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Tina Gordon Honoring Black Gospel Culture and Making Plot Turns in ‘Praise This’

Tina Gordon Honoring Black Gospel Culture and Making Plot Turns in ‘Praise This’

Praise This is a new film coming to Peacock about an underdog gospel choir team seeking redemption in Atlanta’s competitive gospel youth choir scene after an embarrassing first run the year before. 

BGN had the pleasure of interviewing Tina Gordon, writer and director of the film. 

This interview contains light spoilers of Praise This. 

A lot of your recent work in the last five years has centered Black women. With Praise This coming to Peacock, not only are Black women centered, but this is also your first film since Drumline that’s focused on music. I would love to hear more about coming back to that in your writing and directing; especially when it comes to focusing more on contemporary gospel music.

Yeah! I wanted to return to a music scene. I just didn’t know which one, because I had such an amazing experience in Drumline. I was like, “Well, what part of the culture would I like to just delve into?”

A script came along from Will Packer Productions that was more of a sweet version of a gospel movie. My mind instantly went to Atlanta, as it frequently does, and the competitive world of gospel Black choir. [I wanted to go somewhere] that shows an aspirational version of our culture. So I moved the setting from a small town to Atlanta, where I knew culturally it would reinforce delving into high octane choirs and praise teams. From there, it was a lot of research, a lot of scouting. 

I didn’t know how I was going to return to music, but it was a surprise that it would end up being gospel.

(from left) Chloe Bailey and director Tina Gordon on the set of Praise This.

What piqued your interest in gospel choirs?

Growing up, I could not sing. I was the character in this movie Jess [played by Anjelika Washington], who always wanted to sing but did not have the voice growing up in church.

My grandmother was a leader in the church. Her father literally built the church [we grew up in]. I always wanted to be in the choir, but couldn’t. When [the story of Praise This] came along, I thought, “This will be a great way to create a character that couldn’t sing like me and give honor to how I grew up.” 

You mentioned a lot of research going into this. What surprised you the most while researching and scouting for this film?

The staging and the amount of thought that goes into basically giving these performances at church now. It’s such a far cry from the small churches I went to where there wasn’t this level of performance given to lighting, staging, choreography, costuming. Exploring the churches of Atlanta, I was really surprised. I had to take it up a notch and make an aspirational version of that. The baseline of incredible performances found in the churches, especially in the South, was a challenge. 

What was the hardest scene for you to direct due to the high expectations of this medium of performance?

I think the finale song because it involved everybody! It involves our main hero team, all the praise teams at this competition, and audience participation. It all had to be choreographed and timed out, according to different movements of the song. 

(from left) Anjelika Washington, Jekayln Carr, Chloe Bailey, Kiara Iman, Ilario Grant, Druski, director Tina Gordon and a crew member on the set of Praise This.

Watching the opposing group’s number with all of the dollar bills thrown everywhere [before the main team’s finale] made me feel so much discomfort in my body in a good way. It called attention to prosperity gospel narratives.

[Laughs.] It’s fun creating different characters out of the praise teams. Our underdog team is low funded, no production, just scraping by. So the opposite of them would be [a praise team from] a well funded, prosperous church. I did have a little bit of fun with the whole prosperity idea with the money guns. But it also came from trying to pick songs that match the teams. 

We have Champion Life, who is well funded and has high production, the opposite of our underdog team. We have the, I don’t want to say “sexy,” but certainly alluring Prodigal Bros and the sweet girl group Promise Ringtones. 

The Prodigal Bros dancing and singing reminds me of the singing group the Halal Brothers in Ramy in a mega-mosque setting dancing and singing, “There’s Always a Third.”

[Laughs.] Yeah, I had fun doing that. My choreographer played the lead in Prodigal Bros, Sean Bankhead. 

A lot of those guys are people that stuck with me for different productions. I worked with him on Little. Creating the Prodigal Bros was really funny. 

Could you tell me more about how the two church ladies, Cora and Priscilla [played by Cocoa Brown and Vanessa Fraction], came up in the writing process as comic relief?

I wanted to make a gospel movie for specifically this generation. I was very deliberate in the casting to pick people who are reflective of the culture at this time, the youth culture at this time. But I still wanted to give voice to the church ladies who are still old school. I just wrote [these two ladies] to represent those women. So no matter how edgy, hip, or whatever you think you are in this movie, there’s always going to be that judging church lady. Cora and Priscilla are who audiences really like and really know in their church. In the aisle, talking smack, in their seats in the pews. They’re a nod to the women in the church we know and love — sometimes.

Could you tell me more behind the twist of the original leader of our underdog team joining Champion Life?

I was actually just looking for a surprise. I did revisions on the script as well, and that was something I added. I wanted to set up a perfect church girl. I wanted a character who presents herself as the perfect church girl, but actually only came to church for a guy. 

I just tried to make a turn in every aspect of the movie. I tried to stay at this intersection where the characters you think are good are not all perfect or totally good. And the ones that you think are bad have redeeming qualities. I tried to make turns where it didn’t get too preachy, it didn’t get too ratchet, we just ride that intersection of fun/faith, sinner/saint. 

Yeah, there are a lot of turns in this movie. In my brain, I thought the popstar was going to hurt Sam (Chloe Bailey). 

I feel like the audience to think, “He’s gonna lead her down a dark path, and the music industry is so bad.” I always knew from my experience with a lot of musicians that the bravado they present to the public can many times be very different from the men you meet behind that image. I deliberately wanted a character that in his private time, you can see he’s much more vulnerable. Because the expectation that all of these hip hop artists have this much bravado 24/8 is a total myth. 

Praise This will be streaming on Peacock April 7, 2023.

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