Film Review – Hail Satan?
Hail Satan? is an amusing documentary about The Satanic Temple that uses that title as a way to challenge conservative religious groups attempting to inject Christianity into public life. Upfront it should be noted The Satanic Temple does not actually believe in Satan as a person but as the abstract “adversary” who challenges blind faith. The group attracts many liberal figures who feel unconnected to the world around them and find a place among their own self-declared outcasts. As the film digs into how these people came together it also addresses the group’s mission and a nice mini history lesson about how the United States became a “Christian” country.
One way this is most effective is the Temple’s leader and co-founder Lucien Greaves, who is the main narrator, goes over how the Temple came to be and what they are fighting for. Physically, the fact that he is blind in one eye, wears black clothing all the time, plus the way he carries himself emanates the presence of a dark figure but this is all about creating a persona. He is extremely personable and articulate, defending his viewpoints about freedom of speech and religion but with an edge that makes him hard to pin down. He never breaks “character,” taking what he is saying with complete seriousness that makes him appear credible even when some protests he is involved in seem more tongue and cheek. He obviously also has a sense of humor about himself. Another original member, Jex Blackmore, is a very “goth” looking woman who provides details about what got her involved in the Temple and how she took on her leadership role more out of default when no one else spoke at an event the Temple had. She has a much more militant attitude, and pretty much single-handedly built her chapter of the Temple in Detroit from scratch while using a lot more performance artistry in her communication, including sometimes disturbing images. Despite the different approaches the members take, the overall goal is clear. Freedom of religion.
The big incident involving them is their opposition to state senator Jason Rapert of Arkansas who was working to put a copy of the Ten Commandments in front of the state capital. In response the Satanic Temple argued that a statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed figure with children looking up at him, should also be placed there to promote equal religious representation. Rapert, who dressed in a suit, and spoke about this being a Christian nation with a very self-righteous certainty that showed how seriously he takes his mission, provided a striking contrast to Greaves.
Rapert’s mindset about America is challenged not just by the Temple but also by director Penny Lane as she learns along with us several details about how America became Christianized over time. She creates great contrasts about important details people point to when making this argument. Lane obviously sides with the Temple in the way she is telling this story, yet she never lets it make for a biased film. We do hear Rapert and other citizens as they complain about the Temple and we hear the Temple give it right back to them. Penny Lane lets the members of the Temple guide the narrative as they speak about how they see the Temple, including some of the disagreements they have.
The way this documentary works best is that is this group is very easy to relate to even if the methods and way they speak is not something you would ever do. These are outcasts who found each other and a mission that gives them meaning and a community where they can talk about their beliefs. The openness of personable Temple members gives us insight into their motivations while also making them fun to watch at protests and to hear them talk about their concerns. Penny Lane structures the film tightly, giving us a balance of the mission and the people with enough information for us to be informed and entertained. That’s the best you can hope for in a documentary.