By Liam Lacey
Hail Satan? is directed by Penny Lane, which made my heart glad. Her film, Our Nixon, composed mostly of Super-8 home movies taken by Nixon’s top aides, was a fascinating take on the personal and the political.
She’s a witty editor and tireless researcher. Hail Satan? is a fine example of counter-cultural history, drawing from broadcast sources, archival material, old movies and interviews to explore the history of religious fear-mongering. Also, some of the footage was shot by actual Satanists.
In 2013, after Florida Tea Party governor Rick Scott signed a law allowing prayer in schools, he found an unexpected ally from an organization called The Satanic Temple. A spokesman for the group (an actor) dressed in a dark cape, held a press conference on the steps of the state capital, praising Scott as a great American.
“You’re gonna go to hell,” screams a protester.
“I believe it,” says the spokesman. “And I’m very excited about it! Hail Satan!”
The endorsement of Rick Scott was masterminded by the founders of The Satanic Temple, Malcolm Jarry and spokesman Lucien Greaves, to offer Florida voters a “civics lesson” on the American Constitution’s prohibition against a state religion.
The media ate it up, which had an unexpected ripple effect, creating a political and social movement with thousands of followers, and a headquarters in Salem, Massachusetts.
These Satanists, who don’t actually believe in Satan as a deity, are some seriously funny social justice activists, focusing on issues of free speech, and church and state separation, using the archetype of the devil as a symbol of resistance against religious authority.
The members who are interviewed – men and women, gay, trans, black and white – speak of feeling accepted for their nonconformity, of finding a “religion” based on reason and personal autonomy rather than subjugation to a supernatural Deity.
They treat their non-religion zealously, campaigning for abortion and gay rights, launching legal cases against religious discrimination and debunking “Satanic ritual abuse” claims. (The Satanic Temple, we learn, is distinct from the Church of Satan, an apolitical group formed in the sixties under the leadership of Anton LaVey. Though similarly non-theistic, the Church of Satan is closer to the spirit of right-wing heroine Ayn Rand.)
Lane doesn’t tell us much about the background of her central personality, Lucian Greaves (a pseudonym) a Goth-dressed man in his forties. He has a damaged, unmoving right eye which gives him a somewhat menacing aura, countered by the manner of a somewhat bashful academic.
It’s great theatre to watch him being interviewed by Megyn Kelly on FOX News, as he responds to Kelly’s wide-eyed, rile-the-crazies attack with a jittery condescension, talking of the “need for a counter-balance to the dominant religious privilege in America today.”
Between the funny media moments, Lane sifts in lots of information about the rise of the evangelical right as a political force (references to God on the American dollar bill and in the oath of allegiance weren’t introduced until the Cold War era) and accelerated under the Bush administration.
Some of the Satanic Temple’s contemporary enemies include awful people, including members of the Kansas-based congregation and homophobic hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church. Possibly the Satanic Temple went too far when creating a “pink mass” on the grave of the mother of the church’s founder, Fred Phelps, in which same sex couples kissed in a ritual to turn Phelps’ mother gay in the afterlife.
Though it occasionally gets a little repetitive in its use of archival devil movie and tabloid television clips, Lane’s film is mordantly funny and certainly persuasive in making the case that religion should be kept out of politicians’ dirty hands. But it stops short of exploring some of the intriguing internal contradictions of the movement, and how devilishly fraught contemporary progressive politics can be.
The film briefly deals with a controversy in the Temple last year, when Jex Blackmore, a theatrical national spokeswoman and head of the Detroit chapter, was turfed from the organization for violating its code of non- violence. (During one of her performance-arty “black masses” involving nudity and fake blood, she called for the execution of the president.)
While Blackmore has a chance to respond, she’s guarded in the film. In an essay Blackmore wrote for Medium, she was highly critical of the Temple for its mostly white, male hierarchy and lack of transparency.
And the film doesn’t deal at all with the split of the Los Angeles chapter, in protest, after Greaves, in a lawsuit against Twitter, accepted the pro bono help of right-wing lawyer Marc Randazza (whose clients include Infowars’ Alex Jones, neo-Nazis and white supremacists -- a deal with the devil if ever there was one).
The split in The Satanic Temple, which aims to be both a fearless free-speech advocacy group and a modern example of woke communal responsibility, just might be the cloven hoof on which contemporary progressive politics totters. Or, maybe that’s the point of the question mark in the film’s title.
Hail Satan? Directed by Penny Lane. With Lucien Greaves and Jax Blacmore. Hail Satan? can be seen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.