PLAYING THE GRACE CARD: Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. (right) and newcomer Michael Higgenbottom star in The Grace Card.

A Memphis optometrist, his Tennessee church, and a Hollywood legend join forces to tell a story of faith, forgiveness, and racial healing.

The Grace Card, a new Christian film starring Academy Award-winner Lou Gossett Jr. and newcomer Michael Higgenbottom, explores the idea of racial healing through forgiveness. Released late last month, the film has been stirring up vigorous discussions among Christians across the nation.

The film focuses on Sam Wright (played by Higgenbottom), a Memphis police officer and part-time minister who is promoted over his new partner, Mac McDonald, who is white. Michael Joiner plays the bitter Mac, whose hatred destroys all around him and initiates several dramatic twists in the story.

At the height of his frustration in trying to help Mac overcome his hatred while dealing with his own problems, Sam goes to his grandfather, George Wright (played by Gossett), who tells him the story of the grace card. This card was passed down to him by his great-grandfather who, on the day he was given his freedom from slavery, at the age of 8, wrote this on a card and gave it to his former master:

I promise to pray for you, ask your forgiveness, grant you the same, and be your friend always.

Sam’s grandfather gives him the card and suggests it will also help him overcome his problem with his partner.

David Evans, the writer and director of The Grace Card, left a thriving optometry practice to pursue his dream of making life-changing films. “I was hoping when people heard the term ‘the race card,’ they would know that there was something that could trump it, the grace card,” he told UrbanFaith.

A native of the home of Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Arkansas, Evans graduated from a Memphis school of optometry in 1994 and worked in a practice there for over 15 years. During that time, he started a drama ministry at his church that produced a massive annual production for Easter. Each year, these Passion plays presented the gospel by creating modern-day stories that parallel the life of Christ. The inspiration for The Grace Card grew out of one of these productions, which was based on an idea shared with him by one of his optometry patients.

David Evans (at left, with wife Esther) was moved to re-envision his stage plays for film by the story of the Kendrick brothers, whose hit movies Facing the Giants and Fireproof were made through a film-production ministry launched through their church in Albany, Georgia. Suddenly it was clear what God wanted him to do. With the help of his home church (Calvary Church in Cordova, Tennessee), a slew of church members, and virtually the whole city of Memphis, he shifted from helping people to see clearly with their eyes to helping them see clearly with their hearts through the power of cinematic storytelling. Veteran screenwriter Howard Klausner came on board as a co-writer and producer, and Evans’ wife, Esther, joined him as an executive producer.

Needing an actor with powerful appeal to help bring gravitas to his film (as well as generate buzz), Evans sought out Lou Gossett.

Gossett was born in New York and attended First Baptist Church of Coney Island. He was shaped by an educational background that was nothing short of an idyllic renaissance, he says. Growing up, he was an outstanding student and scholar and was voted junior-high and senior-high class president. A graduate of NYU, and an athlete standing at 6-foot-4, he turned down an invitation to try out for the NBA’s New York Knicks. Instead, he moved to California where he acted in television and film, eventually earning an Emmy in 1977 for his seminal role as Fiddler in the groundbreaking miniseries Roots and a 1983 Academy Award for his co-starring role in An Officer and a Gentleman. Also known for his charitable work, Gossett is founder of the Eracism Foundation, an organization targeting an end to ignorance, gang violence, and racism.

Says Gossett: “I’m 74 years old now and the final lesson in forgiveness for me came from Nelson Mandela, who, if anybody had a reason to be angry, it was him, and as I watched him coming out of the Robben Island prison with a broad smile on his face, I said he’s on another level and that’s the level I want to be on. I realized I had to forgive myself, and others, and this role as the grandfather teaching forgiveness fits like a glove.”

The Grace Card is Michael Higgenbottom’s film debut. He came to Memphis after attending Knoxville College and later graduating from the University of Memphis. He acted in commercials and onstage while working as a salesman for an aircraft company.

Higgenbottom’s character, Sam, seems like a gentle giant, who is so lovable and soft spoken, that at first, it is hard to see him as a tough cop, but he pulls it off. He says the role appealed to him not only because he identified with Sam’s character but also because, “I think this movie will spark conversation. People are longing for movies that inspire — movies with a positive message. This movie will cause people to talk about race relations, about forgiveness.”

He sees the relationship between his character and the character of Mac McDonald as a way to help people see barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding that keep people apart. “Like Mac, a lot of people want to hold a whole race accountable for the act of one person or a group of people, but you have to extend grace, you have to pray, you have to forgive.”

Gossett agrees. “With the way things are turning in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, we have a golden opportunity in this country right now to show that democracy works — we could be one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all, but we’re not practicing that right now. That’s why I think that The Grace Card is such a good thing.”

But how do you begin the dialogue about racism in this country when it seems people are so polarized and set in their views?

It’s worth noting the effect The Grace Card is having as a tool of reconciliation, in both large and small ways. The film previewed in over 120 major cities across the U.S. and the response was been encouraging, says Evans. The film opened on Feb. 25 in just over 350 theaters but has earned more than $1 million to date. Group tickets are being purchased by churches in triple digits throughout the country, and the churches are hoping to use the film as a platform for much-needed discussions about forgiveness and reconciliation, says Evans. And in many cities, local radio stations are leading the challenge to churches, families, individuals, businesses, and schools, to be the “Face of Grace.”

According to well-known Dallas pastor and radio host Tony Evans, the film “is a powerful portrayal of how one life transformed by God’s grace can substantially impact an entire community.”

David Evans, the optometrist-turned-filmmaker, is ecstatic to finally see his vision translated to the big screen, but he’s even more excited about how God is using the film. “We’re hearing stories about grace and forgiveness posted on Facebook and in e-mails sent to us, and that’s due to a group of dedicated influencers, pastors, and ministry leaders of many races,” he says. “We can’t wait to see what happens as the message spreads.”

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