Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
The glut of true-crime fare is such that streaming services essentially create “You might like” companions to what’s on their competitors. So viewers of Hulu’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” can now watch “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,” Netflix’s docuseries about Warren Jeffs’ polygamous sect, a well-covered story already that gains traction here by interviewing many of the survivors.
Jeffs assumed the mantle of the “one true prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a radical offshoot of Mormonism, in 2002, using that position and power to reward his supporters and later to oust those who weren’t deemed sufficiently loyal, reassigning their wives and children to others.
Directed by Rachel Dretzin, “Keep Sweet” (a title derived from an admonition regarding how to behave) does an effective job of conveying how Jeffs and company kept the faithful in line, with one former member noting that she “believed that to leave was to seal your damnation.”
Raised with little exposure to the outside world, FLDS members faced pressures within their closed society that were “far more powerful than the physical restraints,” says attorney Roger Hoole, while Mike Watkiss — an investigative reporter shown staking out the cult grounds at the time for a local TV station — talks about the degree of control necessary to “sustain a polygamous community on an industrial level.” That included a supply of free labor, an asset in negotiating contracts that helped fund the entire community and funnel cash into Jeffs’ pockets.
“Keep Sweet” is occasionally guilty of veering too far into the weeds of individual stories and engages in some sleazy flourishes — like adding graphics to make Jeffs’ eyes appear snake-like when someone refers to them as such — that don’t belong in a serious documentary.
Nevertheless, the evidence of the abuses particularly in later episodes — including previously unseen archival footage and audio recordings involving minor girls chosen to become wives of Jeffs and other leaders — is both disturbing and illuminating, while watching the authorities close in on Jeffs and his Yearning for Zion Ranch delivers the intended feel of a docu-thriller.
“Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” ultimately owes its strength to those who didn’t obey and possessed the courage to break free, as well as outsiders working to expose what was happening — no small task, since as is noted, building legal cases was especially difficult because most of the victims didn’t want to testify.
The Jeffs story has been a source of fascination since the Texas ranch was raided in 2008, taking more than 400 children into custody. This Netflix production adds just enough to merit another return visit, with the understanding that in the current TV environment, it surely won’t be the last.
“Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” premieres June 8 on Netflix.
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