JOHANNESBURG – Billed as the world’s first black Jesus movie, “Son of Man” portrays Christ as a modern African revolutionary and aims to shatter the Western image of a placid savior with fair hair and blue eyes.
The South African film, which premieres on Sunday at the U.S. Sundance festival in Utah, transports the life and death of Christ from first century Palestine to a contemporary African state racked by war and poverty.
Jesus is born in a shanty-town shed, a far cry from a manger in a Bethlehem stable. His mother Mary is a virgin, though feisty enough to argue with the angels. Gun-wielding authorities fear his message of equality and he ends up hanging on a cross.
“We wanted to look at the gospels as if they were written by spindoctors and to strip that away and look at the truth,” director Mark Dornford-May told Reuters in an interview.
“The truth is that Christ was born in an occupied state and preached equality at a time when that wasn’t very acceptable.”
By portraying Jesus as a black African, Dornford-May hopes to sharpen the political context of the gospels, when Israel was under Roman occupation, and challenge Western perceptions of Christ as meek, mild and European.
“We have to accept that Christ has been hijacked a bit — he’s gone very blonde haired and blue-eyed,” he said. “The important thing about the message of Christ was that it is universal. It doesn’t matter what he looked like.”
In fact, there was a film called “Black Jesus” made in 1968 and starring Woody Strode, but it is described as a political commentary rather than an interpretation of the life of Christ.
Made by the same theater company behind last year’s award-winning “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha,” Son of Man is in the tongue-clicking Xhosa African language and English and was filmed in the sprawling black townships near Cape Town.
Jesus begins his public ministry after an encounter with Satan — who appears cloaked in black leather — during his traditional Xhosa circumcision rite.
He gathers followers from the factions of armed rebels across the country and demands they lay down their guns and confront their corrupt rulers with a vision of non-violent protest and solidarity.
Dornford-May, who says he subscribes to Christ’s teachings without necessarily believing he is the son of God, says the Jesus in the film is a divine being who rises from the dead.
His resurrection is meant to signal hope for Africa, the world’s poorest continent which is sometimes dismissed by foreigners as a hopeless mess of conflict and corruption.
“The ending is optimistic but realistic. There is an incredible struggle to get to the optimism,” he said.
Dornford-May says focus groups of church leaders and ordinary Christians in South Africa, where Christianity often comes in a conservative form, broadly praised the film, which he hopes will prove a hit on the continent and worldwide.
Mary, played by the star of U-Carmen, Pauline Malefane, gets a beefed-up role as the inspiration for Christ’s politics and humanity, compared to her fairly brief biblical appearances.
And Malefane, who is married to Dorford-May, makes a smooth transition from playing the seductive heroine Carmen to the world’s most famous virgin, he said.
“They are both women who are prepared to stand outside of society. They may be different sides of the coin but they are still the same coin — but I’m not going to be very popular for saying that.”