US independent filmmaker Jean-Claude La Marre is whipping up a storm at the moment with the release of his new movie “Color of the Cross”. The film tells the story of the last 48 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The reason for the interest is that La Marre is black and he himself plays the lead role. It is the first representation in the history of American cinema of Jesus as a black man. One third of the world’s population claim to be Christian and the Western world’s calendar is based on his birth. So there is much vested interest in the manner of Jesus’ appearance on screens.
Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, says that different cultures have imagined Jesus in different ways. In Japan, Jesus looks Japanese. In Africa, he is black. But in the western world, he is almost always white. La Marre himself said, "black people in this country are the only race of people who worship a god outside their own image." He added that showing Christ as a black man in Color of the Cross is "the most poignant way to deal with the issue of race in this country because it goes to the heart of how we look at the world."
In 1962, the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was invited to a seminar in a Franciscan monastery in Assisi. Although he was a homosexual, an atheist and a communist, he accepted the invite after Pope John XXIII called for dialogue with non-Catholic artists. In his hotel room Pasolini read a copy of the Gospels. The result of his reading was a film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1964), which was shot mostly in the poor, desolate Italian district of Basilicata, and its capital city, Matera. It tells the life of Christ in almost in 7 Up style, a low budget documentary following him from birth. All the actors were amateurs. Pasolini's Jesus was Enrique Irazoqui. Irazoqui was a white Spanish economics student who came to interview Pasolini. Pasolini said, "even before we had started talking, I said 'Excuse me, but would you act in one of my films'?" Schwartz describes Irazoqui as the "...son of a Basque father and a Jewish mother ... thin, stoop-shouldered, heavy-browed, anything but the muscular Christ of Michelangelo."
In 2004, Mel Gibson followed in Pasolini’s footsteps and went to Matera to film “the Passion of the Christ”. Gibson went for authenticity by having the local population speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus) and the Romans spoke street-Latin. Gibson told a very violent story about a white Jesus. The American actor James Caviezel thought he was signing up for a surfing movie until Mel Gibson showed up at the interview asking him to suffer not surf.
American audiences were often particular about how they viewed Jesus on the big screen. When test audiences saw Jeffrey Hunter play a crucified Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings, they reacted badly to the sight of Jesus’ hairy chest on the cross. The scene was reshot with offending hair removed.
Martin Scorsese’s take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ was even more controversial. The book and film tell the story of a Jesus (played by another white American Willem Defoe) beset by temptations. While on the cross, he imagines a different version of himself. He has sex with Mary Magdalene and marries her and has children before finally rejecting these visions. Despite the return to the traditional message at the end of the film, it was greatly criticised by many religious authorities. In France, a Catholic fundamentalist group launched Molotov cocktails in a cinema showing the film. Thirteen people were injured, four of whom received serious burns.
The six hour 1977 British TV version of “Jesus of Nazareth” remains one of the most acclaimed versions of Jesus’ life on celluloid. Written by Anthony Burgess and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the min-series remains in high circulation and is especially popular with American audiences at Easter time. The English actor Robert Powell (then 33, the accepted age of Jesus’ death) played the role as a very pale, blue-eyed bearded prophet. Powell put in an unearthly transcendental portrayal which was achieved primarily by never blinking during his eye contact on film. Jesus was the pinnacle of Powell’s acting career. To this day, many Westerners’ vision of Jesus is remarkably like Robert Powell.
Quebecker Denys Arcand told of a French speaking Canadian Christ in his seminal Jesus of Montreal. Set in modern Montreal, the story parallels the gospel story of Jesus as a team of actors are employed to present a passion play in the grounds of the city’s Catholic basilica. Lothaire Bluteau plays the title role, an actor whose life takes on many of the aspects of his character’s life. He brings an emaciated look and burning intensity to the part.
Bluteau's sex appeal bordered on blasphemous, as did Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Of course that film is not about Jesus, it’s about Brian. And he’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy. Brian’s mistake was to be born a few stables down from Jesus around the same time. Other than the birth scene, the “real” Jesus appears only to deliver the Beatitudes. His words are immortally misheard by the distant hordes in the crowd as “blessed are the cheesemakers”. Minor British actor Ken Colley plays the part befitting the minor role of Jesus in the film. However, the film’s satire was too close to the bone for many religions. Catholic Ireland banned it for eight years while Lutheran Norway banned it for one year. Swedish cinemas advertised the film as “the movie that is so funny, it was banned in Norway".
Until recently, there were no black Jesuses on screen. In January this year, the South African film “Son of Man” was premiered at the Sundance film festival and was billed as the world’s first black Jesus movie. A South African Xhosa speaker portrays Christ as a modern African revolutionary. “Color of the Cross” is following quickly in its footsteps. For what its worth, the current dominant opinion among secular historians and scientists is that he was most likely a bronze-skinned man, roughly resembling modern-day persons of Middle Eastern descent. In short, he looks like a Palestinian.