It’s a familiar image for millions of Christians: Jesus Christ, with a crown of thorns, hanging from the cross. What color is he? In a controversial new film opening Friday, he is Black.
Color of the Cross tells a traditional story, focusing on the last 48 hours of his 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’s very important because (the film) is going to provide an image of Jesus for African-Americans that is no longer under the control of whites,” says 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.
What Jesus looked like has long been debated by theologians around the world. Different cultures have imagined him in different ways, says Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University. In Japan, Jesus looks Japanese. In Africa, he is Black. But in America he is almost always White, like the fair-haired savior painted by Leonardo Da Vinci in “The Last Supper” in 1495.
While some Black churches have images of a Black Jesus behind the altar and others have claimed Christ was Black, Prothero says “none of those arguments or images have filtered much into the mainstream.”
Filmmaker Jean Claude LaMarre set out to change that with Color of the Cross. LaMarre, who plays Jesus, wrote, directed and financed the film. It will open in 30 theaters in predominantly Black neighborhoods.