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By Bryan Newbury
November 30, 2006

It was 73 degrees Fahrenheit in Lawrence, Kansas on Tuesday, 28 November 2006. Within a day, that turned to 37 and reduced to low 30’s, then 20’s and eventually into the teens. Rain was followed by freezing rain, then drizzle, then sleet. In spite of the deteriorating weather situation, hundreds packed into the University of Kansas’ Woodruff Auditorium for the maiden screening of Fall from Grace. Mr. Jones quipped to a capacity hall that he was pleased with the attendance. “I spent a year with the Phelps family…with the weather I was beginning to fear that God does hate me.”

Yes, the audience, along with Mr. Jones, pressed on. Good for the filmmaker’s soul, no doubt. Murder on a reviewer’s complexion.

Fall from Grace is the fruit of a long year spent with the Phelps family, the primary members of the Westboro Baptist Church’s congregation. As the film illustrates, Phelps & Co. are known throughout the world for their pickets, protests, and general hatred of Broadway musicals. What would make a young man devote such time to the subject of Phelps and his ever-visible “God Hates Fags” and subsequently, “God Hates Troops” signs? One suspects it is the same reason Westboro changed its focus from homosexuals to the Iraq War: publicity.

Surely he can’t be blamed for it. Indeed, this is a timely subject. Though we might like to look beyond these evangelical instigators and picture them as quaint anachronisms inhabiting a time prior to the War on Terror, it is instructive to get a view from the crow’s nest into their political, theological and philosophical world. Considering that common ground has been reached between Palestinian Imams and Israeli Orthodox Rabbis on the assertion that a gay pride march is the ultimate anathema in al Quds, we may see Phelps through the lens of history as ahead of the curve. When a bulk of America’s states, including Kansas, decided to validate a portion of Westboro’s teachings through the constitutional prohibition of same-sex unions, Phelps might have demurred. Rather than circling the victory lap, Pastor Fred saw an opening for a new whipping boy. How, exactly, Mr. Phelps came to the conclusion that the American military is aligned with the sleeper cells of the homosexual agenda is up for debate. Changing the object of his ire from fags to flags could be a tremendous miscalculation. Then again, when one ponders James Guckert, he might not be that far off.

The aspect of a convoluted philosophy manifested through a charismatic personality is tackled well in Fall from Grace. The aim of the picture seems to be an in-depth portrait of the personality of Phelps and by extension his family and congregation. (As Jones pointed out in the question-and-answer period, there are only two other families in the congregation. One is married in, the other apparently another filmmaker who migrated back to Kansas from Florida to do a documentary on Phelps and ended up a member of the parish. Tread lightly, Mr. Jones. There but for the grace.) As a profile, Fall from Grace works rather well. We learn much about Fred Phelps’ development both spiritually and professionally.

His fire and brimstone bona fides are on display predictably early. Mere minutes in, the audience is treated to quotes from Leviticus. It would be fair to question whether the Westboro Baptist Church recognizes any of the New Testament. Three verses or so, it turns out. Details.

As Pedro Irigonegaray lays out through his interviews, Phelps was primarily involved in the law until his conduct merited disbarring. From that point forward, he took on his anti-gay crusade full-time. It would be easy to portray Phelps as an attention-starved opportunist looking for any camera. It would be easier still to exhibit his pulpit mannerisms and draw the conclusion that he is an ideologue possessed by whatever holy spirit he feels moves him. It is a credit to such a young filmmaker and his advisors that neither impulse is indulged. Here we have a man who became a movement through force of will who is not as simple as we would like to have him. The viewer finds himself asking if this is a positive development. Wouldn’t we all like to brush the likes of Fred Phelps under the cultural carpet and move on? In the current environment of point-counterpoint debates masquerading as a hashing out of objective facts, isn’t it best to ignore such grandiose and illogical tenets as those of the Westboro Baptist Church?

Of course it is. The problem with researching any person for a span as long as a year is that everyone at some point reveals complexities. This is true of Phelps as it would be of your neighbor, Congressman or panhandler. Jones does well to bring in another pastor, Topeka’s mayor and a religious scholar to illuminate the ways in which Phelps cherry picks the scriptures. The best atmospherics are laid out in the introduction, where a camera is moving along the road in northeast Kansas, picking up the crosses and billboards. The final frames are very well done, ending with two different church signs. The first is from a Catholic church, quoting Jesus (of all people!) as saying “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” The second is the sign outside the Westboro Baptist Church. Empty. They do have a few signs around to make up for it, but one wonders if they were thinking about quoting Jesus and just couldn’t come up with anything that satisfied them.

There are some fine moments in Fall from Grace. On the whole, it is roughly as inconsistent stylistically as one expects from a man of this age. While the opening is nicely shot, the quotes provided roughly halfway into the film give one the feeling of dénouement. This doesn’t do a service to the pacing. We have a human interest story. An interview with one of the military widows Phelps & Associates decide to harass by picketing her slain husband’s funeral. Though we empathize immediately with the young woman, who bears a striking resemblance to Natalie Maines, it doesn’t take the observer much time to see that Jones is endeavoring to tug at the heartstrings. By the end of the scene, we’re treated to an operatic suite which predictably rises and falls with the bereaved and the Phelps family in the pulpit, about the pool and at their protests.

