In 2007, filmmaker Kareem Mortimer directed the short film Float, which centered on a young white painter who meets and falls in love with a young black musician in the Bahamas. What made the short different than your average love story is the two people falling in love with each other were both young boys and at issue was an increased level of homophobia that exists on that Caribbean island.
Children of God is based on that short film and in fact is the same story just expanded. The young white painter is Johnny, a college-aged student with great technique as an artist but shows little to no emotion as a person. His teacher suggests Johnny travel to Nassau to visit some landmark there that she believes will inspire and help him with his art. I forget what the name of that landmark is, not that it's important. As Hitchcock would say, the landmark is merely a MacGuffin.
But, on the boat ride over to the island, Johnny cruises a handsome and very well-built, black islander named Romeo. In the short film, Romeo's first appearance is a bit more of a surprise. Here, we're more aware of Romeo's presence and even circumstance prior to the two seeing each other on that boat. This is of course purposeful. With Mortimer's first feature being an expansion of his own short film, he wants to explore and dig deeper into Romeo's character, whereas he could only scratch the surface of it before.
Romeo is a free-spirit, yet currently he's in a place that puts serious boundaries on his freedom. In certain places or pockets on the island, he can be free. He can be himself, but only as long as his family and friends don't see. If he is around his family and friends, yes, he'll put on a happy face or at least a false one. Romeo is a free-spirt, but he is by no means actually free.
Why is he not free? As is obvious by Romeo's blatant flirtations with Johnny, Romeo is gay, and unfortunately his friends and family don't approve. Well, they wouldn't approve if they knew. Romeo in reality hides his homosexuality from them. In fact, he hides it from the majority of the island because if the majority of the island knew, they also wouldn't approve.
And what's the principal reason they wouldn't approve. As the title of this film suggests, it's rooted in religion. Where Mortimer skirted over that fact or hinted at it in the short, here he fully flushes it out. Religious bigotry against homosexuality becomes a major current that flows through this film, and Mortimer attacks it from two different angles.
One angle is placed on the same boat as Johnny and Romeo in the opening of the film, and her name is Lena. She's the wife of Ralph Mackey, a fervent anti-gay preacher and just all around hateful person. Lena takes a break from him and volunteers at a church run by Reverend Ritchie, a man who is not anti-gay but conversely is more compassionate and understanding, and certainly more affectionate and loving. Ritchie is the perfect counterpoint to Mackey.
In the news recently, it was reported that an African-American pastor of a megachurch in Georgia named Eddie Long was accused of a gay sex scandal, this being just another in a long line of religious figures, many of whom preach anti-gay sermons, who are then revealed to either be gay or be involved with gay sex. Mackey is in that same vein, yet a thousand times more spiteful. He's not a child molester, but he certainly doesn't practice what he preaches.
Whether Mackey believes in what he sermonizes is questionable. Lena, played with conviction by Margaret Laurena Kemp, does believe. The look in her eyes tells you so. Whereas Mackey says what he says only to hold onto power, Lena says what she says to hold onto her faith. Of all the religious characters, Lena is the one who is constantly challenged. Like most of the people on the island, when challenged, she defends her position regardless of how wrong she is.
On the other hand, Johnny doesn't defend himself. He doesn't really fight or is as passionate as perhaps he should be, which is his problem, which possibly comes from a lack of faith, not necessarily in specific Christian doctrines or beliefs, but faith in general, in other people or even himself. In the short, it's simplified to an act of Johnny not having faith or not trusting Romeo when Romeo is giving him a swimming lesson. Johnny has to allow himself to float in the water. He has to have faith and trust in both himself and Romeo. Johnny has to believe and simply lay back in the water and float. In the short, it's a sweet and tender moment, yet in the full-length feature, Mortimer is able to give more depth to it.
Johnny who is played by new actor Johnny Ferro is quite good. His subtle eccentricities like his slight germophobia really reveal themselves. His nervousness, his longing, all become evident, never in an aggrandizing way, but his unwillingness to let Stephen Tyrone Williams' character of Romeo or anyone touch him is indicative of his character. If there's any awkwardness between the two male lovers, it's again purposeful, but the two ease into each other like a hand into a warm glove, particularly in a dancing scene that proves quite intimate.
The ending unfortunately sinks the film for me. While beautiful and poignant, I question why it wasn't a happier end. In light of the bullying in the news and the sad results of young gay people who come up against homophobes, the ending is a reminder of why we must fight homophobia and not just for gay people but for humanity as a whole.
Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but Recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.
Playing at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival
Thursday, Nov. 11 at 12:15 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 12 at 3:20 p.m.