I ended up watching the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible” more out of the duty of being a cultural critic than I did out of some deep desire to really see the series. Sunday night television is a coveted spot and has since moved out of the family friendly mode that ABC tried to recapture in the 1990s bring “A Wonderful World of Disney” to Sunday night programming and is very much dominated now by Fox’s “Animation Domination” of clearly adult themed animated shows such as “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” to the other programming that is obviously adult themed dramas.
I prefer the adult shows to the family friendly ones; I’m single with no kids, it generally just doesn’t interest me. But, as I saw my timeline on Twitter light up on Sunday night, it wasn’t the typical tweets from those I follow tweeting the scandalous and totally irrelevant lives of the women of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” but they were tweeting about “The Bible” on the History Channel. Again, being the social and cultural critic that gives these armchair assessments, I felt it was my duty to watch this. I didn’t feel so moved automatically to just watch it, but I guess since that does obviously intersect with my field of study and general interest I figured why not.
As I watched I began to ask myself why did I watch it.
I didn’t start watching it until the second installment and I tuned in right to catch the Samson and Delilah story. And of course, that’s where many in the black blogosphere and black academics who have the public persona on social networks went all types of ballistic. And rightly so! The image of Samson being black and Delilah being white brought up all types of bad imagery when it came to how we understand the politics of race and color in this country, and this is separate even from the gender roles that race and color tend to assign as well.
I think what was so startling in this miniseries is just how white the majority of the characters were. When many of us watch “The Ten Commandments” no one really writes about or talks about the all white cast, and we view Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra to just the historical lens through which we see Hollywood from that era. Black actors still were mostly getting servant roles and the Sidney Poitiers and Harry Belafontes were exactly that–the two that could barely get a foot in the door and it was just something that was expected back then. But in 2013, to see a whole production where one could easily count on one hand and have fingers left over the number of black folk in the movie was a bit surprising.
What initially bothered me about the miscoloring from the stories they decided to tell in the Old Testament was that they passed it off as a multicultural cast, but it was obvious that the vast majority were whites and out of the whole series, Samson’s character was about the only black person that had a legitimate speaking role (this is not to discount one of the Angels of the Lord that appeared to Abraham). The unfortunate coloring of Samson and Delilah played on the old stereotypes of the big black male buck going after the white female and her being the object of the sexual desire for the black male. I think what was salt in an open wound was the absurdity of the dreadlocked wig Samson wore, and (I’ll call it how I see it) just how black Samson was and how white Delilah was.
But this was a color dynamic that was at play for the entire length of the miniseries. The majority of the speaking figures were quite white while the extras in the back did seem to look more color appropriate for the era and for the geographic region. Throughout the entire story being told and knowing some of the more detailed ins and outs and scholarly suppositions in these oh so famous biblical narratives, it was almost surreal to watch the staging and the dramatics put into it the looked more worthy of TBN than the History Channel.
By the time the story jumped into the New Testament, I had abandoned all hope of anything being resurrected that would save it for me in my book and I was correct, there was no hope like in the original manuscript of the Gospel of Mark ending at chapter 16 and verse 8. Again, with Jesus, it wasn’t so much that he was white, but it just how white Jesus was. Even in “The Passion of the Christ” Jim Caveziel’s character pretty much fit in with the rest of the crowd, meanwhile on the History Channel, just was white. And he wore white all the time.
Historically that wasn’t probably all that true. I would go out on a limb, even with Jesus’ educational background (remember he could read at age 12 in a society where probably upwards of 90% of the population was quite illiterate), and his parents economic background, this all-white erryday linen he portrayed as wearing was wholly inaccurate–the guy stuck out like a sore thumb–and I think that imagery goes against a lot of how the Gospels conflated message really attempts to portray a historical Jesus. It was quite clear that the writers and producers have a relatively high christology where they had no qualms about focusing on Jesus’ divinity at the complete expense of his humanity.
The whiteness portrayal even lended itself to Jesus’ hair almost glowing–as if he washed it with Herbal Essences and it smelled of a pomegranate and peach fruit blend. This led me to calling him Malibu Jesus for the rest of the mini-series run. It was as if we were one shade away from really invoking this early church and medieval notion of a “blond haired-blue eyed” Jesus that has dominated the scene for two millennia. The visual iconography that was put on display as normative mixed with the tragic theology and bad biblical sourcing is what
made this a pitiable experience to watch for me.
The coloring of people on our television screens makes a difference. Understandably America is still majority white, but how many TV programs do we watch where the entire cast is lilly white. Even in today’s society, with Shonda Rhimes’ success, a full healthy image of non-white love is still never portrayed. Mind you on “Grey’s Anatomy” Chief Webber had a long affair with Meredith Gray’s mother and on “Scandal” neither Olivia Pope or Harrison Wright’s character is poised to be with someone of their same ethnic background. While I couldn’t care less about interracial couples in a real sense, as far as portrayal on television it does always raise an eyebrow–as it did with the imagery of Samson and Delilah always asking what message are we sending and how are we influencing the consciousness of the culture.
And as if the coloring of the biblical narratives were bad enough, the telling of the stories were just as bad.
