"Pastor Brown" is a Lifetime film about redemption, forgiveness and faith debuting Saturday.
But the path to get the film to the public became a test of faith as well for those involved, including Marietta screenwriter Rhonda F. Baraka and actor Rockmond Dunbar, making his first foray into production and directing.
The movie - shot in metro Atlanta in 2009 over 18 days on a budget of less than $2 million - took three-plus years to make it on air after some of the producers tangled with executive producer Steve Belser over ownership and creative vision of the movie. The dispute landed in civil court.
"I lost a lot of sleep and became a little depressed," said Dunbar, whose acting credits include "Soul Food," "Prison Break," "Sons of Anarchy" and the Tyler Perry film "The Family That Preys." "I just felt like I had failed everybody who had worked on the film. It took one person to ruin the pot. We had to fight to get the film back" from Belser. (Dunbar refused to utter Belser's name.)
The producers, according to another producer Carol Ann Shine, last year were finally able to wrest the project away from Belser, enabling them to finish the project and secure the rights to get it on Lifetime in time for Black History Month. Belser couldn't be reached for comment.
"It's sad when commerce and art can't work in concert," Shine said.
The film stars Salli Richardson as Jesse, wayward daughter of a preacher. She returns to Atlanta only after her father falls terminally ill. He surprises the family when he makes a dying wish: Jesse will take over for him. But Jesse harbors a dark past and less than holy profession: she's a stripper. Naturally, the family and church leadership are up in arms.
The cast includes Tasha Smith ("Tyler Perry's For Better or Worse"), Ernie Hudson ("Ghostbusters") and Nicole Ari Parker ("Soul Food"), plus guest appearances by R&B stars Monica and India.Arie.
The church scenes were shot at Beulah Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur, which held a screening earlier this week.
There, screenwriter Baraka thanked the hundreds of volunteers who helped contribute to the film.
"They were here all day," she said in an interview at the church. "One day, they stayed until 1, 2 in the morning. They were just awesome."
If "Pastor Brown" is a success, Dunbar said he hopes to leverage the film into a TV series. Lifetime last year scored a hit TV show with "The Client List" starring Jennifer Love Hewitt after a 2010 film version drew high ratings.
Shine said she recently lost a tooth stemming from the stress, but the pain was tempered by the thrill she felt when she heard the screening went so well. They had originally aimed for theatrical release but the Lifetime deal worked. "The film speaks to that audience," she said. If it lands as TV series, they hope to create a broader tableau of church life beyond this one church, to illustrate the power plays and tensions behind the pulpit in Atlanta.