In its effort to be controversial, Hollywood has been unable to resist being somewhat liberal in their treatment of the person of Jesus. One of the more notable mistreatments was The Last Temptation of Christ which, if I recall correctly, had Jesus tempted about having sexual relations with Mary (never mind that according to the Bible, Jesus said looking at a woman with lust is a sin). Soon upcoming will be The Da Vinci Code (which I am in the process of reading -- dull, dull, dull) which, as seems to be well-known, portrays a secret group which knows the secret life of Jesus -- that he actually had married Mary Magdalene who was pregnant with his child, etc., etc.
At the same time, there have been at least a couple of films that have come out of Hollywood that have attempted to be fair in their treatment of Jesus as seen in the Bible. Among the more notable in this group are such movies as The Greatest Story Ever Told (even though I hated Max Von Sydow's portrayal of Jesus as a distant, unlovable character), Jesus Christ Superstar, and most notably, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (which was shunned by the mainstream critics in Hollywood).
Given the dual-track of good and bad movies about Jesus, I am always a little apprehensive, if hopeful, when I see that a new film has been made that takes a twist on the story of Jesus as found in the four Gospels. That is how I feel about a new South African movie entitled Son of Man. In this version, the story of Jesus is moved to modern day Africa where he is a black revolutionary who preaches peace in a land of violence. According to the article published January 23 in the New Zealand Herald:
Billed as the world's first black Jesus movie, Son of Man portrays Christ as a modern African revolutionary and aims to shatter the Western image of a placid saviour with fair hair and blue eyes.
The South African film, which premiered at the US Sundance festival in Utah, transports the life and death of Christ from first century Palestine to a contemporary African state racked by war and poverty.
Jesus is born in a shanty-town shed, a far cry from a manager in a Bethlehem stable. His mother Mary is a virgin, though feisty enough to argue with the angels. Gun-wielding authorities fear his message of equality and he ends up hanging on a cross.
"We wanted to look at the gospels as if they were written by spin doctors and to strip that away and look at the truth," director Mark Dornford-May said.
"The truth is that Christ was born in an occupied state and preached equality at a time when that wasn't very acceptable."
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 blonde-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."
The article goes on to say that the Jesus in the film is shown as a divine being who rises from the dead, but the point isn't quite the same as the New Testament writings suggest. Instead of coming to redeem humanity from a sinful existence, the resurrection of the Jesus of Son of Man "is meant to signal hope for Africa, the world's poorest continent, which is sometimes dismissed by foreigners as a hopeless mess of conflict and corruption."
I'm personally not troubled by Jesus being portrayed as a black man instead of a white man. I remember that there has always been talk that Jesus may have had a much darker complexion than most of our artwork of Jesus suggests, and that certainly doesn't bother me in the least. After all, as the article says (I think correctly), "it doesn't matter what he looked like."
I am also glad that the movie seems to accept the ideas that Jesus was born of a virgin woman in poverty, was divine in nature and actually resurrected from the dead. All of these are points in favor of the treatment the film gives to the New Testament account. To the extent it stays faithful to these ideas, I tend to think of the film like I think of West Side Story -- an excellent adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet which manages to faithfully observe the most important parts of the underlying story.
I am, however, troubled that the film may be focusing too much on the "Jesus the revolutionary" idea. I don't think that the focus of Jesus' ministry on earth was to be a revolutionary, but that is the image of Jesus that is presented by some of the so-called scholars in the Historical Jesus movement. I wonder if the image of Jesus portrayed in the film is going to be overly informed by this brand of scholarship. If it is, then this film may be very bad indeed.
I would be interested in hearing if anyone knows anything more about this movie than is stated in the article. Which way does the movie lean? Does it pervert the person of Jesus in its effort to portray him as a revolutionary or does it portray him more as the divine God-man whose primary mission was to save humanity from sin, and it was just his very presence and teachings that led to a revolutionary view of the world? Anyone know?