The Doors of Calvary Are Now Open
We rejoined the Greenleaf family in the Season 2 Premiere of “Greenleaf,” a one-hour drama from Oprah Winfrey’s OWN. The newcomer to the OWN lineup gives us a glimpse into the first family of the Memphis megachurch Calvary Fellowship World Ministries. Though the Greenleaf family appears to be a model of loving grace, all that glitters isn’t gold. Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf, the estranged daughter of Bishop James & Lady Mae Greenleaf, returns to uncover all of the fool’s gold of her family’s sordid history.
This season’s opener certainly didn’t disappoint. While we were obsessed with the revelation of family secrets, you may have missed these subtleties in this season’s premiere episode.
SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST CONTAINS DETAILS OF REVELATIONS FROM THIS EPISODE OF GREENLEAF
All Black Everything
The willingness to overlook sexual abuse is a reoccurring theme throughout the episode. It is revealed that Lady Mae is a sexual abuse survivor with the abuser being none other than her father, Henry McCready. It is worth noting that Lady Mae is dressed in Black from head to toe when she visits her father in the hospital. In the first season Lady Mae is again dressed in all black when she confronts Mac about his sexual abuse of her recently deceased daughter, Faith.
Usually polished in brighter, more neutral tones, the wardrobe choices for her character are intentional in these scenes. Her dark attire symbolizes not only the obvious darkness of the subject, but also a repeated death and mourning of something that’s beyond her control: the actions/of lecherous and abusive men. In each of these scenes she’s forced to mourn the memories of her own brokenness, a far cry from her standing as the all-powerful Greenleaf matriarch.
The episode’s revelation confirms sexual abuse is rarely limited to a single generation. Mac learns and mimics the sexual abuse of his father, leaving a path of destruction in the lives of countless young women. Mae learns and accepts that sexual abuse is a way of life, demonstrating why she can’t understand Grace’s refusal to acquiesce to the knowledge of her sister’s abuse. With a fight between Mae and Mavis, the episode also highlights how our silence around sexual abuse creates tension and resentment that could otherwise be avoided. Both sisters need healing and yet, no one wants to talk.
The Ministry of Ego
The rivalry between Pastor Basie Skanks and Bishop James Greenleaf reaches a tipping point in the season opener. Their rivalry is equally motivated by vendetta and ego. The tension between the two is yet another subtle callout by Greenleaf to the church. From Skanks’ decision to build a church on property near Calvary Church to Bishop’s anger with Jacob for choosing his own ministry career over Calvary, the dueling pastors engage in a pissing contest that is all too familiar to the “churched” crowd.
The animosity between these two is not from a difference in ideology. It’s certainly not because one is more moral than the other. They’re rivals, in part, because of the focus of the business of church rather than church business. The idea that one might edge out the other in celebrity and all of its accoutrements drives much of the stabs these two take at one another. Bishop’s pride is wounded because his son joins Skanks’ church, but Bishop is blissfully ignorant of how his favor for grooming Gigi as his replacement impacts his son. Jacob clearly wants nothing more than his father’s approval and acceptance. Jacob is symbolic of the church-at-large whose needs are lost in the agenda of its leadership that, oddly enough, doesn’t always prioritize the spirit and soul needs of its congregation.
For men, particularly and especially Black men, the church is the last bastion of control. While churches are predominately attended (and funded) by women, the pulpit is overwhelmingly run by men. The church is where Black men are able to take power and receive respect and adulation that they’re shut out from in our society. This is clearly not lost upon the writers at Greenleaf.
Homosexuality & the Black Church
In this episode, there is continued tension between the first family and the Deacon Board. Deacon Connie reveals that the board is upset about Carlton, the openly gay Minister of Music. It’s interesting to note that the Deacon Board’s focus on homosexuality obscures their vision of the real, multigenerational ills of the First Family. Despite being embattled as an accused murderer; the Deacon Board couldn’t care less about Bishop. The love between two consenting adults is the sole focus of their ire.
