LGBTQ+ stories need to be told, particularly black LGBTQ+ stories, and those stories deserve new, interesting and bold deliveries.
Saturday Church, writer-director Damon Cardasis’ debut feature, is exactly the kind of film that LGBTQ+ audiences hoped that the success of Moonlight would pave the way for, yet it carves a different path for itself than that Best Picture winning predecessor. While both are queer coming-of-age stories and both feature predominantly African American casts, Saturday Church supplements its drama with fantasy musical numbers and a subtle vein of magical realism. If you were to put Moonlight in a blender with Chicago, Once and Paris Is Burning, you would end up with something like Saturday Church.
The film follows 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain), beginning with his father’s funeral. His mother (Margot Bingham) needs to work extra shifts to support him and his brother and Ulysses finds himself being raised by his strict, religious Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor). Ulysses, bullied at school for being effeminate, finds joy in trying on his mother’s clothing, and when Aunt Rose finds out she gives him an ultimatum: stop it or get out. Adrift, Ulysses makes his way to a spot on the Hudson River Green where a group of transgendered women hang out. He’s quickly befriended by the outgoing Ebony and soon accompanies her and some others to Saturday Church, a program for at-risk LGBTQ+ folks. It is there that Ulysses begins to come out of his shell, and also where the film finds it wings. The friends that Ulysses makes at Saturday Church (many played by transgendered talent) dance and sing, trade war stories and build their own chosen family.
Saturday Church’s primary strengths are its casting and its bold, surreal musical numbers. Led by newcomer Kain, the cast is full of fresh talent. The relative inexperience of the cast results in some uneven acting and singing, but what happens is always interesting. And there are some excellent performances, particularly by Kain, Marquis Rodriguez as love interest Raymond, and by Mj Rodriquez as Ebony, who has a powerhouse singing voice and a magnetic screen presence that allows her to steal every scene she is in. As for veteran composter Nathan Larson’s music, it has a rocking boldness to it that recalls club anthems from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Standout numbers include a powerful solo by Ebony and a beautiful, sweet duet by Ulysses and Raymond.
While Saturday Church wisely keeps things moving, the story runs into a bit of trouble when it moves too fast. Cardasis tries to tackle LGBTQ+ homelessness, illness and survival sex work in a 10 minute stretch and it feels rushed. There are also pacing problems with the film’s romantic angle; while Kain and Rodriguez have a lot of chemistry, their relationship reaches its music-assisted peak too early in the film and is then shoved onto the backburner.
LGBTQ+ stories need to be told, particularly black LGBTQ+ stories, and those stories deserve new, interesting and bold deliveries. While Ulysses’ journey has most of the expected coming-of-age beats, Cardasis makes a number of smart stylistic choices that really set Saturday Church apart. This starts with memorable, hazy cinematography by Hillary Spera and hits its highest notes with the recurring, possibly magical appearance of blooming wildflowers following in Ulysses’ wake in many key scenes. While they serve as a rather obvious metaphor, the flowers justify their existence by adding bursts of joyous colors to the Ulysses’ otherwise muted world. The flowers are mostly separate from the film’s musical numbers (which are strongly suggested to be in Ulysses’ imagination), but both elements conspire to add a dreamy beauty to Saturday Church. This beauty adds a levity to the very serious, important subject matter.
Saturday Church is a bit rough around the edges, but its bold delivery is a blast of fresh air. The music and talent are outstanding, and it is important to note that the film serves as a loving homage to the real-life Saturday Church program without serving as a commercial for it. This is a film that deserves a wide audience, in part because of its subject, but also because it is simply a strong, inventive example of filmmaking.