Christian filmmaker Brian Tetsuro Ivie says Christians are losing relevancy in modern-day society for not speaking to people's spiritual and physical needs as Jesus did. To change that, Ivie has teamed up with NBA all-star Steph Curry to create original content that will inspire Christians to do both.
Ivie produced the hit documentary films “Emanuel” and “The Drop Box,” and is now creating faith content for Unanimous Media, a production company spearheaded by Curry, who brought Ivie on to oversee spiritual entertainment.
"It's been super humbling. Ever since I became a Christian, I thought I was gonna leave the film industry entirely because I figured once you became a Christian, you had to go to Africa, or you had to give up all of your dreams,” Ivie told The Christian Post in a recent interview.
“I think, in some ways, that was good because it taught me how to just walk with God and not look at my career as something that was going to ultimately fulfill me because it's not.”
At the beginning of his faith walk, Ivie took part in philanthropy and social work for a few years, a season he pegged as a “desert.” He worked in South Korea and other parts of the world, which is how his film "The Drop Box" came about. The movie told the story of South Korean Pastor Lee Jong-rak, who, after gaining a reputation for his willingness to care for disabled children, built a box into his home's wall because he did not want any babies to be discarded and left for dead.
Years later, Ivie was asked to make "Emanuel," which tells the story of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. It was then that he and Curry became acquainted, and soon after, Curry joined the film as an executive producer.
So when the famous athlete thought about launching his own production company, he brought in Ivie to help create the faith content that would be overtly Christian and inspiring to viewers.
"It felt like it was the realization of the dream — the new dream and the new vision God had put into my heart when I became a Christian. It felt like the moment where the old dream and the new dream came together. And it felt like, 'OK, this is God's plan for my life,'” Ivie said.
It took a long time to come to pass, but ultimately, Curry brought the filmmaker on the team to oversee and build out a slate of movies and TV shows and documentaries “That glorify God.” Ivie said it's a small company with about seven employees but they've already started building out projects and developing the stories that can represent the vision of faith that portrays who both Curry and Ivie are, which, he said, “is not just a vertical faith but a horizontal faith.”
"One that actually lifts up the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised and doesn't just talk about our spiritual needs, which are ... incredibly important but the physical needs we have, too, because God loves us as whole people. It's just an amazing opportunity to do that,” he continued, noting that the common theme found through the slate of film and television and documentary projects was to highlight present-day realities while also offering eternal encouragement.
Ivie added, "I think as somebody who grew up very privileged, I don't have it in my heart to just tell people that God loves them. I want to show that in a tangible way, in being generous. Seeing that there are a lot of people out there who feel invisible and forgotten, we can tell them all these things that we want, but unless they're actually experiencing that in a holistic way, I think we're kind of missing the way God loves us.”
"For Stephen and I, every project we do, we try to look at it through that lens of impact — Impact now and impact eternally.
Unanimous’ upcoming project titled “Cancer Alley” is a documentary that spotlights families living in what is considered the most contaminated place in the United States.
"It's about this amazing woman named Sharon [Lavigne] the theme is basically she's fighting for this little town of St. James Parish, Louisiana, that is surrounded by 150 petrochemical plants. She is an incredible believer who, motivated by her faith, is trying to save not just the soul but the bodies of the people and the lives of the people in this area from being poisoned to death,” Ivie said.
The young filmmaker said he and Curry have "more of a Martin Luther King than a Billy Graham vision."
The content, he said, "cultivates a trust in the people that watch it and it's disarming. People's guards go down because they realize that what we're doing is actually loving in a complete sense of the word. That's what's often missing.”
Ivie said he tries to model that same principle in his own home, not only taking care of his wife’s spiritual needs but her physical needs as well.
"I think that's been something missing from the Western Church's understanding about Christianity; it’s so spiritual. But the reason for that is because a lot of Western Christianity or Western evangelicalism is also very privileged and white. So what that results in is people who are like that.”
"Growing up, we really mostly had spiritual needs because the physical needs are met. So we don't have a physical emptiness, we only have a spiritual one," said Ivie, who grew up in California. "Henri Nouwen would call that the ‘second loneliness.’ I always felt like that was the best way of understanding.”
The documentarian said he believes that many Christian films are “missing” the “physical emptiness” worldview.
"They don't understand physical emptiness because they've never had to. For me, what [my films] cultivates in people is, 'Oh, you get it. You understand how life actually is for the majority of the planet,'” Ivie explained. “It feels like we're actually in touch with real life, and I think, as a result, people are willing to talk about the things that all the other Christians want to talk about, but those people just don't feel heard; they don't feel known by those films.”
When asked if he was worried that he would be accused of pushing a progressive agenda when tackling topics like climate change or racism in his films, Ivie said he and Curry are not trying to push an agenda at all.
"What's good about who Steph is, and who I am, I feel like one of the reasons God put us together is because we're just the least intimidating people possible. Stephen is himself a very gentle, soft-spoken person who has core convictions. And I feel the same way. I think we can be a bridge.” he added.
