Taking Down the Media
“Hail Satan?”, the documentary directed by Penny Lane, shows how media savvy can turn a fledgling protest into an international cause célèbre. It proves that a grassroots movement founded with an oppositional mindset can be both optimistic and politically productive. Through original, borrowed, and archival news footage, the film looks at the Satanic Temple, beginning comedically as Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the Satanic Temple, orchestrates a protest outside the Florida state capitol in 2013. A member calls the media to promote the event (“The Satanic Temple. S, as in Sam.”), someone in a grim reaper outfit passes by and walks up a staircase. Irony continues at the scantly attended rally, where a hired actor representing the group repeatedly yells “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott,” referring to the Florida governor who was then supporting a bill allowing schoolchildren to share messages promoting their faith during assemblies.
The protest has a large impact in the media and in local politics, a theme that Lane hits repeatedly and with restraint. After the rally, Greaves fires his fake spokesman and reluctantly becomes the face of the Satanic Temple; though he claims that he didn’t want to be the face of the group but he was needed to be its voice. In “supporting” a bill intended to bolster the place of Christianity in public life, Greaves asserts his freedom of religion to support the devil.
This terrifies the religious right enough to force them to backtrack legislation that would serve to blur the separation between church and state. This is, for Greaves and his group, a remarkable feat of activism and rhetoric, and Greaves’s calm, clearly argued statements anger the media and attract tens of thousands of followers. Some are disillusioned Jews and Christians, others are just happy unaffiliated people, and others are drawn to the Satanic Temple’s broader efforts to promote religious pluralism and combat other strains of extremism.
Lane documents the temple’s growth with talking-head interviews (a few, amusingly, feature horn-wearing members blacked out in silhouette to preserve their anonymity) and visits to local chapters around the country. Most provocative is the Detroit church, led by Jex Blackmore, who takes the group’s adversarial nature to feminist extremes. Greaves isn’t above bold activities, gaining attention by setting up a protest of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps wherein same-sex couples make out over the grave of Phelps’s dead mother. However, as the group’s membership grows, such activities become more cautious.
One of the problems here, however, is that he innerworkings of the Satanic Temple are unfortunately a bit oblique, and the film too often feels like an ad for the group. Late in the film, Blackmore is excommunicated from the temple after calling for the assassination of Donald Trump. Lane uses this to show how many large movements must moderate to preserve their popularity. We do not see any of the Satanic Temple’s debates or learn how the group is financed.
During the second-half of the film, we see a a single, factory-issued right-wing public representative, Arkansas state senator Jason Rapert. As Rapert tries to install a monument of the Ten Commandments on capitol grounds, Greaves and his followers propose an accompanying statue of their patron saint Baphomet, a winged goat sitting on a throne. The film shows how both provocateurs play to the media’s appetite for extreme imagery and debate but we hear this over and over.
The film also looks at the group itself, its beginnings, its desire for more political action than its predecessors, and what exactly Satanists believe in. This is something of a portrait of a rising cultural phenomenon that is fun, subversive, and dares to look head-on at American Christian culture and point out its hypocrisy and deceptions.
The United States constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and so the group takes their activism to the courts, fighting local and state governments when they seek to impose Christian theocracy, either through prayers in the legislature, or the 10 Commandments on government property. The group is diverse; made up of all races, gender identities, socio-economic classes. Some are from atheist backgrounds, others were devote Christians.
The Satanic Temple is about political activism, the creation and maintenance of a community, and patriotism. Supposedly, the Satanic Temple is dedicated to the preservation of secular humanist values, most definitely including the separation of church and state.
At times this documentary risks becoming too obvious while at others, it looks for the mistakes people make in assuming things to be obvious and this is what makes it work.