Sacha Baron Cohen thinks he’s so controversial because his new movie, Bruno, includes a gay black fashion model who wears a crown of thorns and calls himself “Jesus.” Big deal. Even if you ignore the likelihood that the original Jesus wasn’t nearly as pale-looking as he is in your local art gallery, there have been plenty of movies, TV episodes and music videos where the entertainment industry has toyed with the idea of a black Jesus. So Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t just re-hashing Borat with his new film, he’s rehashing Madonna and Good Times as well.
1968: Woody Strode, the gentle giant from such Hollywood films as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Spartacus, stars in an Italian movie which the American distributor re-named Black Jesus. Strode is actually playing a character loosely based on the murdered Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, but the movie portrays him as a man who got tortured and killed for our sins at the hands of a colonial government. Even if the American distributor hadn’t changed the title, we’d probably have gotten the message.
1974: In the second episode of Good Times, J.J. Evans (Jimmie Walker) paints a portrait of an African-American Jesus that becomes his family’s good luck charm. Even though J.J.’s design for Jesus is based on the local wino (“No wonder his eyes are red like fire,” his mother comments), the portrait makes Christ look Dy-no-mite!
1989: In her totally non-controversial, Pepsi-approved video for “Like a Prayer,” Madonna goes into a church and sees a statue of a black man who may or may not be Jesus. Her magic touch brings him to life, and he kisses her on the cheek and walks out through the church door, helpfully marked “Exit.” Madonna was trying to make some sort of point about race and sexuality in America, but what she really seemed to be saying is that she can’t keep a man – not Guy Ritchie, not even Jesus.
1999: Kevin Smith releases his movie Dogma. For those of you who can’t tell Kevin Smith movies apart, it’s the one where there’s a lot of swearing and obscure pop-culture references. Also, it’s the one where Chris Rock plays Rufus, the previously unknown thirteenth apostle, who informs us that history has been rewritten to obscure Jesus’s race as well as the existence of non-white apostles. This was Smith’s last really successful movie at the box office, so we can assume that God endorsed this movie as heartily as He did the teaming of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.
2006: The Haitian actor Jean-Claude La Marre, a born-again Christian, writes, directs and stars in Color of the Cross, in which it turns out that every single thing that ever happened to Jesus–from his mother getting turned away at the inn to that whole crucifixion thing – was an anti-black hate crime. Despite mostly terrible reviews and lines like “You are not black enough, Jew!,” La Marre followed it up with 2008’s Color of the Cross 2: The Resurrection.
2008: Aaron McGruder has referred to the separate concepts of White and Black Jesus many times in his comic strip, The Boondocks. He attempts to turn the idea into live-action hilarity by producing a YouTube video series on his channel, Boondocks Bootleg. These low-budget videos feature Black Jesus sitting on a couch watching TV and saying the n-word a lot. Proving that the greatest miracle of all is that wealthy celebrities like McGruder can produce YouTube videos that are as poorly-made and pointless as any college student’s.