of devotion to Christ, forgiveness instead of bitterness, love, friendship, and faith become more prominent and compelling. The film’s message that no one is ever too far gone to turn his life around is certainly grounds for a captivating faith-based film.

While not a perfect film, with some moments of out-of-place humor, weak pacing, or forced messaging (certainly not the first film of its kind to suffer those characteristics), “Paul’s Promise” overall plays to its strengths and will be sure to leave audiences laughing at one moment and crying the next. As more and more secular films tackle issues like race relations, the importance of films like “Paul’s Promise,” tackling similar issues through a specifically Christian worldview, cannot be overstated.

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