Fall From Grace is a documentary which provides an amazingly unbiased look at the Westboro Baptist Church which is based here in Topeka, KS, and is run by Fred Phelps and his family. The writer/producer/director, K. Ryan Jones, made this striking film as an assignment for a film class at the University of Kansas, not knowing just how far his subjects would take him. Jones tells the story, or rather allows Fred Phelps and the rest of his family to tell the story, of the formation of the Westboro Baptist Church. By now, most of us who live in Topeka, and maybe even some people from other parts of the country are aware of the Phelps’s hatred of homosexuality and the United States, and have experienced or at least seen the picketing the Phelps family does in this area and beyond. What you may not know is some of the background of Fred Phelps and his family. He pointedly explains where he came from, exactly what his views are, why he believes what he does, and what he thinks of those who do not agree with him.
Although you may think you know all you care to about Phelps and his church, Jones brings an element of depth to his film which goes beyond the Phelps rhetoric we are all used to hearing. Some of the most interesting parts include interviews with clergy, and a biblical scholar who debunks the scriptural references Phelps uses for much of his positions. It is also interesting to hear phone interviews with two of Phelps’s children who ran away from the family due to what they describe as abuse and a constant fear of Phelps while growing up. The picketing of military funerals, which has become a staple of the Westboro Baptist Church, is covered in the film by Jones who interviews the widow of a soldier killed overseas who was forced to experience the Phelps picketing firsthand at her husband’s funeral. Also of interest, and quite disturbing, are interviews Jones has with several of the Phelps children who join their parents on the picket lines, holding signs advocating hatred. While being interviewed, the children say things most of us would find inconceivable for anyone to say, much less small children. But as offensive as this might seem to most of us, the Phelps family makes no apologies. They lay out their beliefs for all to see and hear, and I suppose that, despite the beliefs they espouse, they must be commended for standing up for what they believe in.
As someone who has not lived in Topeka my whole life, and was introduced to the Phelps picketing shortly after I moved here, I found the disbelief by several University of Kansas students at a Phelps picket rally shown in the film quite familiar and somewhat humorous. Equally humorous, if not embarrasing, were the reactions displayed by a few students from overseas who were present at that same picketing session. It seemed to be surreal to them, as I’m sure it still is to many of us at times; they looked like they were wondering if this was for real or if someone was pulling their leg. Equally humorous was the footage shown by Jones of a Fox News anchorwoman completely losing her cool while interviewing one of the Phelps family regarding their picketing of military funerals, and footage of Fox News’s Sean Hannity speaking quite plainly to a member of the Phelps family regarding his disdain for the views of the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church. This led me to realize that there might actually be something the most far left Democrat and most far right Republican can actually agree upon, assuming neither are a follower of Fred Phelps. That would be their utter disdain for the beliefs of the Westboro Baptist Church.
After watching Fall From Grace, I was struck with perhaps the greatest irony of Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church, and their hatred of the United States. If it wasn’t for the laws of this country they hate so much, which allow them to practice their religion, picket military funerals, hold hateful signs for all to see, and yell offensive remarks to passersby, they would have been outlawed long ago. Certainly many have tried. But because of the freedoms this country they hate provides them, they have that right. Ironic indeed.
Regardless of your opinion of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, Fall From Grace is a documentary that will leave you with strong feelings. If you support the church, and agree with their beliefs, their message of hate will likely resonate with you; however, if you do not agree with their positions, I think you will find a message of hope in the overall love and kindness of humanity which is displayed by others throughout the film. One of the clergy who was interviewed by Jones I think summed it up best when he said that he chooses to love rather than hate – and that includes Fred Phelps.
Not Rated – 71 Minutes