I am sitting in my living room and right above my television, obviously the most reverential corner of the room, are three pictures. On the left, a montage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos; in the middle is a portrait of Malcolm X; and on the right is a picture of Jesus with His disciples at the last supper. Yep, Jesus and His disciples are black in my picture. I bring this up because there is a new movie coming out.
“Color of the Cross” tells a traditional story, focusing on the last 48 hours of Christ’s life as told in the Gospels. In this version, though, race contributes to his persecution. It is the first representation in the history of American cinema of Jesus as a black man.
It is the first depiction of Jesus as black in American cinema (though Blair Underwood played a returned Christ in The Second Coming (1992)), however, in a display of irony, it was the South African film “Son of Man” that first depicted Christ as black. By portraying Jesus as a black African, Dornford-May hopes to sharpen the political context of the gospels, when Israel was under Roman occupation, and challenge Western perceptions of Christ as meek, mild and European.
“We have to accept that Christ has been hijacked a bit – he’s gone very blond haired and blue-eyed,” he said. “The important thing about the message of Christ was that it is universal. It doesn’t matter what he looked like.”
Oh, my naive friend. It does indeed matter what He looked like … at least to some. I can already hear the cries of protest now. “Jesus wasn’t black, he was Jewish.” It’s the same charge I always heard whenever someone came across my “black Jesus.” Ironically, the last person to put that to me carried around a picture of Jesus in his wallet. And he wasn’t very Semitic looking.
We live in a race conscious and race polarized society and image is important. It has shaped how we see each other. I still have a copy of Birth of a Nation on DVD, to remember how black people were depicted and thought of. People quickly become historical-cultural experts when confronted by the image of Jesus being anything other than European. Though, as I remember my Bible stories, Moses was adopted by Pharoah’s daughter as her own. Oh wait, here come the “the Egyptians weren’t black” folks.
Ultimately, you know, I have no problem with people having a version of Jesus hanging on their walls to better humanize them, a vision they can better relate to. (This is far from having an idol, all those who wish to parse my words for any violation of the second commandment). However, before the inevitable blogs start saying “he wasn’t black, he was Jewish,” be sure you check around your house and your church for all of those blonde haired, blue-eyed pictures and fight the same “he wasn’t white” battles. Then talk to me about how the image of Christ has been hi-jacked and how the mentality that led to hi-jacking that image might have been transmitted to the Gospel message that we preached.
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