Black Jesus, the Dilemma of Biblical Adaptations, and Dangers of Satire

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Note: this is based on only viewing the pilot episode. 

There are lots of gaps in the Bible and lots of excess (see pretty much all of Judges). Oddly enough, the Biblical film, almost exclusively made as the Biblical Epic, leaves no such gaps or excess. Instead, most tend to be rigid, bland, and similar to each other in depicting the same, safe, events and messages. Biblical adaptations tend to be this way because they deal with the representation of the sacred and there have been long traditions of skepticism if not condemnation of images representing the divine or sacred.

In his all too short introduction to his Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader differentiates his transcendental style from the so-called “religious film,” which portrays certain stories and themes in hopes to evoke the “appropriate emotion.” For Schrader, if film is to achieve transcendence it must “maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychology, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and finally rationalism” (10). This quote is a bit misleading considering the types of films he will define as the transcendental style which appear to embrace several of those -isms, but the point of this isn’t to apply Schrader, rather to show the problem of the religious film. If transcendence, having a religious experience watching a film, requires mystery, then we’re in trouble because that means that the film needs to have gaps in it, and those gaps in a religious adaptation could be mistaken for uncertainty, ambiguity, or sacrilege.

One example. Aronofsky’s Noah was almost all excess, exploiting the gaps in the Noah story and filling those with various psuedepigraphic traditions. This understandably confused mainstream Christian audiences and frustrated the studio who hoped to bring in church groups. While I thought the movie was a mess, it achieved something that faithful telling of Noah wouldn’t. One of the stranger parts of the Noah story is, after leaving the ark, Noah gets drunk. This isn’t a minor incident, because what happens during his drunken stupor determines various national origin stories. The film provides a possible explanation, one that I had never thought of before. It isn’t revising scripture by saying “this is what it means,” but rather suggesting a possible interpretation; reinvigorating the story, which is the purpose of re-telling any story. In several Native American tribes there is a definition of “Traditional” which can be elusive and annoying to European sensibilities. The storyteller who performs the story is expected to change the story depending on the situation in which it is told, who is listening, and contemporary problems/events. Yet, this changed story, because it takes into consideration the present, is still considered traditional because it has use in the present. The expectation of “authenticity” is that the traditional story will be adapted; the “authenticity” or respect for tradition is in the ability of the ancient story to be applicable to the present situation.

Another example: The best moment from Cecil B. Demille’s first version of King of Kings (1927) is when Jesus stops to fix the leg of  a little girl’s broken doll. It is this addition, not in the Bible, that ends up being a gorgeous moment that displays the personality and charity of Jesus in a purely cinematic way through close-ups and simile.

Just retelling the Christ story, in the case of most films about Jesus just having him walk from story to story, stop and look serious, and say a line or two from scripture, doesn’t add life to the story. In the attempt to be careful and to treat Jesus with respect, I think filmmakers have erred on the side of making him stuffy, boring, and impossible to connect with. Given that He’s the Bread, Word, and Light of life as well as the Resurrection and the Life, the lifeless Jesus we get in movies seems like a problem. At the same time the attempts to make Jesus “cool” (I just envisioned that said in quotes) can result in situations like this, or any number of cringe-worthy T-shirts I’ve seen in truck stops here in the Bible Belt, so I guess there has to be some balance on both sides of the spectrum.

Aaron McGruder’s Black Jesus is satire. I don’t think he is going for transcendence. At the same time, McGruder’s Black Jesus shouldn’t be easily dismissed by people of faith as sacrilegious. In many ways the response is similar to the uproar of Life of Brian. The people who railed against that film as sacrilegious unintentionally proved the major point of that film: the absurdity of partisan religious zealotry results in irrational discourse, violence, and if there is a divine message we’re too worried about the details of the law to receive it. Similarly, Black Jesus images a world in which Jesus has returned but is living in a broken down van in Compton, has few followers, and is routinely ignored by the world at large. First, this is an excellent parallel of the historical moment of Christ’s life. He lived in an occupied territory, his followers were from the wrong side of the Israelite tracks, spoke differently, were looked down upon by polite society, and were made up of the poor, sinners, and the afflicted. And this is the thought experiment: If Jesus did come back (ignoring Biblical eschatology) and lived like he did when he lived 2000 years ago, living largely ignored (much like Jesus on South Park)  in Compton doesn’t seem far fetched. And McGruder’s treatment of Jesus is rather generous, and to say the portrayal is sacrilegious seems to sell it short, even though I guess by definition it is: Jesus swears (then again this brings up the question, can God use his own name in vain?), drinks cheap liquor, and smokes weed. But consider for a moment the cultural tradition that this is coming from; largely Compton rap music. In many a rap song, the millennial image, the corollary to swords into plowshares, is everyone sitting down, settling their differences, and smoking pot.

I don’t blame people for getting upset with Black Jesus. And I would understand if people feel too uncomfortable with its portrayal to watch it. Everyone has different feelings about the divine. But that’s precisely the reason I think Black Jesus is helpful. It provides another way to think about Christ, about how we treat the divine in our lives and in our society which may connect with people who don’t feel like other depictions can connect with them. The overall feeling I got from the portrayal of Christ in the pilot episode was generous love, and the point of the show seems to be that the world Black Jesus inhabits isn’t interested in accepting that love or its message. And that theme is one that Christians need to constantly be thinking about.

However, the bulk of this was only considering the religious part of the show, the Jesus half of the title. The racial half is actually more problematic. McGruder isn’t new to this sort of criticism. The Boondocks had some great moments of satire but also sometimes perpetuated stereotypes along the way. Likewise, the question I had was why “Black” Jesus and not something like Jesus South Central (far less provocative and catchy, I know)? This is only one specific part, a very location specific part, of the Black experience and to say that this Compton version of Jesus is Black Jesus seems to reinforce a limited imagination of what the Black experience is or what it can possibly be. At the same time, this is the dilemma of satire: in order to do satire right you have to embody the thing you’re criticizing. And when it doesn’t work you end up with a grotesque version of what you’re arguing against.

I suppose the bottom line is that McGruder has his work cut out for him. In the end, the answer to if the show works or not might be the answer I gave to someone a couple days ago when they asked when a joke crossed the line from appropriate to inappropriate. As a general rule, I answered with a question I probably stole from some comic I heard somewhere, “is it funny?” So far the show’s response is: kind of, and that’s a precarious place to be in comedy.

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