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A Black Perspective On The Epic Film

It is likely one of the finest motion pictures made in modern times, if not one of the finest ever. However, by choosing Caiaphas as his chief villain and, perhaps more to the point, by giving Governor Pilate complexity and moments of pause, Gibson has certainly left himself open to the Anti-Semitic charge. Additionally, his casting of Jesus in the provably inaccurate European model perpetuates the oppression of people of color by means of an ethnically-focused view of Christ. This cuts both ways— forcing a black Jesus on the world would be just as wrong. Only, The Passion Of The Christ is being lauded for its accuracy while pandering to the atrocious, unethical common stereotypical White Jesus at the same time.

Without all of the hype and accusations of anti-Semitism,

The Passion of The Christ might have been Gibson's small masterpiece. A beautiful and personal art film that may have quietly come and gone had any other director's name been in the opening credits. A shorter and, believe it or not, somewhat less violent Braveheart— a little too short for my taste. The Passion seemed trimmed to a neat two hours perhaps out of concern that, had things gone the other way, had the film been rejected by the audience, theatres might be stuck with a three-hour albatross rather than a very trim, very neat, very well-paced two hours.

In that two hours, things move along at an unexpectedly brisk pace. Such epic movies are often repositories for actor and director egos, where characters wax on and on and on while staring malevolently at a flickering flame. You'll find no such excess here, but Mel may have made this a bit too lean; forgetting, perhaps, that a good chef leaves the fat on, trimming the meat only after the meal has been prepared, as the fat tends to enhance the flavor.

While I fully understand the purpose of the film is to chronicle Jesus' death, I wanted to know and see much more about His life. I would have liked the extra hour for a more expanded view of His ministry, and to understand why He was such a threat to the religious leaders of the day. Gibson takes absolutely for granted that his audience will understand the very complex motives of the religious leaders of the day, and skips any examination of why they do what they do. As a result, the religious leaders are reduced to single-note mustache-twirling villains, with precious few glimpses of division among them over the inevitable fate of the heretic Jesus. Normally, this would just be a matter of poor choice or poor writing, had these particular religious leaders not been Jewish.

Is the film anti-Semitic? I grow weary of white people telling me when something is or isn't racist. Racism is a very subjective and personal experience. So is anti-Semitism. So my opinion isn't, and probably shouldn't be, terribly relevant. However, in his otherwise brilliant Passion, Gibson has a blind spot you could drive a semi through. By choosing Caiaphas as his chief villain and, perhaps more to the point, by giving Governor Pilate complexity and moments of pause, Gibson has certainly left himself open to the charge. Rather than becoming defensive and telling Jewish people what is and what is not anti-Semitic, Gibson should have taken the more objective view that Caiaphas had far fewer colors than Pilate. Absent real exposition on just what drove Caiaphas and his buddies to persecute Jesus in the first place, the flattening of the High Priest's character leaves him an unfortunate caricature. That the great crowd of Jews rallied to Caiaphas is not disturbing to me, I've seen crowds rally to morons before. Rallying a crowd is no trick, as crowds tend to roll with whichever way the wind is blowing. But a greater understating of the issues and a hair or two more complexity for Caiaphas might have saved The Passion a lot of grief.

I do cynically suspect the controversy has certainly worked for the film. Much like our sitting president, it is quite possible the film's promoters, if not Gibson himself, have traded on the deep divisions among us for personal gain. That people are wounded and hurt and offended by the artistic choices here only fuels the enormous buzz around the film, a film poised to become one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. The film's greatest failing, however, is that, in Gibson's narrow focus on the Passion itself, he leaves the audience in desperate need of a release that never comes. The film's relentless cruelty is addressed only with the briefest glimpse of the resurrected Christ and then the greatest jolt of the entire film— the closing credits arriving just as the audience was finding the relief they'd waited two hours for.

In Gibson's calculated attempt to shore up his film and keep it compact and focused he has left out the most important element of all— hope. Gibson left hope on the cutting room floor. We have only glimpses of hope in the brief flashbacks to Jesus' ministry, and we have only the briefest glimpse of hope at the end. The remainder of the film is in service to Gibson's overall agenda, which seems more about shocking us into a greater awareness of Christ's sacrifice than it is about our embracing His message. Christ's message is all but lost, here. The audience is left to fill in too many gaps and draw too many conclusions as the film, on its own merit, is a devastating account of someone who was killed for reasons that are never clearly articulated, and whose message and preaching seem, in the film, overwhelmed and unbalanced (at least in terms of screen time) by the vicious cruelty he suffers as a result. At the end of the day the film is all Passion and precious little hope, which makes me wonder what Gibson's ultimate goal is: to draw us to Christ or merely blame us for His death? Which leaves only my central annoyance with the film: the casting of Jesus in the European tradition.