"I've been on both sides of that conversation and both sides of the aisle,” Ivie continued. “I've worked with very conservatives with really good hearts for adoption and for other people. I felt like God gave me this word a few years ago, that I am a 'translator.' What I love to do is just have faith make sense to the world, but also make the world make sense to some people of faith.”
His advice for Christians is to approach people with “understanding.”
"When people watch my films, I think they do feel challenged, but they also feel the film itself is not intended to finish the conversation. I think a lot of Christian films intend to be complete, in message and conversation, whereas art really doesn't work that way,” he shared.
"What I try to do is never make my film so tied up in a bow so that people feel like they have to swallow the whole message or have accepted everything,” he added.
“I think what's inviting about the things I do, is that it feels like it kind of starts a conversation that maybe you didn't know you needed to have. And it also promises that there's grace for the learning process for everybody. That's why ‘Emanuel’ was so successful at reaching and challenging the church as much as it was successful at being a balm to the oppressed and marginalized.”
His film “Emanuel” caught the attention of celebrities such as Curry and Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, both of whom joined the film as executive producers. Others, such as Denzel Washington, also backed the film. He said celebrities don't mind associating themselves with his work because of the humanity attached to his projects.
"I think a lot of celebrities are super hesitant to get involved in anything that has faith association for obvious reasons,” he told CP. "I think what's made them feel more comfortable is the fact that I grew up making movies. I didn't grow up going to church in that way. My voice isn't like a Christian voice first, it's just a human voice.
"I think working with celebrities, it's also a really cool opportunity for them to express their faith because they feel like this is actually the way I want to say the things I believe, I just haven't had an opportunity. That's what Viola would say to me and Steph. To this day, 'Emanuel' is still Steph's favorite expression of his faith in the media."
Ivie continued: "It's been cool because I get to give opportunities to these amazing celebrities who, I'll probably never accomplish what they've accomplished, but I can still give them a chance to be vocal about something that's so deeply important to them, but normally they feel like they can't do that through Christian filmmaking."
The movie creator said people would be surprised at how many celebrities actually do want to talk about their faith. He also revealed that he doesn't think Hollywood is anti-Christian.
"I don't feel like Hollywood is anti-faith. I think they're just anti-bad religion. I think they're anti-evangelical dogma and unintelligent faith, and so am I," Ivie asserted.
"There's a lot of Christians who feel like Hollywood is trying to kick them out. They're just trying to kick out bad work and bad filmmaking. I know this because Catholics have made great films for generations that totally express their faith," he argued, crediting the Catholic Church for taking imagery "seriously for centuries."
"I don't feel like Hollywood is against what we're saying. I think they're just against the way we've been saying it because it doesn't feel real or human.
"I am hoping that what we can do with Unanimous is [to] be a different voice for the millions and millions of people who are looking for answers and trying to figure out life in this crazy world," Ivie maintained. "I think the industry is actually looking for stories that are more hopeful and redemptive, too, because of what we've all been through in the past year.
The father-to-be said he believes “everybody wishes God existed” and wants the things that the Christian Church “says were true."
"It just doesn't feel true because of the people who are saying it," he added. "That's what I see. I see actually a real hunger and a desire for people to trust these ideas. I just want to be a trustworthy voice and yet a voice that has integrity behind the scenes in real life.”
For those looking to spread the message of Christ to a wider audience, Ivie said people often make the mistake that their work and art needs to carry the entire mission of God in it.
"For filmmakers, we have a unique burden because the amount of films you can make in your lifetime is not that many. So you feel this immense burden. But at the same time, I have found more success in enriching people's hearts and souls by not looking out into the world and seeing how I can infiltrate and make this message reach people. It's just getting in touch with what God is doing in my life and where He's moving me in a genuine way and then trying to express that,” he said.
"We need more people who aren't only really great at their craft. Because I would say this: many people are great at their craft, but there aren't many people who are willing to be bold about their faith. It doesn't have to be one or the other.”
Ivie concluded the interview by saying that he “absolutely” believes Christians are losing their relevancy in this day and age, but he thinks that could change if people adopt the horizontal and vertical approach to living out their faith.
"I think this one's on us, for sure, at least in America,” the film producer said. “I think serving the poor, doing sacrificial acts of kindness, and loving people are never going to be irrelevant.”
"Martin Luther King, in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, prophetically spoke this to the church many years ago. Which was that if the Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will become a social club that is totally irrelevant for the 21st century,” he said.
Ivie advised that instead of looking at the world and saying, “everyone's turning away from God,” people should instead “look in and see how we are translating God to the world and examine whether we're doing a very good job of it.”
He ended by saying that when people look behind the curtain of the lives of those who follow Christ, they shouldn't only see “public success but private success.”
"As far as the art we create,” Ivie said he'll work to always have his content “come out of a place of actual fellowship with God and intimacy with Him and not an angry heart toward the world about what's going on. I think that will make a huge difference.”