Casting choices for Bible-movies: Black equals antagonist?

Roma Downey stars in a scene from the movie "Son of God." The upcoming movie should be seen as "a love story," according to two of its executive producers, the husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett and Downey. (CNS photo / Fox)

Easter is my favorite holiday for many reasons, but one of the most conspicuous are the Bible and Jesus specials that take over cable television before Easter Sunday. They’re almost always the worst – the cheesy reenactments and questionable theology are cringe-worthy – still, I cannot get enough of them.

So, naturally I was glued to the TV this past weekend. Not that that there were as many television specials as usual. I didn’t see “The Passion of the Christ” aired at all (I still watched it though! That’s my movie, ya’ll!), and the History Channel completely copped out by just re-airing the entirety of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Bible miniseries from a few years back.

I hadn’t watched the Burnett-Downey project the first go-round, but because it was pretty much the only thing on last weekend, I stomached a few hours of it while waiting for CNN’s “Finding Jesus” to come back on. I say “stomached” because it appears that I do actually have limits when it comes to these things. In addition to being a little bit . . . um, racist-y?, the series is just a mess. I was DONE when Abraham raised his knife over (a very British) Isaac in order to sacrifice him, and the latter responded by turning his head a few times and whimpering, “Father, please.” Because that’s how you fight for your life.

But back to the racism.

Perhaps you remember when the series got a lot of flak for the casting a President Obama lookalike as Satan; it was all over the Internet, and then the character was scrubbed from a subsequent version of the series. What I didn’t hear at the time was any outrage at how the evil characters in the series tend to be non-white while the protagonists are all very white.

Granted, I could only watch two episodes last weekend, so maybe the pattern doesn’t hold – but it’s definitely a pattern up through Moses; my fiancé and I were even making a game of it, guessing with remarkable accuracy when a non-white actor would appear: Lot’s wife; the Asian angel who is a martial arts expert and kills a lot of people in Sodom; Hagar, who’s depicted as a temptress of sorts; and Samson, who is portrayed as a violent brute. Delilah is white, but that just plays on a whole other racialized stereotype of black men, so I don’t think it’s a plus for the series.

I’ve read that year’s sequel does better, and I sincerely hope so because this trend is not singular to “The Bible.” CNN’s “Finding Jesus,” which I largely enjoyed, fell into the same trap. Almost everyone was white except for a blackish Roman soldier who participates in the crucifixion. Maybe this is historical – I’m not an expert in diversity in the Roman Empire – but it was odd, especially given that there’s a noticeable dearth of black theologians providing commentary. I can think of only one, but let me know if you remember others.

There’s been whisper of Twitter outrage regarding “Finding Jesus,” but I’ve never heard anything about non-Obama related race in “The Bible,” which is 100 percent shocking to me. I mean, the race thing just smacks you in the face, and it’s so utterly ridiculous as to be farcical. I expected to find all kinds of two-year-old essays on the matter, but I didn’t.

So I guess what I want to say is, directors and producers, do better. You’re ruining Easter.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @Dawn_Cherie.]

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