Imagining Jesus in South Africa: The Failure of a Black Jesus Film

Victoria Omotoso is a PhD student in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Exeter (and an alumni of the University of Leeds, where she did her undergrad). In this blog post, she draws a spotlight on the question of race in the reception of Jesus films in South Africa.

With all the talk about decolonisation and radical racial transformation currently going on in South Africa, one would expect that a black South African Jesus film would be received very well, right? My research about the reception of Jesus films in South Africa shows the opposite, and in this blog post I discuss the reasons why.

In my PhD project I explore how the figure of Jesus in film navigates cross-cultural audience responses, both in the U.K. and South Africa. I utilise two films as parallel conversation partners, The Lumo Project: The Gospel of Mark (produced in Britain, 2014) and Son of Man (produced in South Africa, 2006). Adding to the conversation, I also explore the film maker’s intentions in light of audience response.

The Lumo Project is an audio-visual project comprising of four feature films, one for each canonical gospel. It uses voice-over to narrate the gospel text verbatim. Produced in the U.K., this film portrays the ‘Sunday School’ imagery familiar to many Western (and as I find out, also non-Western) audiences. Son of Man situates itself within a particular ethnography of the Xhosa tradition to retell the Jesus story. The amaXhosa (the Xhosa people) are an indigenous ethnic group dominant in the provinces of the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape of South Africa. Son of Man features the Jesus of the gospels within the world of the Xhosa, along with its rituals and traditions, with allusions to the systematic police violence against black people during the apartheid era.

In my research, I interrogate audience responses and the respective film makers’ intentions in light of ethnic identity, music, and fidelity to the biblical text. I identify these issues as cultural dynamics; modes through which the films seek to engage audiences with the gospel narratives.

In the past, the majority of scholarship in Bible and film has maintained a direct dialogue between the film and the (lone) scholar, occasionally leading into film makers’ viewpoints; however, audiences are often excluded from the conversation. As a candid response to this, my research aims to directly include audiences in the conversation. Furthermore, biblical scholar Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch asserts that the on-going conversation needs to extend to ‘cinematic reception beyond the usual canon of American and European films to include, as far as possible, films produced in other cinemas’.[1] Accordingly, this research brings to the forefront a South African cinematic portrayal and reception.

I have recently returned from a research trip to South Africa where I conducted interviews with Christian audiences from South Africa’s so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’ demographic. There were two main groups both from Evangelical denominations: the first group had a racial demographic of Blacks, Indians, Mixed Race and Whites while the second group was exclusively Xhosa.  I presented parallel scenes from The Lumo Project and Son of Man. I showed these film clips to the groups and asked which of the portrayals they preferred. For each scene, all the audiences preferred The Lumo Project and many had much disdain for Son of Man. Clearly, the ‘White man’s Jesus’ has done a great job on the African continent. Ironically, more than 25 years after apartheid, and in spite of the strong tradition of black liberation theology in Southern Africa, the white Jesus still appears to be etched in the cultural memory of contemporary South African Christians.

Additionally, I conducted the exact same film screening with a separate Xhosa group; their responses mirrored that of the other viewers, however, they seemed more accepting and tolerant of Son of Man’s portrayal of Jesus. Especially Xhosa men were able to assimilate how the gospels and their Xhosa heritage can come together, and perhaps the film helped them to configure a sense of Xhosa Christian masculinity.

It appears that Son of Man particularly posits itself within strange parameters of its own audience. U.K. audiences for the most part fully embraced Son of Man and believed that in no way the film undermined biblical fidelity. Yet, in South Africa, a film with a black, Xhosa Jesus was challenged as to whether it maintains the gospel truth.

Conjointly, I visited Khayelitsha as part of my research trip; a large township in the city of Cape Town that is infamous for its poverty and crime (to such an extent that several taxi drivers from Cape Town International Airport refused to bring me there, and upon approaching Khayelitsha the driver told to take off my seatbelts, as seatbelts equate wealth).

As we entered Khayelitsha, I went into the house of one the writers of Son of Man, Andiswa Kedama. Andiswa explained to me that she wanted me to come to her in Khayelitsha in order to get a proper feel of the world of Son of Man; she gave me a tour of some of film sets and we climbed to the top of the famous crucifixion scene, with an epic view of Table Mountain. It was a riveting experience in that I truly was able to understand this world full of dusty streets, shanty clad houses, open markets, and a heightened level of awareness in regard to the crime and poverty. This is the world of the Jesus of Son of Man.

It made me think, in a nation like South Africa (where I spent 10 years of my life), where the societal and economic divides are so visually apparent, would Jesus have been my next-door neighbour? Probably not. Yet, despite the fact that Son of Man’s Jesus aims to identify with his fellow black South Africans, he fails miserably in that most of his black South African audiences do not recognise him for real. I suggest that this demonstrates the western influence of Jesus and how he has been distributed and commercialised in South Africa and continues to retain the western image in audience cultural memory.

Written By: Victoria Omotoso

Image Credit: Victoria Omotoso – setting of crucifixion scene in Son of Man, 2006

[1] R. Burnette-Bletsch, ‘General Introduction: The Bible and Its Cinematic Reception’, The Bible In Motion: A Handbook Of The Bible And Its Reception In Film, edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch (Berlin: De Gruyter 2016), 23.

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