Fred Phelps documentary delves into mind of a devil

'Fall from Grace' sheds light on Kansas pastor's viral anti-homosexual crusade

By Cornelius A. Fortune

"Fall from Grace," a documentary by newcomer K. Ryan Jones, is an intriguing examination of bigotry. Focusing on the ministry of Pastor Fred Phelps, the anti-gay preacher whose Web site has stirred much controversy, and Westboro Baptist Church based in Topeka, Kan., the filmmaker takes us on a journey through past and present.

The film features interviews with Phelps, his family and followers, Topeka city leaders and officials (including the mayor of the city), ministers, theologians and two of Phelps' adult children who have chosen to leave the church and the family. (His daughter Dortha claims that on a good day, Phelps has the maturity of a fourth grader.)

The Phelps clan (daddy dearest included) is given plenty of camera time to present its side of the story as its members see it, never making a convincing argument. We see a closed-minded, unsympathetic lot who are closed off from any thought not originating from their father's ideology.

For them, homosexuality is the arsehole of the world. Everything base and destructive in America culture is due to our country's burgeoning acceptance of gays in society and the military. As far as they're concerned, Sept. 11 was just "God's way of kicking ass." They have no sympathy for our soldiers fighting in Iraq and have made headlines with their many protests across the country.

Phelps and his followers often seem angry, myopic and strange - hardly the face of America or its voice. In fact, it becomes even more mind-numbingly appalling to watch Phelps' own grandchildren wax philosophic on matters of sexual orientation. Which turns out to be, in my opinion, one of the most chilling depictions of children on film since Stephen King's "Children of the Corn."

These kids use the word "fag" and "hate" so easily, one wonders if the circle of hate will ever abate in our lifetime. If this won't be enough to set your blood at boiling-point level, the film delves deeper and deeper into the psyche of these people. You are left not so much with a deeper understanding, but the stark realization that they actually do believe what they're saying - and, worse yet (double-edged sword that it is), believe the Constitution supports it.

Of interest - and perhaps the brightest light in the film - is a simple statement from a pastor that Christians might take note of: "Fred Phelps is an example of someone who needs love the most, but deserves it the least."

"Fall from Grace" kicks you where you're most vulnerable, stirring emotion and reflection. This is as much a documentary as it is a horror film with a never-ending cliffhanger, and strangely enough, that's what makes this film so damn important: Even the devil got his own origin story. Here's the world according to Fred Phelps.

Cornelius A. Fortune is a freelance writer in Detroit. To comment on this story, send an e-mail to

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