Bolanle Austen-Peters’ Netflix original mixes fact and fiction, drawing from scandalous headlines and widespread assumptions about celebrity pastors to paint a jarring portrait of the beloved career preacher, affectionately known as the “Man of God”. In this modern take on the prodigal son, a preacher’s son and charismatic young performer squanders his potential for great talent in a sordid quest for power. Haunted by a childhood of puritanical abuse and controlled by the desire for escapism, the protagonist’s wanton pursuit of power gives viewers dramatized insight into the seedy underbelly of miracle hawkers disguised as spiritual leaders.
In a stroke of genius where real life contrasts with art, Akah Nnani (an outspoken figure during the #Churchtoo protests following the COZA church rape scandal) leads this portrayal of a corrupt religious leader, Samuel King, with the charisma and clarity of a studious pupil of the Nigerian megachurch. Powerful “men of god” tout the fantasy of salvation against a global landscape of rampant inequality and social unrest, preying on the most vulnerable of society to buy into their lies. Samuel taps into this deficit of hope by channeling the energy of his live performance days. Using the praise and worship ministry as his arena, Samuel forgoes the traditional praise route, instead performing original songs to boost his own ego as a performer. His impulses towards flamboyant showmanship takes brilliant form in the pageantry of praise and worship. As he moonwalks across the stage to the cheering of congregation members, Samuel backslides into his secular onstage persona, while the worldly musicality of his performances blurs the line between entertainment and worship. In concert, he had command of an audience for as long as the entertainment lasted. In preaching, he has a captive audience held still by blind faith or sheer desperation, depending on who you ask.
Austen-Peters’ flair for the theatrical shines through in the musical performances that feel ripped from the stage of her Fela and the Kalakuta Queens play. On stage, Samuel is intoxicated with the power he has over the crowd, and the adoration it brings him. The spectacle of religion provides an escape from the toil of daily life and into the fantasy of being saved from one’s problems. In wielding the gospel for his own personal gain, Samuel transcends into a godlike figure who lives for praise and reaps no consequences. When he finally succeeds in opening his own ministry, Samuel is at his most powerful– he has a supportive wife who turns a blind eye to his misdeeds, a choir to buttress his true love of performance, and a hostage young audience bound to his every word. His fantasies of finally being the one in control have finally come to life, and he has to answer to no one.
Even his choice of wife, Teju, a long suffering childhood friend who always does his bidding, is a ploy to cover up his true nature, relying on her affinity for church culture to maintain the appearance of a squeaky clean minister. The power imbalance of their relationship works in his favor, as she does the thankless job of covering up evidence of his crimes, while he basks in the glory of having a blind wife who turns the other cheeek. Their relationship is a see-saw in which Samuel is perpetually raised towards the sun while she toils in the shadows, neglecting her own sense of morality to keep him propped up. From abortion scandals to shady black market dealings, Austen-Peters subverts expectations of a redemption story by conflating Samuel’s downward spiral into waywardness with his rising affluence as a bible peddler.
As the film winds down to its tragic ending, harsher realities are unearthed about the role Stockholm syndrome plays in the lives of downtrodden churchgoers. Unable to confront the abuse of his past nor escape his present-day demons, Samuel remains trapped in the cycle of abuse, a captive of the gospel according to man. His return to the abusive childhood home he was desperate to flee is painted as a happy ending with the family reconciled, yet it belies a darker truth. Samuel has given up the fight in forging his own path, and after being beaten down by the world, he returns to the familiar oppression of his childhood rather than forge a new path of authentic healing.
A. Tabi is a freelance writer who covers film and television with an emphasis on social commentary.