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Wrestling for Jesus

November 6, 2011
Wrestling For Jesus

Semi-professional wrestling and evangelical Christianity may not seem to have much in common besides the sort of people who look down on them. But if there can be Christian Black Metal, then why not Wrestling for Jesus? At least, that was the thought of Timothy “T-Money” Blackmon when he started his ministry with that name in South Carolina. Documentary filmmaker Nathan Clarke brings us a remarkably objective, character-driven observation of the Wrestling For Jesus ministry and some of its more prominent members.

At first glance, Wrestling For Jesus looks like any other group of semi-professional wrestlers, although with a slight throwback to the black-and-white days of babyfaces and heels from the 1980s World Wrestling Federation. They practice what amounts to a very physical sort of improvisational acting, full of staged knee drops, body slams, and “cheating” in and out of the ring. But all of them — faces and heels alike — proclaim Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, and at the end of all the matches, a preacher climbs into the ring for an altar call, hoping to convert or deepen the faith of at least a few of the audience.

It’s not clear to me how well this idea can work; it seems like the WFJ entourage can outnumber the spectators at times. And though getting someone worked up is a good way to get a momentary burst of emotional enthusiasm, it doesn’t seem like it can lead to much lasting change. Of course, getting their foot in the door is enough for these evangelists.

Shot over scattered, individually-financed weeks, the film mainly follows “T-Money”. It’s not clear if he started the ministry himself, but he seems to be its driving force. They practice in a ring in his backyard, and he transports their equipment to shows in the truck that during the week he uses to drive flowers to florists all over the region. He tells us about his love of wrestling, inspired by his late father, which he fuses with his faith in WFJ.

We also see his family: his wife, Jessica, and their three (soon four) daughters. We even sit in on a couples bible study session, where they talk about how to strengthen their relationship, though he makes an ominous comment about how the role-playing skills from wrestling translate over to his public family life.

Even within the world of local semi-professional wrestling, it seems there’s some acrimony. We also get to visit with the TWF, another local group which seems to fit the usual wrestling stereotype a little closer. Drinking and profanity are allowed — even encouraged — and yet it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call them a rival of WFJ; some of the TWF members are just as evangelically Christian as the WFJ members, and they even used to wrestle together, until some recent acrimony left largely unexplored.

It’s in the second half of the film that it really gets its legs. Timothy had disappeared for a number of months, out of contact with pretty much everyone after his family situation degenerated. We catch up with him a year later as he resurfaces, and we learn what has happened with his life, with WFJ, and with some of the other WFJ members. What started as an almost anthropological study of a quirky local culture finishes up as a touching glimpse of a man making his way the best he knows how.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail, if it applies to documentaries.

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