If The Gospel of Eureka wasn’t a documentary it would probably be a high concept comedy or utopian fantasy film given the unlikely coexistence of evangelical Christians and an out and proud LGBTQ community in the Arkansas town of Eureka Springs, population: 2,074. The improbable nature of the scenario is embraced by the film’s directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher in their framing of the tale and its whimsical and touching narration by trans trailblazer and cabaret icon Mx Justin Vivian Bond.
As the town’s history is explored we learn that the far-right 1940s presidential candidate and founder of the America First Party, Gerald L. K. Smith, commissioned Eureka’s 20 metre high Christ of the Ozarks statue (the tallest Jesus statue in North America). Smith also had the town’s 4,100-seat amphitheater built for regular performances of The Great Passion Play, depicting the crucification and resurrection of Christ. There’s a recurring juxtaposition of scenes from the current version of the long running Passion Play (with Smith’s antisemitic language removed) and drag queens performing at the town’s thriving Eureka Live Underground gay bar, “a hillbilly Studio 54” as its referred to at one point. As Felicia, Missy, Ginger and Charnay perform gospel and country tunes, the Passion Play cast lip-synch for their lives to the prerecorded dialogue track.
There are moments during The Gospel of Eureka‘s to-camera interviews with the town’s residents that wouldn’t be out of place in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, such as those with husbands Walter Burrell and Lee Keating who sit with their dogs on their laps as they talk. But I think the comparison just goes to prove how well-observed Guest’s comedy characters are rather than suggests the Eureka residents are being made fun of. Although the humour might be unintentional at times its never at the expense of the interviewees, who are honest and open about their lives and beliefs. Life partners for over thirty years, Walter and Lee are devout Christians and owners of the town’s gay bar. There’s a particularly poignant sequence showing the couple looking through old photo albums, reflecting on images of their younger selves as well as all the friends they lost to AIDS. During a church service the couple are praised for having established a ministry in their church to care for people with AIDS during the height of the epidemic in US.
We see Eureka church sermons preaching love and acceptance of all including LGBTQ people, but the town’s tolerance and harmony is tested when conservative organisers campaign to overturn Eureka’s anti-discrimination policies. This leads to a referendum vote in the town which sees concerns for the safety of children being invoked by those against equality, echoing the rhetoric of the 1970s anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant. Incidentally Bryant attempted to resurrect her career in Eureka Springs after receiving her just deserts getting a custard pie thrown in her face, an episode humorously recounted in Mx Bond’s narration with archive footage.
Compelling, funny and moving, The Gospel of Eureka provides a timely, fascinating insight into the unlikely harmony between two seemingly irreconcilable groups that should restore our faith in humanity and give us hope for a less divided USA.
By James Kleinmann
The Gospel of Eureka has its national broadcast debut on the PBS documentary series POV and pov.org on Monday 24th June 2019 at 10pm (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series now in its 32nd season.