by: Dr. Clarence Spigner | Back to Blog index...
Hollywood has a long history of presenting White Anglo Saxon Protestant actors as Jesus Christ. Such examples have included blond and blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings
(1961); pale and perplexed Ted Neeley in Norman Jewson’s Jesus Christ Superstar
(1973); and wimpy Willem Dafoe in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ
(1998). It is highly unlikely that a Middle-easterner such as Jesus of Nazareth would have such Eurocentric phenotypic features as these WASP actors. At least the physical embodiment of Christ was more realistic in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ
(2004) with swarthy James Caviezel as Jesus. Also, in Catherine Hardwicke‘s The Nativity Story
(2006), the dark Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, the mother of Christ, is part Maori.
The black-led Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950-70s were major influences in changing such ethnocentric propaganda. Hollywood subsequently diminished these racist religious images and replaced them, somewhat, with more symbolic representations. By year 2009, with the theme of Armageddon (from Revelations 16:16) as a common cinematic vehicle, came such releases as Roland Emmerich’s end of the world thriller, 2012
(2009); Ruben Fleisher’s comedy /horror, Zombie-land
(2009); and John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic drama, The Road
(2009). This cinematic mentality set the tone for Denzel Washington as the Christ-figure in the post-apocalyptic and Christian allegory thriller, Book of Eli
, from directors Albert and Allen Hughes. Given the economic and political turmoil of the times, it is debatable whether Washington was more representative of President Obama than a returning Messiah.
Book of Eli
featured the lethal Eli (Washington) traversing a desolate United States with the only Bible and enough physical prowess to deliver the wrath of God to all who stood in his way. Any number of previous films; mainly George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy (Mad Max
, 1979; Mad Max 2
, 1981; and Max Max: Beyond Thunderdome
1985), have similarly presented the Christ-figure as an unwashed Savior who comes to save a world gone insane. It took the industry a while to believe that movie audiences could accept a black protagonist as the Messiah. And yet, white audiences had little problem accepting the late black and highly talented actor, Carl Anderson, as Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar
. Many Christian blacks were understandably outraged. Morgan Freeman represented God in Tom Shadyac’s Bruce Almighty
(2003). But the film was remarkably similar to Carl Reiner’s Oh, God
(1977) starring late comedian George Burns (1886-1996) in the role of God. These were comedies and not meant to be taken seriously.
The action /sci-fi thrillers, The Terminator
(1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
(1991) from James Cameron and Terminator: Rise of the Machines
(2003) from Jonathan Mostow all featured a future Messiah, John Connor (hint---J.C.) needing protection in order to save civilization from its own destruction in the not too distance future. Robert Wise’s sci-fi drama, The Day the Earth Stood Still
(1951), was a brilliant rendering of the Christ-figure, in the form of the alien visitor, Klaatu, portrayed by the late British actor Michael Rennie (1909-1971) also as John Carpenter (initials again). Klaatu’s admonition to earth in the age of nuclear proliferation was to live peacefully or be destroyed by a greater power. The alien robot had the god-like power. Scott Derrickson’s remake of Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) starred part-Anglo actor, Keanu Reeves, as Klaatu, and with a more ecological theme. Reeves was also the Christ-figure Neo, “The One,” in the action / sci-fi Matrix trilogy (The Matrix
, 1999; The Matrix: Reloaded,
2003; and The Matrix: Revolution
, 2003) from Andy and Lana Wachowski.
Eli is not the first black Christ-figure, but in my view the first to come by way of a major Hollywood studio. In 1984, progressive and independent writer/ producer/director John Sayles released Brother from Another Planet
, featuring a mute alien (Joe Morton) up in Harlem being chased by intergalactic white bounty hunters. The slave and Christ symbolisms were readily apparent in Sayles’ independent, sci-fi cult classic. In more the mainstream, James Goldstone’s Brother John
(1971) featured Sidney Poitier as John Kane, an angel sent by God to discern if human-kind was worth saving. This post-Civil Rights Era drama had the earth-angel’s surname is spelled with a “K” rather than a “C.”
Similar to Poitier, Washington has portrayed a guardian angel; but one just as brutal as Eli, in Tony Scott’s Man on Fire
(2004). As the burned-out government assassin Creasy, he avenged a kidnapping and murder in Mexico while quoting the Bible just as he does as the Christ-figure Eli in Book of Eli
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