It's important to preface my observation by saying that, in The Passion, the issue of Jesus' race becomes extremely irrelevant fairly quickly. By mid-point in the film, once Christ has been beaten beyond recognition, you can't even tell what race he is and, to Gibson's credit, you're so compelled by the story that you honestly don't care.

But I do care. I care more about people who go to this film with no formal or informal religious training, people who don't even know there were complex political reasons behind the religious leaders' conspiracy to kill Jesus. These people will leave the theater thinking only of Caiaphas, when there were a great many more religious leaders of the day out for Jesus' blood. And Gibson fails to make it clear just how great a threat Jesus was to these men. That Jesus could not simply be dismissed as a loon or as irrelevant. I'm really worried about people leaving the theatre with Gibson's fast-food Persian bazaar single-note beat on Caiaphas. And I'm doubly concerned that people are leaving the theatre thinking Jesus was a handsome white man.

“The impact this imagery has is devastating,”

The Reverend Promise Y. Lee, Pastor and Founder of Relevant Word Ministries, recently shared with me. “It outrages me to know that, after spending $30 million on this project, no one was able to depict Jesus as an African or Asian but, instead, as a white man. Reminds me of the myth of Tarzan. It will be hard for me to see the movie, if I see it, because I can't get past the imagery. I strongly think there should be an effort on the part of the film industry to solicit non-mainstream opinion in regard to the imagery represented in The Passion of The Christ. For centuries people have suffered from oppression, prejudice, low self-esteem, inferiority complexes and found themselves to be victims of racism because of false imagery. This kind of imagery has devastating effects on our society. It potentially creates and promotes attitudes of inferiority among people of color, especially children and promotes attitudes of superiority among whites.

“For centuries, imagery of angels, wise men, Santa, etc., have had a huge negative effect on non-whites,” Pastor Lee continued. “In fact, it is one of the things that has kept our society divided. Hollywood has already done a number on various groups of people by the way it has depicted them solely based on their ethnicity. This film has the same potential. Yes, the content may be great, but how does one deal with the imagery? I am not sure if there are other ethnicities even represented in the film. That is also something to consider. “It's already a sad day here in Christian Mecca [i.e. Focus On The Family (and PraiseNet.Org)'s Colorado Springs HQ], but it would be even sadder if the so-called people of religious influence said the depiction or imagery doesn't matter.”

Pastor Lee gave voice to things I was thinking but had, more or less, decided to pass on. In our emotionally and politically-charged world, merely raising the issue of racism tends to make you a target. You become victimized twice: once by the racist act, then again by the society unwilling to deal with it.

It is especially hurtful when blacks attack you for merely raising concerns. Just talking about these kinds of issues is an enormous uphill battle, requiring great resources and reserves to fend off waves of resentment from a society— white and black— who erroneously believe the racial divide no longer exists. African Americans, content with their two-car garages, are often the loudest critics, having become weary of the struggle and tired of talking about race. I am most certainly tired of talking about race. and, shamefully, I admit to being the last one to ring the bell over these sorts of things. But the overwhelming response from the Christian community, white and black, to Mel Gibson's film demands an open dialogue about the shameful and continuing oppression of people of color by way of the traditional imagery of the White Christ, perhaps the most insidious lie ever foisted upon mankind.

From the very beginning, the image of the white Christ was an artistic choice. It was a European reconstruction of Christ in the image of the Italian artists who served the Papists of Rome. It was God in our image, instead of the other way around. The white Christ is in no way historical and is completely inaccurate. Even the most jaded and cynical scholars would tend to agree that Jesus had to have been a man of color. Does that mean Gibson should have cast Yaphet Koto in the role? Of course not. Was Jesus Black? Well, that depends on what you mean by “black,” so I'll stand closer to the fence while continuing to suggest that Jesus was, absolutely, a man of color. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

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I still own my childhood Bible, with it's image of a sandy-haired, blue-eyed Christ praying in Gethsemane on the cover. For the better part of my adult life, I never gave this image much thought. Intellectually, I knew it was, at best, a guess. But it wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I realized it was actually more of a choice. A political decision to recreate God in man's image, rather than vice versa.     CONTINUED

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