I thought it was very curious as to which stories the producers and directors chose to let be told. The collection of writings and stories that make up The Bible as we know it already serve to marginalize anyone who was not an Israelite and it fails to let the stories of those marginalized in their own community be heard, namely that of women. The stories from the margins are only lifted up when the marginalized people interact with main characters which, especially in the Old Testament, presents an interesting and varied image of the Israelite tribal deity commonly known as Yahweh or Jehovah. Even as the story progresses and the reader is left with the literary conundrum of what happened to the 10 lost tribes, the story line of the Old Testament moves into the New Testament and it’s focused on just one person leaving the story of many others completely out of the picture.
Even as the biblical writings pick and choose which stories to tell, the producers, writers and directors chose which stories to tell. Understanding dramatic and poetic license, I get some of the conflated narratives, but I guess the deep down biblical-scholar-wanna-be kicked in full time as I listened to the stories presented. Hearing Noah recite the creation myth while on the boat, are shall I say “ark,” in the middle of the storm was immediately laughable to me. Or the fact that it was sheep that provided the sacrifice for Isaac when indeed it was a ram, because the horns were was caught in the branches. Wikipedia has a list of many more inaccuracies that I don’t care to share, but it flies in the face of Roma Downey, wife of the producer Mark Burnett and actor who played Mary, said in an interview “we had a great team of scholars and theologians helping us, making sure that we told these stories accurately and truthfully.”
Well, indeed this team of scholars and theologians failed at that.
To be honest, the Bible as we know it, is more than just about Jesus; it really tells the story of a tribal people, their rise and fall, their contributions to history and how history has shaped them and formed them and for me, the story lives in the details. The details of the fact that there was homosexuality present in the Sodom and Gomorrah story that didn’t make the cut. Or the story of Ecclesiastes. What about the fabled story of Ezekiel seeing a wheel in a middle of a wheel in the air, or the story of the valley of dry bones? What about Jonah in the belly of that big ol’ fish? No, of course not, we must take this christocentric approach and spend the inordinate amount of time on the story of Jesus.
Another interesting fact I thought was interesting was that how much time they really spent on the background movements surrounding Jesus’ death in regards to the Roman government having an active hand in it; there was a lot of time shown in Pontius Pilate’s chambers. But still the story acted as if Jesus didn’t have a real childhood nor that Jesus’ ministry was spanned over the course of three years at least. So, for the resurrection scene to be such a denouement and over all the epitome of anti-climatic was a bit of a let down. There were no angels, there were no portents as described in Matthew’s gospel, and Mary just walks in casually and has a revelation that he got up.
The story of the Day of Pentecost was not at all how I imagined it. Frankly, I kind of imagined something like this:
While I was happy they did focus on the conversion of Cornelius and the Gentile concept that poor Peter was being quite stubborn about, they seemed to miss the fact that Stephen went to the Council at Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin and then was stoned and they totally missed Paul preaching at the Mars’ Hill! They ignored Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and Paul’s sermon standing at the Areopagus of which I thought were fundamental to the Christian historical narrative. By that time, I looked at the clock and gave up hope for the story of Paul being shipwrecked in chapter 27 being told and abandoned all hope completely any decent attempt at the Pauline or general epistles even being dealt with in some poetic fashion–and I was right.
They actually showed and covered the martyred deaths of the original apostles rather than deal with what was in the biblical text which, historically I have no problems with, but it was shocking that something so extrabiblical was dealt with when there was stuff actually in the Bible they whitewashed (figuratively and literally) or didn’t even attempt to portray. What struck me as odd about it was the fact that the deaths of many of the apostles were never officially verified, but just chalked up to tradition and they made sure that the tradition of Matthew being martyred in Ethiopia, that as they did vignettes that the Ethiopians were indeed of dark skin.
Then they skipped right to Revelation, and specifically Revelation 22. There was no covering of the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia minor or the wild imagery from dragons of the air and six headed beasts of the sea to the coming down of heaven to earth as John tells it. I guess the question I want to ask is what was the real intent of dramatizing this story? When I look at after a week or so, I really think they did it because the money was just that green. Yes, Downey and Burnett are unabashed about their beliefs and their faith, and are even pushing for the Bible to be taught in public schools, but what was the real point of a miniseries?
I ask this question because of who has supported this project. It has been touted by many of the evangelicals on the conservative right from Focus on the Family to pastors saying they would use scenes as parts of Bible studies at their churches. When the moral majority feel one way and proceed to teach through their lens, its called education, yet teaching an opposing view is considered indoctrination. Well, for me, “The Bible” miniseries as a whole was a retrograde indoctrination that told a new generation of youth that may have been watching and reinforced for an older generation that Jesus was white, and by white, I mean white! It told the viewers that there was no Afr0-Asiatic presence in the biblical narrative and that again, imaging the biblical characters as white was okay without any historical equivocations.
While I’m not applying the same racial matrix we live today to the life and times of 1st century Palestine, I am saying that the ethnic differences that did exist very much mirror the racial categories of today. Generally the darker hued people were found at the bottom of the socio-economic and political scale while the whiter the skin, namely the Romans, were at the top all falling under Caesar Augustus of Rome. For me it was problematic that the Jesus, this combined historical Jesus and messianic Jesus, was the same color as Pontius Pilate, ergo, the oppressor.
Hopefully as we move forward into the 21st century we, as a society, won’t make the same coloring mistakes that we did in the eras gone by; we can’t afford to for lest we are doom to repeat the same lifestyle. And as Claire Huxtable quipped poignantly on her one on-air stint as a commentator on the imaginary show “Retrospective” when asked how did the blacks feel about the Great Depression,
“We learned that misery does not love company.”
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL