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New Jesus film puts race into religion

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- The life of Jesus has always provided controversial subject matter for filmmakers.

From Monty Python's irreverent "The Life of Brian" to Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," which depicted a sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Hollywood's often iconoclastic interpretations of the gospel story have rarely failed to stir up religious fury.

Earlier this year Mel Gibson's bloody account of the final hours of Jesus, "The Passion of the Christ," was named the most controversial Hollywood movie of all time by U.S. magazine "Entertainment Weekly."

Appearing at No. 13 on the same list was the movie adaptation of Dan Brown's blockbuster, "The Da Vinci Code."

But a new film covering the last two days of Jesus' life is aiming to stir up a new debate about popular representations of Christ by depicting him as black. Furthermore, the film suggests that the persecution suffered by Jesus may have been racially motivated.

"Color of the Cross," written, produced and starring Haitian-American filmmaker Jean Claude LaMarre opens in around 30 cinemas across the U.S. on Friday. The film is scheduled to open to broader audiences next month.

LaMarre said the film was intended as a step towards rehabilitating the portrayal of black characters in Hollywood films after decades of negative stereotyping.

"The idea of re-imaging is very important to my vision of this story," said LaMarre. "For decades blacks have been the victims of negative imaging... Jesus is a great place to start."

Stephenson Humphries-Brooks, an associate professor of religious studies at New York's Hamilton College and author of "Cinematic Savior: Hollywood's Making of the American Christ," said the film was not the first to raise the issue of race in regard to Jesus.

The 1973 musical "Jesus Christ, Superstar" controversially depicted Judas as a black character while a 1992 film called "The Second Coming" featured a black Jesus.

But he said "Color of the Cross" was the first film to feature a black lead character in a straight interpretation of the Gospel story -- and that it could have a powerful effect on African-American self-identity by suggesting an alternative to the dominant white stereotype of Jesus as a white European male.

"Universally in American film up until now Jesus has been a white male," Humphries-Brooks told CNN. "For the first time you have a depiction of Jesus in the hands of an African American director and an African American cast that says what their particular community's understanding of Jesus is."

But could Jesus really have been black, and a victim of racial persecution as the film suggests? The makers of "Color of the Cross" claim the plot "remains true to Biblical and historical facts."

Humphries-Brooks said that mattered less than the relevance of the film to contemporary audiences and questioned whether an "authentic" account of Jesus' life was cinematically possible.

"The ancient world didn't conceptualize race as the contemporary world does. My guess is the film is really translating an American black experience back to the Gospel era," he said.

"In my reading, every Jesus film has been about the current moment. Film is primarily a medium of communication between a contemporary director and a contemporary audience. There's never been an authentic, historically accurate Jesus put on film. Will there ever be? We shouldn't expect it."

So far "Color of the Cross" has "flown under the radar" in terms of attracting criticism from Christian groups, said Humphries-Brooks. But he warned that could change after the film opened to public audiences.

"Normally when these films come out you have immediate responses from somewhat conservative Christian groups and Jewish groups because they are very concerned about anti-Semitism," he said.

"When Scorsese came out with 'Last Temptation" Christian groups just went after him and the film almost didn't make it out. With the Gibson film ['The Passion of the Christ'] Jewish groups, biblical scholars and moderate to liberal Christian groups were worried."

But he said cinema's widespread and cross-cultural appeal made it a potent forum for debate about issues of religion and race -- and said "Color of the Cross" made "a very strong statement, iconographically and religiously."

"In America the cinema is the place where religious values and self identity is worked out publicly," he explained. "We all go to different churches but all of us go to the same movies."

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