“Black Jesus,” Aaron McGruder’s new live-action comedy series premieres tonight on Adult Swim and there has been no shortage of complaints, critiques, and petitions launched because of the show’s controversial Jesus figure, but is this really new when it comes to depictions of black Jesus? Historically, black Jesus figures haven’t been well received in Hollywood and/or among critics and viewers whether he was satirical or serious. His peer, White Jesus–or as some know him “Pop Culture Jesus,” has enjoyed a better reception. From Seth McFarlane’s “Family Guy” to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” depictions of Jesus as more White or European have had their time in the sun as both serious and satirical. I searched all over to find black Jesus’s in cinema and on television and I couldn’t find nobody – to be more accurate, I could find many black Jesus figures, but here’s what I did discover:
In 1974, the first season of “Good Times” featured an episode with a ‘Black Jesus’ portrait that brought sudden luck to the Evans family. The portrait, painted by JJ with Ned the Wino posing as the Christ figure, had money flowing and prayers answered as soon as JJ hung it on the wall of the family’s apartment. This concept was entertaining, but it also implied that the historical Jesus, as we’ve known him, doesn’t have concern for black people, because if he did, then the prayers of this black family and others would be answered.
Nearly 30 years later, “Family Guy” introduced another black Jesus. The episode includes black Jesus telling a crowd in Jerusalem that he rode into the city on an ass… “Yo momma’s a**.” Although this was for entertainment purposes only, it also perpetuated the stereotypes of black people as a slick-talking, “dozens” throwing bunch.
On the contrary, there were two films that took Black Jesus more seriously.
In 1968, seven years before “Good Times” aired, Valerio Zurlini directed “Black Jesus” an Italian film based on the life of the first democratically-elected prime minister of The Republic of Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Patrice Lumumba. Woody Strode played Lumumba, who was famous for his fight to save his imprisoned people. Lalubi, as Lumumba was called in the film, was thrown into prison with two white felons and the three endured torture while their fate was decided by a military regime. This context, Lalubi’s method of passive resistance, and his messianic complex brought the Black Jesus concept to life but the film never made it to the 1968 Cannes Film Festival because of the civil unrest in France that started in May of 1968.
Nearly four decades after “Black Jesus” was produced in Italy, and just two years after “The Passion of the Christ,” “Color of the Cross” was produced in the United States. Jean Claude LaMarre wrote, directed, and starred in this 2006 film, which he calls the “first black Jesus movie ever made.” In an interview with MTV, Lamarre said – in reference to Mel Gibson – “he was a little off with the casting. Jesus should have been a little darker. So we felt we should help him in correcting that minor detail.” The independently-produced film starred Debbi Morgan (“Love and Basketball”) and David Gianopoulos (“Air Force One”) and was similar to “Passion of the Christ,” in that it sought to portray Christ’s final days on Earth in a graphically realistic way. However, “The Passion of the Christ” received much praise for Jim Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus, and the June 2006 issue of Entertainment Weekly (2 years after the film’s release), called “Passion” the most controversial film of all time. On the other hand, “Color of the Cross” received a negative reaction overall due its low budget and poor quality. A reviewer from New York Times, said “Color of the Cross, a low-budget re-imaging of Christ’s final days, makes a big deal out of the relatively tame suggestion that Jesus was black.” Not to mention, not once has “Color of the Cross” been discussed in any circle I frequent. So, the one time a black Jesus was portrayed just as Jesus is seen in the Bible, the feedback is negative and no one discusses it – ever. This is what McGruder’s “Black Jesus” is up against.
Tonight, McGruder’s Black Jesus will grace our television screens. He’s a streetwise, trash-talking, foul-mouth son of “The Man” with a ministry that is more hip-hop than ecclesial according to DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Wickham is in favor of keeping “Black Jesus” on the air with the hopes that Black Jesus might convert more than he has confused over the past few weeks. Only time will tell if “Black Jesus” bears fruit.