Home Entertainment Did you see Him? Black Jesus is back.

Did you see Him? Black Jesus is back.

Did you see Him? Black Jesus is back.


About 20 years ago, actor and director Jean-Claude La Marre was looking for his next big thing. His 2003 Western, “Gang of Roses,” starring a majority-Black female cast including Lil’ Kim, was doing surprisingly well on home video. He wanted his next project to be different. Then “The Passion of the Christ” happened. Mel Gibson had financed the movie outside of the Hollywood system for about $30 million. Evangelicals snapped up theater seats like pews on Easter. The film’s success was practically preordained.

“I thought to myself, I’m going to do a Black Jesus movie. It hadn’t been done before,” said La Marre. He would follow Gibson’s model: Raise just under $1 million to make the film independently, tap the country’s massive audience of Black churchgoers to buy tickets, ka-ching. He called the 2006 film, in which he starred as a persecuted Black Jesus, “Color of the Cross.”

There was just one problem. “The biggest pushback I got was from the Black church,” La Marre told me recently. He pitched several prominent Southern California pastors on the project, hoping to drum up early support. But the nays had it.

The idea of “putting a color on Jesus” wasn’t just new, but sacrilegious.

“I went in, and every photo they had was of Jesus as White,” La Marre said. “It’s not like there’s an invisible Jesus at your church.”

Black Jesus is certainly visible right now. Take in the ambitious if uneven biblical epic “The Book of Clarence” or Lil Nas X’s outrage-courting music video for the song “J Christ” or even last year’s so weird it’s great Peacock limited series “Mrs. Davis.” There He is.

In each of these works, Jesus is depicted as a Black man, and no one really bats an eye. (The Lil Nas X video is designed to provoke, but not because of the color of Christ’s skin.) Does that mean that we — citizens of the Great Melting Pot — are finally ready for the Black Jesus that Ruby Johnson prayed to on the sitcom “black-ish” not all that many years ago?

Probably not. But we may be inching closer.

“The Book of Clarence,” which opened in theaters this month, isn’t so much about Jesus as it’s about the folks who live around the corner. The film’s titular Clarence (played by LaKeith Stanfield) is a weed-slinging ne’er-do-well who wants a shortcut to being a somebody. His twin brother Thomas (also Stanfield) is one of Jesus’s disciples. Seeing Christ and crew get the money, power and respect flips a switch for Clarence, who with his own band of merry men sets out to become a hood messiah. He finds himself and his faith — and he gets crucified for it.

Why make a movie about not just a Black Christ, but an entire ancient city populated by people of color? Describing the stories of the Bible as “hood tales,” Jeymes Samuel, the writer and director of “The Book of Clarence,” said he envisioned a sand-and-sandals movie in the vein of “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur” that reflected the west London housing estate he grew up in.

“I never met anyone who looks like Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, but I know people that look like LaKeith,” Samuel said. “Hollywood has done such a number on us. And not just people of color but White people as well. In 137 years of the moving image, we have never seen Black people in the Bible days in a Hollywood movie.”

But while the Jesus on screen is obviously a reflection of the man Samuel sees in the mirror, the director said he doesn’t spend much time contemplating what Jesus might have looked like in real life.

“I’ve never been obsessed with the color of Jesus. I believe in the walk of Jesus,” said Samuel, who grew up in a house with framed pictures of a White Jesus. But “there’s no way on God’s green earth that Jesus looked like that,” he said, pointing to the oft-quoted verse from the King James Bible, Revelation chapter 1, verse 14 through 15: “His head and his hairs were White like wool, as White as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass.” Hair like wool and skin like brass? That doesn’t sound like the Jesus you see if you search on Google.

“While I don’t think it matters what color Jesus was,” Samuel said, “I think every race, every person that believes in Jesus should be allowed to see Jesus in their likeness.”

Nearly every culture has its own version of Jesus. Every year, S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, a scholar of religion who teaches a course on religion and pop culture at Hamilton College in New York, zooms through two millennia’s worth of Jesus images from around the world. There’s Indian Jesus, Mexican Jesus, Chinese Jesus, Japanese Jesus.

