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Christian moviemakers opt for black cast after glut of whitewashed Bible films

The movie industry has a long history of casting white actors to play African and Middle Eastern Bible characters. But religious audiences can witness a stark departure from this trend when Sony's “War Room” hits theaters on August 28.

Karen Abercromie (left) and Priscilla Shirer (right) in "War Room." - Photo courtesy of CTMG

Karen Abercrombie (left) and Priscilla Shirer (right) in “War Room.” – Photo courtesy of CTMG

A flood of faith films led many to dub 2014 “The Year of the Bible,” but it was also a year of the status quo in Hollywood. The movie industry has a long history of casting white actors to play African and Middle Eastern Bible characters, so seeing the Welshman Christian Bale play Moses or Australian Russell Crowe play Noah or even a Portuguese actor play Jesus in “Son of God” felt to many like the opposite of racial progress. But religious audiences can witness a stark departure from this troubling trend when “War Room” hits theaters on August 28.

The fifth feature film produced by successful Christian moviemakers by Alex and Stephen Kendrick tells a story about the power of prayer. But it does so with an almost entirely African-American cast, including New York Times bestselling Christian author, Priscilla Shirer, in her movie debut.

“There is an element to the way we tell this story that has power and desperation that would be different if we tried to tell it any other way,” Alex Kendrick said of his decision to opt for a black cast. He says when executives from their distributor (Sony’s Affirm Films) viewed it for the first time, they responded, “If this had been told with a different race, it would be a different movie.”

"War Room" opens nationwide on August 28.

“War Room” opens nationwide on August 28.

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“War Room” arrives at a time when racial tensions in America have intensified as a result of police brutality cases and the racially motivated murder of black worshippers by a white shooter in Charleston, South Carolina. Those involved with the film say they don’t believe the timing of its release is a coincidence, and they think that the message of “War Room” might have the power to usher in reconciliation in America.

Actor T.C. Stallings says he accepted the male lead role in the film because of the positive picture it paints of the African-American family. Stallings grew up in a “stereotypical stigma of a black family” in inner city Cleveland. He didn’t meet his drug-addicted father until he was 19 years old, his siblings all dropped out of high school and spent time in jail, and his neighborhood was riddled with gangs and crime. Black children in such settings, Stallings said, often repeat the same mistakes because the entertainment industry often portrays black families and communities poorly.

“What I saw on TV and in movies growing up was all negative. The picture of African-Americans in urban areas was all bad language and bad credit scores and bad habits,” Stallings said. “There were many upstanding, Christian black families in the world, and they needed to be talked about as well.”

Stallings rejected the black family stereotype he was seeing, graduating from high school and college. Today, he resides in California with his wife and two children, that Stallings helps homeschool.

“There are many people out there—white and black—who stay with their families and work through their problems. They aren’t thugs or gang leaders,” He said. “’War Room’ tells the truth about society by showing the reverse of that stereotype.”

Priscilla Shirer agrees with Stallings that the entertainment industry often shows “the breakdown of the family unit instead of the health and wholeness that is possible and happening in many African-American families.” But she chose to be a part of the film because of its emphasis on prayer.

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“War Room” draws a parallel between a “prayer closet,” a term referring to a secluded place where Christians pray, and where military officials develop a strategy before they go to war. The movie paints a picture of what it looks like to fight life’s greatest problems with prayer. Shirer believes that no problem is too big to be overcome through prayer, even the problem of racism.

“Prayer is the only thing that will make a lasting difference in the race conversation,” Shirer says. “We can have symposiums or pass policies to get people to behave in the way we would like them to, but for lasting change to take place in the hearts of our people and our nation, God must be involved.”

Shirer has written a companion book for the film, “Fervent: A Woman’s Battle Plan to Serious, Specific, and Strategic Prayer,” which released last week.

“War Room” was produced on a $3 million budget and is expected to make much more in ticket sales. The Kendrick brother’s films always earn back their budgets many times over. Their last movie, “Courageous,” for example, was produced for $2 million and earned $34.5 million in box office receipts and became one of the most successful independent films of 2011.

The unanswered question when it comes to “War Room” is not whether it will make money, but whether it can induce change in a nation increasingly split across racial lines.

“Racial tension is dangerous and people are dying and a lot of us want to see that stopped. We protest and speak out and tweet out, but this problem is much bigger than human beings,” Stallings said. “This movie will give people a way to take these problems to the Lord and show them that prayer is the best weapon to fight back.”

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