I met Sharon Jones at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. Well, at least I met her through Miss Sharon Jones!, a documentary about the contemporary soul/funk singer, with whom I had been woefully unfamiliar.
Jones is a force. Like her hero James Brown, she has indomitable energy as a singer, dancer and band leader, especially in her live performances with her backup musicians, The Dap Kings. The documentary, directed by Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, charts the bitter irony of Jones’ struggle with cancer, which threatens both her life and livelihood as it ravages her dynamic body.
Jones may not be a household name, but she’s celebrated enough to have developed a cult of personality. This notion - that someone can hold sway over loyal followers through use of media, propaganda or social structure - was a recurring theme in a handful of the films I saw at TIFF. It made me wonder about cults of personality in general, and how a Christian worldview might understand them.
Jones, like most music stars, is a fairly innocuous example of the phenomenon. Such figures may be elevated above others at their own peril, but rarely at the practical expense of those who adore them. Not so with the central figures in two other films that I saw at TIFF. In Black Mass, which is now in wide release, Johnny Depp portrays notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who was complicit in 11 murders during his reign of terror. Beasts of No Nation, which comes to Netflix and select theaters on Oct. 16, explores an even more horrifying cult of personality, as it depicts a child soldier’s indoctrination at the hands of a cruel and manipulative commander (Idris Elba) in an unnamed African nation.
These latter two films are extreme examples of what can happen when the self is elevated above all else, so that others are compelled to do one person’s evil bidding. Yet there can be costs to a seemingly benign cult of personality like Jones’, as well. Miss Sharon Jones! captures a certain loneliness to her life, perhaps best evidenced by the fact that her manager is the one who accompanies her to most doctor visits. When a planned Thanksgiving dinner with the Dap Kings falls through, an angry Jones cries, “I ain’t got no family.” You get the sense that Jones has given her life to the cultivation of this cult of personality, at the expense of any life outside of performing.
There’s an amazing scene in Miss Sharon Jones! in which she visits a church from her childhood. Handed the microphone, she belts out a gospel song in a way that wouldn’t be out of place at a Dap Kings show. Is she worshiping or performing? Serving God or her cult of personality? Certainly testifying through song is part of the African-American church tradition, but to what degree is the applause of the congregants directed at her, rather than God?
I think something of an answer arises in a later sequence, when Jones takes the stage for a comeback concert. Short of breath after making her usual, energetic entry, Jones pauses to talk about her recent illness and then publicly thanks her oncologist, who is in the audience. A spotlight shines on him, partly illuminating the crowd. In that instant, the cult of personality is flattened out and becomes communal. One of my fellow TIFF attendees pointed out that when Jones starts dancing a few moments later, it’s similar to the way she moved in church. Perhaps she is making a new connection between this concert hall and that sanctuary.
Jesus, of course, is described by some as a cult of personality – there is no denying He holds sway over millennia of followers. Yet in both His teaching and His actions, Christ turns the concept inside out. His “cult” is founded on the purely communal message of the Gospel. Not only does He proclaim self-denial, He also enacted it, all the way to the cross. It was the ultimate righteous performance, and a tough act to follow.