If you want to create a controversy, telling people that everything they know about their Messiah is a lie seems like a good place to start. It's also a way to get yourself killed.
"We've gotten threats," said filmmaker-under-siege Jean-Claude LaMarre ("Go for Broke"), offering a preview of his eyebrow-raising fall film "Color of the Cross." "If you log onto our Web site, you'll see white supremacist groups have attacked and threatened us. I'd have to be wearing blinders to make a movie like this and not think it's going to stir up controversy. But if you've turned on the History Channel, if you haven't been living under a rock, you'll see that, even with 'The Da Vinci Code,' we are now in a time when everyone is questioning what we've been fed."
LaMarre wrote, directed and stars as Christ in the October release he calls "the first black Jesus movie ever made," and he speaks with enough enthusiasm to lead listeners to believe he possesses what one might call a passion.
"Mel Gibson's movie opened up a doorway to suggestion," LaMarre said of Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," the surprise 2004 blockbuster that inspired the veteran indie filmmaker to go forward with his own vision. "Except in his movie, with Jim Caviezel, he was a little off with the casting. Jesus should have been a little darker. So we felt we should help him in correcting that one minor detail."
The result is an independently produced, politically fueled religious biopic with LaMarre leading a cast that includes former MTV VJ Ananda Lewis, David Gianopoulos ("Air Force One") and Debbi Morgan ("Coach Carter"). Like "Passion," the film portrays Christ's final days in graphic, reverential detail — and, like Gibson's flick, it doesn't pull any punches with its rampant speculation.
"Blacks — or darker-skinned people — being at the bottom of the social rung is a cultural universal," LaMarre said when asked about his inspiration. "You find that everywhere, whether it's the darker-skinned Egyptians being enslaved in Egypt or blacks being disenfranchised in Mississippi in 1968. I used that as the basis of this story."
For generations, some have believed that Jesus' story was whitewashed by history. Using that as his jumping-off point, LaMarre penned a screenplay that combined intensive research with what he considers common sense.
"If there were darker-skinned Jews in Judea during that time, 32 A.D., they would have been at the bottom of the social rung," LaMarre said. "One of the things we have been taught is that when Mary, the mother of Jesus, was pregnant, she went into Bethlehem, walked into a local inn and was told that the place was packed. So she had to give birth in a manger. Well, I have a different twist on that story.
"I think she entered Bethlehem and was denied lodging because of the color of her skin," he continued. "The issue of race now plays into the denial of her admittance into that inn. It is slight little tweaks like that that we use in telling our story. So it's not just [the novelty factor of] Denzel Washington playing a character in 'Much Ado About Nothing.' It is a true telling of the impact Jesus' color would have had on his ultimate demise."
It doesn't end there. "Color of the Cross" also hypothesizes that Mary Magdalene was a Persian and that two of the disciples were Asian. On top of that, "Peter is a darker-skinned Jew in the movie, and Judas is a darker-skinned Jew," LaMarre said. "I wanted to suggest that the notion of black-on-black crime has a long history."
One group that clearly doesn't accept these notions is the "skinheads," a term LaMarre uses to describe the hostile protesters who continue to menace the "Cross" filmmakers. "We had to put up video cameras monitoring the office, and I try not to travel alone as much, just for security purposes," LaMarre said. "The movie isn't out yet, and it's causing this reaction. When it starts really getting out there, I want to be prepared for it.
"It's been interesting to watch hate spread," he said. "Three [protesters] came during day one of the shoot, and [their numbers grew during] days two, three, four and five. Then they brought two girls with them who were also shouting and screaming the 'N' word. After the fifth day, they just started sending e-mails."
All this may seem like a lot for LaMarre, but the director took inspiration from the character he portrays onscreen, believing that such suffering must be endured to get his message across.
"It's tough directing as Jesus," he grinned, keeping his sense of humor intact while discussing wind-chilled scenes that had him tied to a mountaintop wooden cross. "When they poured the blood on my head in the crucifixion scene, the cameras had to be rolling because 340 seconds after they poured the blood it froze. And I was in a diaper.
"Through my research, I discovered that the Romans had perfected the art of crucifixion," he added, getting serious. "A lot of people don't know this, but you actually didn't die because of the crucifixion — you died by asphyxiation, because you were stretched out to such an extent that your lung processes couldn't function. I wasn't a very religious person before making this movie, but it has really taught me the power of faith. There are things out there greater than us all.
"My movie is not a Spike Lee version of black Jesus," he said. "African-Americans are the only race of people on this planet who worship a God outside their own image. There is a whole population out there that needs to be given an alternative."
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