When Christian film The Shack* (based on the best-selling book of the same name) opened in the US last month, one of the film’s key actors braced herself for a backlash.
As a black, female actor, Octavia Spencer knew that taking on the role of God would be asking for trouble, but the Oscar-nominated actress told Christian Post recently that she loved the thought-provoking way the Holy Trinity was presented in both the book and the film.
“It represents a very diverse group of people, which is what the world is,” she says. “So it’s quite refreshing that the Holy Spirit is this beautiful Asian woman, who feels like a breath of fresh air in real life. And Jesus is an amazing Israeli actor.
“And then you have myself, as God, and what I like about that presentation is it sort of dispenses with the conventional images of God and what we have in our minds as God.”
Spencer doesn’t shy away from challenging the gender or cultural divide, as evidenced not only by her recent role in Hidden Figures (where she plays a NASA mathematician), but by her recent appearance on satirical show Saturday Night Live, where, as guest host, she spoke about the frequent confusion between her and another black actor, Viola Davis, who stars with Denzel Washington in Fences.
“People have been so kind to me about that movie [i.e. Fences],” she said on the show. “So many people have been coming up to me, saying, ‘I love Hidden Fences!’.”
While said in jest, Spencer is serious about standing up for what she believes in (in fact, so serious is she about having more people see “people of colour on screen” she recently hired out an entire cinema so families could watch Hidden Figures for free), and she traces that back to her Christian upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama.
“[Church] is at the core of who we are as a people,” she told Christianity Post. “Saturday was rehearsal for whatever program was being presented on Sundays. Where I’m from, you learned about God before you learned to read and write. Our faith is what grounds us.”
While US reviews of The Shack have been mixed, Spencer believes the film provides a valuable message for a hurting world.
“I think the story itself is one that people will be able to see themselves in, and will gain life lessons,” she says. “I think it will be cathartic in nature for people. It has been for me. I have been on a journey with this one…”
She says that this wouldn’t have been possible had she played God as a younger woman.
“I don’t know that I would have had the knowledge to accept the story at that stage of my life,” she says. “But I’m excited about it. I think people will be very excited about the message, the imagery, the wisdom and the love that this film is going to put out into the world.”
*To date there are no details of an Australian release. The movie soundtrack is available on iTunes.