For many, the image of Jesus is that of a white man with wavy blond hair and blue eyes — kind of like Jeffrey Hunter in 1961’s “King of Kings.” But a new film, “Color of the Cross,” shows the Christian savior as a black man.
By casting himself in the lead role, writer and director Jean-Claude La Marre is challenging a view of Jesus that’s dominated since the Middle Ages and adding to a growing body of Hollywood films with Christian themes, including Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Da Vinci Code.” It also highlights a long-simmering debate in churches and universities across the country.
The film, which opened in late October in 19 markets nationwide, opens Friday at the Oaks Theatre in Berkeley. La Marre has had supporting roles in movies including Spike Lee’s 1992 “Malcolm X” and last year directed “Brothers in Arms” starring David Carradine. “Color of the Cross” also features actress Debbi Morgan as Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Although race is not overtly cited as a reason for Jesus’ slaying, in one scene Mary asks, “Do you think they’re doing this because he’s black?” La Marre said the issue of skin color is particularly meaningful in the United States, given its tortured history regarding race.
“When you see him on the cross, it really brings you back to the Southern days when black men were hung (from trees),” said La Marre, 38. “When a black man tells you he’s the son of God, it freaks people out.”
By the early Middle Ages, images of Jesus had developed common themes — a forked beard, light-colored eyes, hazel or blond hair, and smooth facial features — and were used in countless artistic renderings by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
William Loewe, associate professor of theology and religious studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., said it’s easy to find everyday examples of how Jesus has been cast as European in Western civilization, citing a religious icon on his own campus.
“It’s this extremely muscular, blue-eyed, blond-haired figure,” said Loewe. “I find it to be offensive, as far as I’m concerned, because it seems to be such a denial of his Jewishness.”
The race of Jesus has been debated since at least the 19th century, with societies in different parts of the world depicting him in their own likeness. But in America, he’s traditionally been seen as a white man in most churches and homes, until recently.
Director Kevin Smith described Jesus as a black man in his 1999 film “Dogma,” with Chris Rock playing a black apostle whose story was erased from biblical canon by the church.
“I thought dealing with Christ’s crucifixion would be a good story,” La Marre said. “But the one problem I had, as most black Christians have, has been the historical Hollywood depictions of Christ.”
Scholars agree there is no definitive description of Christ in the Bible. Despite passages in the Book of Revelation referring to Jesus with woolly hair and bronze-colored skin, he’s usually depicted as having white skin, flowing hair and European facial features.
The Rev. Cecil Murray, a black minister in Los Angeles and a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, is credited as a producer for his work as a consultant on “Color of the Cross.” He said the history of the biblical region shows figures such as Jesus and Moses had black or Middle Eastern features.
“When they get ready to hide Jesus as a baby, his mother and his father take him to Egypt. You can hide chocolate in the midst of chocolate. You can’t hide vanilla in the midst of chocolate,” Murray said.
He dismisses the argument that what’s important is the New Testament savior’s message and not his skin color.
“If they want to make him olive-skinned, fine. If they want to make him pecan-skinned, fine. But to make him white?” said Murray. “If our icon of religion — the founder of the Christian faith — looked like us, then we can’t be as bad as we’ve been depicted.”
At St. Paul of the Shipwreck Church in San Francisco’s predominantly African American Bayview neighborhood, its former priest commissioned the making of a black Jesus for the church’s crucifix 20 years ago, church officials said.
St. Paul’s current priest, the Rev. Paul Gawlowski, said that when children in the church hear that Jesus may have been black it has a profound affect on their sense of self.
“The idea just blows them away and their eyes just go wide open,” said Gawlowski. “It gives them liberty. They feel empowered and validated.”
“It means a lot to a minority culture to see a Jesus that looks more like them than a European Jesus,” explained Gawlowski, who said he believes if Jesus were to return today he’d be a minority. “He picked the Hebrew people, who had a history of oppression and slavery, so it’s entirely likely that if Christ came back today, at least in America, he’d be African American, perhaps someone of Latino heritage.”
Catholic University’s Loewe said having a literal interpretation of Jesus’ image will have an effect on how people perceive themselves and others, with potentially negative side effects: “If he’s one of us, that means he’s not one you,” said Loewe.
La Marre said he encountered skeptical studio chiefs when he originally tried to pitch the movie, with some saying the project had no chance unless it featured an actor like Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle in the lead role. Some suggested turning the film into a modern-day hip-hop opera starring a rapper like 50 Cent.
“What was difficult was finding anyone who was willing to put money into the film. Telling people you want to make (this) movie is like trying to tell people you want to make a movie about dwarves living on the moon,” said La Marre.
La Marre ultimately financed the movie’s $2.5 million production cost by mortgaging two houses he owned, one in Beverly Hills and the other in Miami’s South Beach. “Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is, and I really believed in this picture,” he said.
La Marre then sold the film to Fox, which released “The Passion of the Christ” on video. Gibson’s movie was a box-office smash, earning $370 million in domestic box office in 2004. In September, Fox Filmed Entertainment announced plans to produce up to a dozen Christian-themed films a year.
“I think Fox realized this would make good sense,” said La Marre, who thinks people are hungry for these kinds of stories. “I think the world is becoming more of a spiritual place, for good and bad, and people are looking for any bit of salvation they can get their hands on.”