Beliefs

#blacklivesmatter in Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s ‘A.D.’

Left to right, Babou Ceesay as John, Greta Scacchi as Mother Mary, Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene in "A.D. The Bible Continues." (Photo by Joe Alblas/LightWorkers Media/NBC)
 (l-r) Babou Ceesay as John, Greta Scacchi as Mother Mary, Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene -- (Photo by: Joe Alblas/LightWorkers Media/NBC)

Left to right, Babou Ceesay as John, Greta Scacchi as Mother Mary, Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene in “A.D. The Bible Continues.” (Photo by Joe Alblas/LightWorkers Media/NBC)

WASHINGTON (RNS) When “The Bible” miniseries premiered two years ago, controversy swirled around its depiction of a dark-skinned Satan who some said resembled President Obama, as well as its portrayal of white main characters in the Moroccan landscape.

Fast-forward to the premiere of the sequel, “A.D. The Bible Continues,” on Easter Sunday (April 5), and you’ll see a decidedly more multicultural cast, the result of “honest” conversations between black church leaders and the filmmakers, Hollywood power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

“For too long religious programming has neither reflected the look of biblical times or the diversity of the church today,” tweeted the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a Maryland-based black activist, writer and scholar. “We made this point to Mark and Roma after , and quite frankly they listened. I’m glad for that.”

Now, in a partnership with the 12-part NBC miniseries, an African-American Christian publishing house will host online resources to help viewers connect the holy book to Africa.

“The discussion about biblical characters is not just limited to portraying them as European; there are some other considerations that need to be brought into it,” said the Rev. Melvin Banks, founder of Urban Ministries Inc., a 45-year-old organization that serves some 10,000 predominantly black churches.

“These resources that we are bringing to bear allow for this kind of discussion to take place.”

It’s a long-overdue conversation, said Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first woman bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Many still have the Charlton Heston image in their minds and many still deny that there was a black presence in the Bible,” she tweeted on Monday (March 30) in an online conversation with Burnett and Downey hosted by Joshua DuBois, the African-American aide who directed the White House’s faith-based office.

"A.D. The Bible Continues" airs Sundays on NBC. Photo courtesy of NBC Universal

“A.D. The Bible Continues” airs Sundays on NBC. Photo courtesy of NBC Universal

Developers hope the online curriculum — including podcasts and artwork featuring Jesus and other biblical characters as people of color — will tap into the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has sprung up in the wake of recent deaths of unarmed African-American men at the hands of white police officers.

“Our desire is to connect the biblical stories with African and African-American history and let that help us to address many of the issues that our people face currently, especially young people but all age levels,” Banks said.

Burnett and Downey, who met in February with Banks at UMI’s Chicago headquarters, have emphasized the changes they’ve made in “A.D.,” which picks up with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and traces the life of the early church.

“We spoke to a lot of the African-American church leaders and really took to heart about how society looks, and how it would have looked at the time (of Jesus) with Judea being the crossroads of different cultures,” Burnett told Religion News Service in an interview.

He cited a number of characters portrayed by black actors, including Mary Magdalene and the apostles John, James and Philip.

“It’s a very, very diverse cast, and appropriately so,” said Burnett, who noted the significance of the choice of Chinese-Zimbabwean actress Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene.

“Jesus chose to reveal his resurrected self to a woman, and in the case of ‘A.D.’ that woman happens to be a black woman, and I think that speaks volumes about our society,” he said.

His wife was even more direct in the Twitter conversation with DuBois. “The actors playing James, John, Mary Magadalene & more are simply amazing. This isn’t token diversity. They’re just GOOD,” said Downey, best known for her role on “Touched by an Angel.”

Banks, who said he was concerned about some of the depictions in the earlier series, said the presence of more people of color reflects the biblical history. His ministry’s online discussion will include questions about the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in “A.D.”

“All of the knowledge that we have of the Middle East says that there were people of color as a part of that whole makeup,” said Banks, whose ministry was one of the first to feature people of color in its Bibles and Christian education materials. “Therefore, to portray Mary Magdalene as African-American would be consistent with the geography of that area, as well as John the apostle of Christ.”

The online discussions will feature the work of a multicultural group of scholars — including the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, and United Methodist theologian Thomas C. Oden.