This is a common occurrence in the church, especially the Black church. The focus and emphasis of homosexuality as the apex of sin has caused us to forsake the victims of real abuse. It’s worth noting that both abusers in this show (Henry and Mac McCready) have all female victims, something I don’t believe was an accident on the part of the writers. While the deacons watched in disgust at a peck on the cheek between spouses, they remain oblivious to the intimate kiss on the lips between father and daughter or (presumably) uncle and niece.
The church has been historically silent on matters of sexual abuse. In season one, the deacons of Greenleaf weren’t concerned with the actual abuse that Mac was accused of. Instead, we were shown instances of victim blaming coupled with a focus on the financial and image implications of the allegations. In this season opener, we again find a board that ignores the glaring issues in favor of keeping up appearances.
In its own way, Greenleaf highlights the church’s hypocrisy and ineptitude in seemingly inconsequential actions. While we have been so focused on classifying and condemning the actions of grown folks, we’ve lost sight of the work of healing and restoration that we are called to do.
Message in the Music
The musical score of this episode was not by happenstance. The groundbreaking ceremony for Triumph II is opened with “Intentional” by Travis Greene. Pastor Skanks, leader of Triumph, is calculating and it’s a brilliant way to come for the neck of his rival. Basie’s poaching of Jacob from Calvary is nearly as ego-shattering as it would be if he’d slept with Lady Mae. Basie’s subsequent choice to make Jacob the lead pastor is a spit in the face to Bishop who’d previously told Jacob he wasn’t ready to lead yet. The lyrics “He’s intentional” serve as double entendre, speaking of God’s grace as well as the orchestrated moves of Skanks against Bishop. This makes the deliberate song choice of “Intentional” leading into this moment all the more brilliant.
The score again predicts moments in the episode when Kirk Franklin guest stars to perform “1,2,3 Victory” as the camera pans between Bishop and Grace. It predicts not only his “win” of getting all the charges against him dropped, but also in the unspoken battle against Grace for the reclamation of his pulpit.
Vanity is Her Name
It’s worth noting that Lady Mae sees Grace’s refusal to be silent or complicit with the dirty laundry of the family as being haughty. Because Grace refuses to place family reputation and investment protection above justice, Lady Mae calls her prideful.
Mae is so obsessed with image that she doesn’t even flinch when Mavis implies that she’s had a sexual relationship with Bishop. Her greater concern (and urgency) for getting Mavis out of her house was fear that she’d reveal too much and shatter her perfectly crafted visage. Given her awkward physical interactions with Bishop, I’m not certain that Mae was/is oblivious to the sexual relationship between the pair.
Her vanity is again noted in the bathroom scene with Bishop. Mae is never seen undone. Even in season one when we see her dressed for bed, her attire is still very polished as is both her hair and makeup. It’s a reminder that despite appearances, there’s always something just beneath her surface.
The Victim & the Villain
When Mae tells Mac that they’ll never be family again, I want to believe that Mae is speaking about Mac’s abuse of her daughter. Yet I can’t help but think Mae actually means Mac’s threat to her livelihood and reputation. Lady Mae is not the one to come for. Not in this life or the next. It is this dichotomy of reconciling Lady Mae as both an abuser and a victim that makes this character so beautifully rich and textured. Check out a few tweets below for my thoughts on it:
She’s a victim as well as an abuser. Fascinating dichotomy. https://t.co/mJxdc8eSog
— The Unfit Christian (@UnfitChristian) March 16, 2017
@UnfitChristian most definitely! She is mad at her for not playing the swallow the shame game with her
— Churched Feminist (@churchedfem) March 16, 2017
Precisely. Mae is ruthless but also a victim. Such a fascinating dichotomy. https://t.co/B06IBnHV0G
— The Unfit Christian (@UnfitChristian) March 16, 2017
Best lines from the Episode:
- “I don’t preach perfection, I preach grace.” Bishop James Greenleaf to Grace Greenleaf
- “Family? After what you did, we’ll never be family again!” Lady Mae Greenleaf to Robert “Mac” McCready
I can’t predict everything that’ll happen this season, but what I know for certain is that Y’all Need Jesus, Greenleaf family!