Why Hollywood’s New Biblical Story Got So Much More Colorful
Mary Magdalene — a staunch supporter of Jesus, mentioned in the Bible no less than 14 times — is arguably one of the most important women in this historic text. In AD: The Bible Continues, The new NBC series based on the Bible by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, it is also black.
To be exact, Chipo Chung, a Zimbabwean Chinese actor who lives in London, plays the character. She has brown skin, full lips and is one of the many actors in this new series which seeks to bring more truth to the Hollywood versions of the stories surrounding Jesus. In other words, the Burnett and Downey series, slated to begin on Easter Sunday, features a group of people of color, including a Beloved John played by a Gambian and a Jesus played by an Argentinian.
The new show is the latest flashpoint in the lingering debate about how the media should reflect the diversity of American society. The debate has intensified in recent days. Last week a Deadline.com editor-in-chief wrote a provocative article originally titled: “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings — About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?” ”
Still, there is progress. On Monday, NBC announced that one of its upcoming live-action musicals will be The Sorcerer, a black American version The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile, Comedy Central has announced that Trevor Noah, a black South African, will be the next host of The daily show. TV shows such as Scandal, How to get away with a murder, and Empire are very popular, proving that shows with various distributions can be profitable.
“We wanted to reflect the world we live in,” Downey told TakePart. “We wanted audiences to be able to plug in and see the show and see themselves on screen. This is the story of the early church, and the world then — as it is now — is made up of a very different racial diversity. Judea was a corridor connecting many of these countries and regions and trade routes. There would have been a diverse group, ”adds Downey, who is a Christian.
A D takes viewers through the days after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This period is considered the creation of Christianity. The powerful Hollywood couple, having hired a number of scholars and historians to help maintain accuracy, felt it made sense to show more adequately the diversity of this era, and theologians and historians of ‘today agree.
“In the first chapters of Acts, it is mentioned that the message of Jesus is spoken in all of these languages, and you start looking, and there are people from a wide range of countries,” says Dr. Timothy Sisk, professor of intercultural studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. “Jerusalem was obviously a multicultural center. To portray him as all white would be historically incorrect, according to these passages in Acts. “
Burnett and Downey chose Gambian actor Babou Ceesay as John. The angel who presented himself at Jesus’ tomb for the resurrection? Lonyo Engele, a black British actor, portrayed him. The first episode of the miniseries, in fact, shows a dark-haired, olive-skinned Jesus practically surrounded, day and night, by at least two colored devotees.
“[John] was the only apostle who was actually there at the cross, ”says Burnett. “It was a big moment for this African actor, where someone asks Peter, ‘Were you there at the end? and Peter says, “Only John,” and John describes what happened. It was wonderful for us, not just because of the diversity and doing the right thing. But this place of Judea was the crossroads of trade from Africa to Asia to Europe. We know that the man who carried the cross of Jesus, Simon of Cyrene, would have been a black man, and we have shown it.
These few details alone, says John Thornton, a professor at Boston University, are cause for celebration. Thornton heads the African American Studies Department at BU and teaches a course called The History of Religion in Africa.
“My daughter said that every time she saw Jesus [in a movie] he looks like a Norwegian, ”said Thornton, who joined other critics last year to direct the film. Exodus: Gods and Kings to the task for his lack of diversity among the main characters. “The beginning of this [series] looks amazing. The people who come from Sudan will be there at the start of the Christian period – and these people are the darkest people on earth, ”says Thornton.
This darker-hued story is sometimes erased from American studies, Thornton adds. “This is one of the things that got lost along the way, thanks to the slave trade.”
Who else is in the cast? We will have to wait for the broadcast of the series to see. But so far there is the Argentine Jesus and an Irish Paul. John, Philip the missionary, Ananias and Sapphira are all played by black actors.
Still, some viewers will no doubt find fault with the series, in part because the dialogue isn’t specifically written in the historical lyrics. Downey and Burnett agree that about 50 percent of the dialogue had to be created. But the process, they say, has been informed by historical texts and verified by a large group of pastors and other scholars.
The duo reported no reaction from NBC.
This new series picks up where another religious series, History Channel’s The Bible, deposit. This first series was also produced by Downey and Burnett and has been criticized by some for being extremely white in its cast. The couple took these criticisms to heart and made adjustments. At the same time, they also took great care of certain televised moments, such as the stone rolling from the tomb of Jesus and whether the light depicted in The Bible came from outside the tomb.
“Hundreds of millions of people notice these things,” says Burnett. “It took centuries and centuries with teams of advisors to make sure. We have become aware of all the nuances of history.