Banks hopes churches will use UMI’s questions and research during Sunday school and midweek Bible studies after watching the episodes. Individuals can also download study guides and commentaries.

One week’s discussion will center on the Ethiopian eunuch, described in the eighth chapter of Acts and featured (as a black man) in the series.

“That brother went up to worship, and he heard from Philip that the messiah was the one promised in the Old Testament,” said Banks. “He not only accepted the Lord himself; he went back to his native country of Ethiopia and he spread the word.”

KRE/MG END BANKS

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.

19 Comments

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  • Why are people so color conscious; African Americans like to think Jesus is ‘black’; white Americans assume Jesus is ‘white’.

    Hate to break the news to y’all; neither Jesus nor his disciples including Mary his mother the other Marys were black or white. They were Jewish and most likely brown skinned!

    Having said that, Jesus loves people of all skin color and that is what the Bible teaches!

  • I wonder if it is a direct remake or sequel of the miniseries from 1985 called A.D.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088471/.

    I don’t remember much about that one except Richard “Shaft” Roundtree as a gladiator trainer and a scene where a man is assaulted with a fish by a Roman official. [I could not even make that one up]

  • “Jesus chose to reveal his resurrected self to a woman, and in the case of ‘A.D.’ that woman happens to be a black woman, and I think that speaks volumes about our society,” he said.”

    Will this increase Atheism or hurt it – that is how I once saw things.
    Since returning to my Catholic Faith as of today I’m getting excited about the reinvigoration of the Good News of the Gospels.

    This looks like it will spread the truth of Christ – Praise the Lord.

    “For thine is the power and the Glory” – Praise Jesus.
    Atheists, fall on your knees!

  • Just wish historical movies would cast characters appropriate to the times and places that the events happened. In the case of Jerusalem, 33 AD, we would be looking at Jewish or Roman people. Not blacks, not blondes, no Asians, or Native Americans. Political correction is distorting everything these days.

  • Oh come on Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe and Jeffrey Hunter were very convincing at playing swarthy middle eastern people….to people who have no idea what swarthy middle eastern people look like 🙂

  • This is really good. Scholars have proclaimed for a long time that the people of the Holy Land at the time of Jesus didn’t look like Europeans. It’s about time accuracy trump buyers’ preferences.

    Of course, preferences have changed a lot. Can you imagine if Mr. Heston would have been passed up for a darker skinned actor back then?

  • “Can you imagine if Mr. Heston would have been passed up for a darker skinned actor back then?’

    Two things completely unrelated:
    1. Charlton Heston once said, “I spent half of my career not wearing any pants.”

    2. Still not as bad as Laurence Olivier playing anything besides an Englishman His black face Othello and Sudanese warlord in Khartoum (opposite Heston) are legendarily unconvincing. The Wizard of Oz required less of a suspension of disbelief.

  • Actually @James Carr, the people of the bible, and those especially depicted in this film would have certainly included people with dark skin (the Ethiopian eunch?), the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians (who were very dark and its clear from their art that this is so)…Get your facts right.

  • Why wasn’t the same actor used in the role of Jesus in A.D. The Bible Continues as the original The Bible mini-series??? That is very disappointing & for continuity purposes, essential in my opinion.

  • The color of the actor and actress’ skin led to more authentic portrayal of people in Jesus time, but the actor who played Jesus in the miniseries and Son of God was so much better an actor. His depiction of Jesus was so real…so close to what I have always thought of His character being.
    I hate to think quality of acting was sacrificed for an array of color.

  • I agree with you Tracy. I’m asking the same question. Not only use the previous actor for Jesus, but also for some of the main characters such as Caiaphas, Leah, Pilate, Claudia, Saul and Peter. The previous actors brought their character’s to life. They made their characters more vibrant, exciting, stronger and believable. They had the charisma that kept your attention and wanting more of them. Also, I wished they just used some of the previous footage from the crucifixion scene. Hopefully, the acting will get better. Just have to wait, watch and see. So far, I like The Bible mini series better.

  • Hello children of the one true living God, please pray always that you will be accounted worthy to escape the hour of temptation that is going to come upon the entire world. And pray always that you will also be accounted worthy to stand in the presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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