The life of Jerry Falwell — the late Moral Majority televangelist who for decades helped catalyze the rightward shift of American evangelicals before his death in 2007 — is a quintessentially American story. But it’s in the next generation that the Falwell narrative becomes at once soap opera and morality tale.
That’s the case made by “God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty,” a feature-length documentary released on Hulu. It covers the graceless fall of Jerry Falwell Jr., who after the death of his father was placed in the presidency of the family’s conservative organ Liberty University. There, he seemed to remain painfully in thrall to his appetites. We hear testimony about his alleged tendency to drink on the job and discomfiting, slurry interviews between him and sympathetic media — but most crucially, we receive the testimony of Giancarlo Granda.
Granda was a pool attendant at a Miami hotel when he met Falwell and his wife, Becki, in 2012. Today, he alleges that he was persuaded to have sex with Becki while Falwell watched, and that the pair engaged in an ongoing campaign of communication with him that could be described as coercive. His energies were consumed with managing their tempers and occasionally threatening behavior, and he blames the swirl of scandal around them for derailing his professional future. Plainspoken and only occasionally visibly emotional, Granda is his own best advocate as he describes a couple who, he says, craved his body and were willing to discard the rest of him.
This is a baleful and unfortunate tale; one feels for Granda, who describes his suicidal ideation at one point. But director Billy Corben’s attempts to connect his collision with the boomer-generation Falwells to the broader story of evangelicals in the United States seems at times like a stretch. Sure, Liberty University has been a key landing pad for various Trump-era figures, including the 45th president himself, and Falwell Jr. was a key early endorser. But that mutable morality, the idea that the weight of a purportedly biblically rooted movement has been put behind an ungodly figure, is, first, a somewhat trite point the audience will have picked up elsewhere already. It also demands more time to unspool its historical basis — the question of how we got here — than “God Forbid” provides.
For as widely televised a figure as he was, the Falwell patriarch, shown in clips and still photos, is a glancing and unknowable presence here, which makes us simply crave a tighter focus on his complicated son. Failing that, this is the rare streaming-age documentary that might, perhaps, have been longer, in order to tie Granda’s isolation to the points Corben attempts to make about the cavalier heartlessness of the movement that elevated presidents Reagan and Trump. “God Forbid’s” gestures toward political statement are well intended but distract from the character study of Falwell Jr., who seems to have used the power of pulpit and position to take what he wanted until the bill came due. This is a story with charge, and not merely because Trump is involved; indeed, the temptation to make grand points about his presidency, as is often the case, overwhelms an otherwise strong bit of muckraking.
“God Forbid” premieres Tuesday, November 1 on Hulu.
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