MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★
Release year: 2019
Genre: Documentary Director: Jesse Moss
The 5-episode documentary series The Family ranges from chilling to sensationalist in its exploration of the quasi-Christian organization, The Fellowship, who has organized the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC since 1953. Directed by Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) and produced by Netflix, The Family is essentially a cinematic distillation of reporter and professor Jeff Sharlet’s two books, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (2010). Sharlet serves as an on-screen narrator, sharing his own personal experiences with and investigative reporting of “The Family.” The patriarch of this family is Doug Coe, the behind-the-scenes leader of the network who somehow placed himself in the room with political leaders of power in order to win them over to Jesus.
There’s a lot of Jesus talk in The Family, and much of the language used by people in and around the organization will sound quite familiar to those who grew up in the Christian subculture of white American evangelicalism. For instance, the mission of “winning” the nation for Christ, the strong emphasis on moral purity and “accountability groups” for men, and the word “fellowship” is used as a verb (“we would ‘fellowship’ with other men”). And it’s all about the men, both the network itself and the documentary. Coe’s system appears to be openly organized around hierarchy, with Jesus at the top and his chosen ones, his “key men,” just below him, who are meant to rule the sheep (i.e. women and anyone who is not wealthy and elite).
The structure of five episodes rather than one 2-hour film allows The Family some breathing room to explore distinct topics and themes, but it also makes the process feel muddled and redundant. Numerous scenes and talking points are repeated (sometimes within the same episode), yet the information shared sometimes still feels unclear. I’m still unsure how Coe rose to power, both within The Fellowship and in Washington DC itself. And many of the connections the film seems to suggest feel speculative at best, conspiracy theories at worst. There are lengthy portions about congressmen’s marital affairs, trips to Africa to meet with political leaders, and beginning prayer breakfasts in Romania and Russia. The final episode “Wolf King,” refers to a sort of leadership fable Coe would tell his friends and followers: in a world of sheep and wolves, you want to befriend the wolf and get him (it’s always a him) on your side. Influence the wolf king, and all the sheep will follow. Moss and Sharlet do their best to draw tenuous connections between this sort of mindset and the election of Donald Trump as the “chosen one” of evangelicals, as a way of possibly explaining how they could vote for a man who seems to embody the very opposite of many traditional evangelical values. It’s simple: he’s a wolf king, and we all need to support God’s chosen man. He may be a flawed vessel, but so was King David, right? What’s unclear to me–and what Sharlet and other interviewees openly state as speculation–is whether or not Trump is actually involved in any way with the Fellowship, or if they truly wanted to get him elected (a bit of online research suggests a stronger personal history between the Family and Hillary Clinton).
Even as I agree that the white American Christianity’s marriage to political power and ideology is disturbingly real and unquestionably evil (and, sadly, not that new in world history), Moss’s approach has its hits and misses. The opening episode, “Submersion,” tells Sharlet’s personal story about living at Ivanwald, the Fellowship’s residence for young men where he discovered their strong cult-like allegiance to Coe’s interpretation of Jesus (not Christianity or the Bible–it’s “Jesus Christ, plus nothing”). The dramatic reenactments of these events simply don’t work, distracting from the investigative aspects by offering sensationalist slow-motion scenes intended to suggest metaphorical significance. A hairpiece-sporting James Cromwell portrays Doug Coe in the reenactments, a jarring casting choice which immediately took me out of the documentary.
Other episodes are stronger precisely because they eschew the reenactments. Episode 3, “New World Order,” is a helpful and comprehensive summary of the history behind the National Prayer Breakfast and the origin of both Doug Coe and his predecessor, Abraham Vereide. Even having grown up in the world of evangelicalism just south of Seattle and attended college and grad school in Portland, I was surprised to learn of the Pacific Northwest’s significance in the story–Vereide’s first prayer breakfasts were in Seattle in order to squelch labor unions, and Coe is originally from the Salem, OR area (he was born in Medford). “New World Order” shows the connections between the NPB and the recent Russian meddling and collusion in American politics, particularly Russian foreign agent and NRA gun spokesperson Maria Butina’s involvement in the Prayer Breakfast. And in Episode 5, Moss’s camera is turned around on him in Portland, OR at a local prayer breakfast accountability group for men. In a diverse group of both white and black men, the leader, Larry Anderson, is intense and ruthless in his honesty and convictions. One man in the group bluntly asks Moss why he doesn’t have any black people on his film crew. These scenes in Portland feel tangential to the whole, but they’re fascinating precisely because they feel so authentic and raw in a Fellowship which thrives on remaining hidden.
As a Christian who is devoted to following the life and teachings of Jesus, watching The Family was often disequilibrating and infuriating, especially when familiar phrases and teachings are subtly twisted or distorted in order to gain political power and influence. I’ve literally preached “Jesus plus nothing” to evangelical congregations–the very same language used by Coe and the various Fellowship associates–but I don’t believe we meant the same things. In a powerful, disturbing series of scenes, we see footage of Doug Coe behind a pulpit comparing the kingdom of Jesus favorably to the rise of Hitler and the structure of mafia organizations. Coe wanted to create an invisible hand of God to guide in world politics, with the Fellowship’s chosen “key men” in control. Despite shocking moments like these, the episodic structure of the documentary makes it disjointed. Some secondary narratives are stronger than others, but there isn’t a true cohesion to the whole. Yet the overarching message of Moss and Sharlet is clear: the Fellowship has theocracy as its agenda, and they seem willing to collude with nearly anyone in the name of Jesus in order to achieve that goal. In this, The Family raises important (though not new) questions about elite white male power and privilege, and whether these have any place in the realm of Jesus.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10715148/