Satan is used as a rallying call for counter culture resistance in Penny Lane’s insightful documentary.
“Being an atheist is boring,” says the Satanic Temple leader Lucien Greaves, at one point in “Hail Satan?” The question mark in the film’s title is a knowing wink of sorts. We learn that Greaves has helped to build a kind of religion that uses the devil worship as a jumping off point. That question mark is a clue. Many serious members of the organization neither believe in Satan nor God, but their valiant fight is for some measure of parity. What could be more American? What could be more Christian?
The young Greaves, who goes by other names as well, is an odd looking spokesperson. Well educated, and often calm and unflappable in public settings, his angular features and thin, but muscular frame is punctuated by a pale, grey, fogged right eye, as if damaged by glaucoma. It’s immediately frightening, and belies his handsome features, perhaps to some making him even more appealing. Some might call his appearance “the mark of the devil,” but that assumes that they believe in the dark lord’s power.
“Hail Satan?” follows Greaves and members of his non-profit organization as they challenge the notion that the United States is a Christian nation. It would have been easy for director Penny Lane’s amusing documentary to become an infomercial for the Satanic Temple. But this is a story told from a particular point of view, which may or may not be flawed. And effort is made to show the negative elements of the organization—fringe players take Greaves’ arguably good intentions into dangerous places. I’m reminded of a line of dialogue from Matt Ruff’s novel “Lovecraft County,” in which one character, a lawyer for the NAACP says, “they were old school Democrats, the kind that wear sheets after dark.” Every organization has its skeletons.
At its core, I think, the Satan Temple’s goal is to level the playing field. Their point is that the United States is a secular country. And they’ve been successful in challenging the placement of the Ten Commandments monuments on public property by requesting that their own monument, that of Baphomet, be also prominently displayed. It’s a really effective legal strategy. When the Ten Commandments monument is denied by a municipality, the Satanic Temple withdraws their application for placing their own monument.
“Hail Satan?” is a colorful and entertaining film, humbly shot on what appears to be hand held video cameras and cell phones. Filmmaker Lane, whose previous work includes 2016’s “Nuts!” and 2013’s “Our Nixon,” has a great deal of fun with her often tattooed and pierced, outlandish subjects. It’s fun, but respectfully so. And the film is grounded by Greaves’ steadying influence, an intellectual approach to civil disobedience that uses the outrageous belief in an entity that’s synonymous with evil to remind all Americans of the freedoms granted to them by the US Constitution.
And it is in the extremes that our rights are fully tested. Whether it is a Ku Klux Klan leader on television in the 1950s advocating for the re-settlement of African-Americans, or Alma Lovell in the 1930s going door-to-door in the city of Griffin, Georgia, distributing Witness leaflets, the Constitution is there to protect religious beliefs or the lack of them. “Hail Satan,” well, that’s not for me, but I’ll protect the right of others to utter the words, even if they might not believe that the devil really exists.