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“Jesus is adaptable and moldable. He becomes whatever the culture is looking for,” Rodriguez-Plate said.

One depiction tends to shock their students the most. In 2002, Popular Mechanics ran a cover story titled “The Real Face of Jesus,” which highlighted the work of a team of researchers using archaeology, forensics, and computer imaging to produce a picture of an average Semitic man from Galilee. He’s got dark skin, curly hair, a broad nose.

“He just doesn’t look like anything anybody has thought Jesus looked like. It’s the historical image that gets my students the most,” Rodriguez-Plate said.

The characters in “The Book of Clarence” don’t act like how we assume folks did back then. They aren’t saints. They gamble, they get high, they fall in love.

The reviews have been mixed. Critics called it promising but baffling. Filled with wit but without a clear message. And it pulled in only $2.6 million in its opening weekend.

“I’m embarrassed at my first reaction,” admitted Tamura Lomax, an associate professor at Michigan State University, who saw the film last weekend. “I was confused about the storyline.”

Lomax has a Ph.D. in religion. Her husband is a Baptist pastor. “If anyone should get ‘The Book of Clarence,’ it should be us,” she said. Instead, walking out of the theater on a Friday night, they found themselves asking: What was that?

The one thing they could agree on was that the movie’s representation of Black people was radical and necessary. Jesus, Lomax said, is always political. So she couldn’t ignore the impact. Something important was happening. That was clear. They just needed more time to process. They went back the next night.

“We realized that thing that the film is combating, we too …” Lomax trailed off. “Even I missed it. Even I, in all of my radicalism, have been influenced by the broader culture going back to slavery, going back to Roman imperialism. The narrative is so in ingrained in us,” Lomax said. “Now I’m not Florida Evans, but even I could not process.”

Lomax was referring to the second episode of “Good Times”: “Black Jesus.” The classic, Norman Lear-produced CBS sitcom centered on the Evanses, a Black family who lived in Chicago public housing. In “Black Jesus,” the Evanses’ eldest son, J.J., paints a picture of a Black Jesus that the family’s youngest son, Michael, wants to hang in place of a White one. The family’s matriarch, Florida, is scandalized. The only Jesus she knows is White. But when they put up J.J.’s painting, small miracles start to happen — debts are reversed, numbers come in.

“They see this representation that gives them hope that they did not have previously,” Lomax said. “They begin to feel possibility in ways that they weren’t feeling before.” It’s a basic allegory about the power of representation. And that was way back in 1974.

The concept of a Black Jesus isn’t controversial to Lomax. When she prays, the Jesus she’s talking to is Black like her. But echoing Samuel, she said, “The history of White supremacy has really done such a great job on us.”

In the movie theater a second time, Lomax recognized the story of everyday people like Clarence who are just trying to survive. What “The Book of Clarence” did, by populating the entirety of “inner city Jerusalem” not just with Black people but Black culture, was something subversive. Perhaps that’s what makes the film hard to pin down for audiences. It’s not whether Jesus is tan but whether he’s the kind of guy you can toke with. Which, in itself, smells a little like progress. Back on “Good Times” in 1974, Florida Evans was most upset when she learned that J.J.’s model for his Black Jesus was the neighborhood wino.

For La Marre back in 2006, Black Jesus still felt untouchable. But now? He’s here, perhaps right on time.

“I went into this with the creative inclination to do something outside the box, but as I got deeper, I realized there was something bigger at play,” said La Marre, who was raised Catholic and has since 2015 produced several films and reality shows based on a Black version of the stripper tale “Magic Mike.” But nearly two decades later, Black Jesus has stuck with him.

Later this year, Martin Scorsese plans to return to the subject of Christ with a film based on the book “A Life of Jesus” by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. For 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Scorsese cast Willem Dafoe as the son of God. La Marre had some advice about whom the Oscar-wining director should cast as his leading man.

“If he gives us Leonardo DiCaprio as Jesus, there’s going to be some pushback,” La Marre said. “We are now in a global market. Those things are not going to fly anymore.”


This article originally misidentified S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, who uses they/them pronouns, not he/his. The article has been corrected.


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