Father Michael Pfleger is no stranger to being followed by a video camera. The activist Catholic priest and longtime pastor of Chicago’s St. Sabina Church frequently attracts local and national news coverage for his attention-grabbing tactics aimed at social and racial reform. He has made headlines for boycotting Jerry Springer, protesting gun and porn shops, and hiring prostitutes—if only to talk religion with them.
So it was surprising that Pfleger would suddenly turn camera shy when David Axelrod, President Obama’s former campaign manager and current senior adviser, came to him in 2000 with an idea for a documentary about his work and ministry. “I told him I wasn’t really interested,” recalls Pfleger. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that I’ve seen too many films, documentaries, and books where there’s a portrayal of this white person in this black community who is seen as the patronizing savior. I do not like that imagery, and I didn’t want it to continue [in this film].”
Father Michael Pfleger talks to the media in Radical Disciple, a new film by Bob Hercules.
But he put aside his initial objections, and, by 2005, there were boxes of tapes of raw footage when Axelrod’s attention turned to Obama’s burgeoning presidential campaign. Rather than give up on the project, Axelrod approached the Evanston-based director/producer Bob Hercules, a 25-year film veteran who has produced commercial and independent ventures for PBS, Discovery Channel, Independent Film Channel, and TLC, and asked him to take over. “I thought Pfleger was great material for a film,” says Hercules. “The work he does raises a lot of issues and digs up a lot of things people are passionate about.”
The final product, a privately funded one-hour documentary titled Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger, has been quietly making the rounds. (It screens at Columbia College in January.) The film weaves a complex narrative, with reflections from Pfleger, his parishioners, and childhood friends who remark on the boy who once built an altar in his basement out of crates and sheets. Radical Disciple also documents how Pfleger made racial justice the focus of his life’s work after witnessing the brutality directed at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers during Dr. King’s visit to Marquette Park in 1966.
Ultimately, the film questions the role of a priest in modern society. Hercules gives voice to Pfleger’s critics, who claim that the priest’s disregard for church rules and his “self-promotional” tactics get in the way of his message. Pfleger defends himself on camera: “I don’t think you can be a minister of the gospel and not deal with social issues,” he says, pointing to examples of Dr. King, Louis Farrakhan, and even Jesus.
Radical Disciple examines some of the most publicized moments from Pfleger’s career, such as the now-infamous YouTube blunder from 2008 in which Pfleger impersonated Hillary Clinton. The exaggerated imitation nearly cost the priest his job and Hercules his film. “During that time, Pfleger would not talk to me; he wouldn’t talk to anybody,” Hercules recalls of the incident that would eventually become the ending to the film. “I finally went to the church on my own without the camera crew and convinced him that it was in his interest to do the interview with me.”
“That experience was very painful for me,” says Pfleger. “But I learned that there was nothing I could do about it. You hope that people look at your entire ministry and don’t judge you by what the media has decided to define you as.” Bad press aside, Pfleger is the first to admit that the news is more a friend than a foe. “Media is one of the most powerful forces we have—either we let it define society or we challenge it to deal with the issues.” Pfleger clearly chooses the challenge.
GO: Radical Disciple screens Jan. 28th at 7 p.m. at the Film Row Cinema of Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., 8th floor; 312-369-7959. A post-show discussion with the director Bob Hercules and Father Michael Pfleger follows. Free.
Illustration: Patrick Leger
Film still: Courtesy of Bob Hercules