For 90 minutes, Hulu’s documentary God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty offers a textured account of the sexual and fiscal impropriety that toppled evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr. However, the film is 100 minutes long, and in that last stretch, it mutates into the very thing it wants to resist.
Textured section first: Director Billy Corben builds the movie around a frank interview with Giancarlo Granda, who was working as a pool boy at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel in 2012 when he was sexually propositioned by Becki Falwell. 20 years old and naive, he didn’t know she was married to Jerry Jr., or that Jerry was the president of Liberty University. He didn’t know that LU was an epicenter of evangelical power or that the Falwells were so connected they could reasonably call themselves kingmakers in American politics.
And Granda definitely didn’t know that when he had sex with Becki, Jerry would be in the room watching. Nor did he suspect this one-night stand would become a years-long relationship. Soon enough, though, the Falwells invited him to family events, helped him buy a multimillion-dollar hotel, and introduced him to people like Donald Trump. All the while, they filmed and photographed their ongoing sexual encounters, and as the doc explains, that combination of lust, power, and visual evidence eventually knocked the couple off their perch.
Granda talks about this like a man with nothing to lose. He acknowledges that when he followed Becki to bed, he was ignoring his own instincts and his family’s advice, and he admits that his desire for wealth and status convinced him to accept one shocking situation after another. At the same time, he correctly states that he was victimized for years by the Falwells, who used everything from emotional manipulation to the complexities of that real estate deal to control him. Other interviewees, including Granda’s sister and several journalists who covered the scandal, are just as candid about what happened and why.
The film also clarifies that Granda was raised in a conservative religious household where people like the Falwells were revered. That’s crucial, because the veneer of moral rectitude is what made their family so powerful in the first place. It’s ironic and perhaps inevitable that they would take advantage of exactly the type of person who made them what they were. God Forbid compounds this insight by referencing the many other people at Liberty who were abused, controlled, or otherwise mistreated.
This hypocrisy leads the film to Falwell’s endorsement of Trump’s presidential campaign. It persuasively suggests Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen leveraged the sex scandal to make Falwell a mouthpiece for the future president. As presented here, the corruption seems indisputable, and if the doc stayed focused on this particular story, then it might resonate as a powerful rebuke.
For his actual conclusion, however, Corben leaves Granda behind altogether and veers instead into furious rhetoric that all but negates the film’s authority. Over a tense techno mix of the gospel-folk song “Trouble So Hard,” he replays the awful footage of the Charlottesville car attack and cuts to photos of J6 rioters screaming outside the Capitol. Those photos are black and white, except for the religious objects that the protestors wear around their necks or hoist in the air: Those bits are in vivid color, to better emphasize that members of the frothing mob were driven by religious fervor.
This segment isn’t meant to inspire reflection or debate. It is designed to make the viewer scared. So is this quote from the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, which is paired with some of the most upsetting images: “Christian extremism is just as dangerous, or even more dangerous, than Islamic extremism for one very big reason: Christian extremists live next door to us. They sit in the pews next to you, and they work with you. And the attack in the Capitol on 1/6 was Christian jihad.”
There are a load of buzzwords in that statement, all meant to terrorize liberal hearts. Shortly before we hear it, we’re also shown footage from an inflammatory right-wing video about the moral imperative to hate Muslims. The film doesn’t acknowledge that it is using similar tactics to provoke its own presumptive audience. It just ends with a title card encouraging people to call a hotline if they’re being abused — as though Giancarlo Granda and what he endured were still its focus.
God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty premieres November 1 on Hulu.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.