Fascination with the black church and black Christian spirituality stretches back to the time of American slavery. It stretches from the music of Negro spirituals and the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and the use and targeting of black churches during the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the church can make or break a politician’s black-voter base. The black church is an integral part of American history, so it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for a show like Greenleaf to arrive. Perhaps it speaks to television’s continued push for diversity, plus the influence of Oprah Winfrey, that we finally get a show like this, a melodrama about a black Christian family filled with hypocrisy and secrets.
The series begins as Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) returns to her family estates in Memphis, with daughter Sophia (Desiree Ross) in tow, to attend the funeral of her sister, Faith, who presumably drowned in a lake surrounding the property. No one flat-out calls Faith’s death a suicide, but plenty of verbal ellipses suggest as much. Faith was troubled, and no one in the family wants to confront the reason why, although there are plenty of hints. Grace is cold to Uncle Mac (Gregory Alan Williams), who watches his teenage cousins Sophia and Zora (Lovie Simone) a bit too closely. After Faith’s funeral, when the family gathers for dinner, Grace tries to address what might have sent Faith to an early grave, but her mother Mae (Lynn Whitfield) refuses to allow such talk.
This is not the first time Whitfield has played a mother who turns a blind eye to her children’s abuse. In Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion, she played Victoria, who encouraged her younger daughter to remain in an abusive relationship for the status she’d gain from it. Her cruelty didn’t stop there: Victoria also allowed her husband to rape her older daughter throughout childhood, so he’d stay around and provide for the family. Two roles isn’t exactly a pattern, but here’s hoping it doesn’t become one.
The tension around the Greenleaf table pulses as Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne), wife to the family’s eldest son Jacob (Lamman Rucker), presses Grace about her faith and religious affiliation. Grace is clearly the favorite of her father, Bishop James (Keith David). She used to preach, but after becoming disillusioned with the family and the greedy nature of the church, she left. She’s now a reporter who is up for a job at 20/20 in New York. Kerissa pressures Grace to reveal that she doesn’t follow the Bible strictly, and Mae’s frustration with Grace comes to a head. Youngest daughter Charity (Deborah Joy Winans, of the famous gospel family) tries to get her father’s attention by saying she’s created a 12-part sermon series about the seasons of marriage, but the family laughs at her. Mae dismisses her knowledge of marriage because she’s been married three years and still has no children. Grace tries defend her sister, but Charity refuses to accept any help.
Only a few people seem happy to have Grace back in town: her father, an old flame named Noah Kendall (Benjamin Patterson), and her Aunt Mavis (Oprah Winfrey), who owns a blues joint down on Beale Street. Noah works as head of security for the family, and his feelings for Grace aren’t hidden very well. Even Sophia notices the charged looks between the two. He seems to be the Westley to her Buttercup. Later, when Noah is with his girlfriend, Isabel, she also realizes that Grace’s presence has affected him, so she asks to spend the night. Noah and Isabel are abstaining from sex until marriage, but because she feels threatened by Grace’s sudden arrival, Isabel decides to bless Noah with some under-the-covers fellatio.
Good Christians know all kinds of loopholes to avoid trouble with God.
So far, all the women can’t stand Grace (except for Sophia and Mavis), and that’s a shame. It’s also hard not to notice that the women most jealous of Grace, a fair-skinned woman, are dark-skinned. Mae, her mother, is fair, but Kerissa, Charity, and Isabel are all darker — and they’ve all been introduced as being jealous or antagonistic in some way. This reflects a grim aspect of colorism: The widespread practice of fair-skinned people of color getting preferential treatment. We see the same thing in the beauty industry, which suggests darker-skinned people use bleaching or fade creams to lighten themselves. It’s certainly present in film and television tropes, which often suggest that darker people are the bad guys. This is just the first episode, but it’s frustrating to see this kind of colorism play out so quickly, especially among the main female characters of a show created and written by a white man (Craig White of Six Feet Under and LOST).
When Grace visits Mavis at her club, we finally get the confirmation that Uncle Mac is a creep. Police have questioned Mavis about a situation with a 15-year-old girl who later recanted her story against Mac, but both women recognize his pattern. He had a history with Faith before her death. Mavis tells Grace she’s the only one who can do something about Mac, and here we have the reason why Grace will return to the Greenleaf fold.
At church, Bishop James gets a visit from Senator Banks, who informs him that Calvary Fellowship World Ministries will be one of many churches investigated for tax-exemption fraud. Charity leads the church in song while Jacob has sex with his (white) mistress Alexa (Kristin Erickson), one of Bishop James’s assistants. Later, as the reverend preaches for his congregation to look at the Bible as a series of emails begging them to come home, Grace is moved to rejoin the church. The calculating stare she and Uncle Mac exchange make it hard to judge the sincerity of her recommitment to the church, but the battle is on.
Although the Greenleaf family keeps its troubles close, there are indications that they are not as insular as they may seem. This pilot drops several references to Memphis (and in turn, the Greenleaf church) being affected by police brutality; however, in this case, it’s a black police officer who shot another black man. Uncle Mac jokes the police officer may be black on the outside, but that’s it. Bishop James has been questioned about his connection to the shooter, who attends Calvary, but the church has more than 4,000 members. Surely Bishop James isn’t expected to know every congregant.
Bishop James’s lack of close connections to his congregation is one of many ways Greenleaf pokes at the hypocrisy and greed of megachurches. In one scene, Lady Mae praises God that she will never have to fly commercial again. And during altar call, when Grace returns, a couple who recently won the Powerball lottery donates $50,000 to the church.
Throughout the episode, Oprah’s performance as Mavis remains a source of comfort and inspiration. It’s a role we’ve come to love her in, but she’s also more relaxed here, letting her Tennessee drawl break free from time to time. And speaking of Southern accents, I’m glad the characters don’t try to force a slew of awful Gone With the Wind impressions on us. Let’s focus on the good stuff: The Greenleaf family has many secrets to reveal. Greenleaf is all but guaranteed to be a big, soapy mess, a way for fans of Empire and Scandal to get their melodramatic fix.