Roger Ross Williams, an Academy Award-winning documentary director and producer, is a product of an African-American home heavily populated by pastors. But as a gay man in a conservative situation, he has been estranged from his family and from his tradition. His latest movie, God Loves Uganda, reflects his deep ambivalence, grief, fear, and anger regarding the intertwined matters of faith, sexuality, identity, power, love, and respect.
God Loves Uganda has a distinguished pedigree, from Ford Foundation funding to Sundance mentoring to showings at film festivals, schools, churches, and other venues around the world. Last weekend, Williams and his film came to Vancouver, and I was asked to respond publicly at the showing in dialogue with him. I concluded that there is less here than meets the eye, even as what remains is plenty bad enough.
A documentary is supposed to do two things: show us something and, usually, prompt a response. God Loves Uganda does depict a horrifying development in that country: a bill that has come before the Ugandan Parliament (and, at the time of this writing, is still there) that seriously threatens the welfare of homosexuals. Indeed, this bill originally called for life imprisonment for anyone engaging in homosexual intercourse and for the death penalty for repeat offenders. The penalties have since been reduced, but the harshness of the bill remains and it might yet become law.
Moreover, God Loves Uganda correctly shows that the antihomosexual agenda there has been driven, in part, by some American evangelicals, notably Scott Lively, a very minor figure at home in the United States, and Lou Engle, one of the founders of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and known to many more as the director of "The Call" prayer rallies. Furthermore, spearheading the church-based campaign against homosexuals is at least one American-trained Ugandan, Martin Ssempa.
Had Williams trained his considerable talents on exposing these extremists, he would have produced a tightly focused horror show. If he had widened his lens to include the way many more evangelicals, in Africa and in America, routinely speak of, and treat, homosexuals and homosexuality, he would have called many more Christians properly to account. Alas, however, God Loves Uganda pulls back too far. It blurs "American conservatives" with "American evangelicals" with young IHOP missionaries (whom Williams follows from commissioning in Kansas City to ministry in Uganda) with IHOP leaders' conservative sexual views with calls for public resistance to the legitimization of homosexuality with legislation to imprison and even execute homosexuals. With due respect to Brother Williams's understandable tears through which he sees this story, that is too blurry a picture.
Williams lionizes two Ugandan clergymen: Kapya Kaoma, now resident in Boston and a research associate at Boston University, from which he recently earned a Ph.D., and Christopher Ssenyonjo, an Anglican bishop who was expelled from his church for his championing of a strong pro-LGBT agenda. They both harp on the American roots of this issue, suggesting repeatedly that anti-homosexuality has been entirely imported from America and spread among a vulnerable Ugandan population by American clergy. Kaoma even calls Martin Ssempa "an American in African skin."