In lieu of these dramatic moments the documentary viewer is becoming dangerously desensitized to… and the documentary filmmaker is becoming woefully fond of… Jones might have broadened the issue a bit further. We do see the national furor over the new publicity tactic Phelps has adopted. His daughter is seen on Fox News being shouted down. This was the biggest applause point in the auditorium, which forces the reviewer to have misgivings. There is a good deal of footage from cable news, but Fall ends up being somewhat myopic.

When Fred’s son is asked about the future of the church after his father’s death, he makes a series of comments that could be interpreted as terroristic threats to the nation at large. This is the crescendo of the subject that takes up where the profile leaves off. Just how far can we take free speech? Observing what the Westboro congregation gets away with, one would suspect that free speech is alive and well. Jones doesn’t address just how much statements such as “Two thousand troops dead, I only wish it was two million” would be tolerated were the Phelpses not Christians, many of whom have law degrees. Imagine a Muslim cleric leading a demonstration such as the Phelps family, replete with signs celebrating the deaths of U.S. service men and women. How many minutes would it take for such a person to be arrested and detained in parts unknown? In the contemporary climate, it is necessary to get beyond any naïve assumptions of Constitutional efficacy and ask why the local, state and federal government refuses to make an example of Phelps. Surely the pretext is there.

There may be more than pretext. Jones interviews two of the four Phelps children who have fled the family. Nate and Dortha provide some chilling anecdotes about growing up Phelps. Nate in particular sheds light on how the cauldron of rage that is Fred Phelps manifests itself inside the walls of the compound. Spare the rod, indeed. Had government authorities ever wanted to complicate life for the Phelpses, this could have been a way.

One cannot fault Jones for not going too far with this particular issue. To his credit, he seems to have navigated this powder keg nimbly. No doubt he had to to maintain such access. As his reward, we are given quite a profile of Phelps. It is better than just a student film, but it would be far better still if Jones distilled this character survey within a broader picture dealing with Christian extremism in the United States. A daunting task, no doubt, in a country whose political compass seems to languish in the center of a magnet factory.

A review of Fall from Grace would not be complete without mention of the “pool scene.” Here Jones interviews the grandchildren, who are primary school-aged, about their favorite signs and their meanings. The most humorous moment of the film is found here, though describing it doesn’t do it justice. The children come off as charming, despite their parroting of such hateful rhetoric. Actually, it is questionable whether they are simply mimicking Pastor Fred’s sermons. They seem savvy beyond their age, and very mindful of this. In a few years we’ll see this footage and remember just which young man we expected back in 2006 to ascend to the family throne. Let’s hope K. Ryan Jones is not a devotee of Michael Apted.

Jones hopes to screen the film to a wider audience. Though Lawrencians are surely behind him in this ambition, it is tempting to hope that Phelps doesn’t get too much attention. After spending seventy one minutes with him, it is certain that this is exactly what the members of Westboro Baptist crave.


2006, Color, 71 minutes

Directed by K. Ryan Jones

Screened at the Woodruff Auditorium

University of Kansas, Lawrence

Caitlin on February 19th, 2007 at 10:47 am 

Is there anyway to view this movie now?

Maria on May 22nd, 2007 at 12:16 pm 

I would be very interested in obtaining a copy of these film for an upcoming meeting….How can I get a copy??

C. Michael Barsotti on September 17th, 2007 at 1:20 pm 

I missed this at the Screenland theatre in Kansas City last weekend and also want to see it. Is this on DVD or anything?

bill on February 11th, 2008 at 12:14 pm 

No, it’s not available. You can’t see it.

alexandria on February 18th, 2008 at 9:54 am 

the only way i have seen that is available is through torrents on

robert p on May 25th, 2008 at 10:01 pm 

You can see the movie through netflix through thier view movies instantly section.
if you subscribe to netflix you can see it.

it is also availble to rent as a dvd from there.

Gordon on September 25th, 2008 at 4:22 am 

It’s available from And it’s quite brilliant.

[…] Fall From Grace is centered around Fred Phelps and his family at Westboro Baptist Church. I have blogged about Phelps and his awful protests before and you are probably familiar with this two websites and The documentary is an insiders look into Westboro as it includes candid interviews with Phelps and members of his family. It also includes interviews from people who have been affected by Phelps, Phelps’ four children who walked away from the family, and local ministers. What this documentary does great is to present both sides of the argument and to come away without judging whether or not Phelps is, indeed, an incarnation of the devil himself, which is the conclusion I would have made obvious. At some points you can’t help but feel empathetic towards Phelps, even though he is a class-A idiot and the world would be much better without him (and I mean that sincerely…it would). There are some convicting points, especially towards the end after you see all of the deplorable stuff Phelps and his family have done, when local ministers are interviewed and remind the viewers that we are commanded to love, especially to love those who we are prone to hate. Recommendation: Must see documentary. Score: ✡✡✡✡✡ […]

Asher Frank on May 5th, 2013 at 9:50 pm 

It would be simpler still to demonstrate his pulpit actions and sketch the summary that he is an ideologue owned and operated by whatever sacred soul he seems goes him.

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