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‘Revival!’ brings mostly black cast to movie depiction of Gospel of John

Mali Music as Jesus in a scene from the new film “Revival!” Photo courtesy of TriCoast Worldwide

WASHINGTON (RNS) — For creator Harry Lennix, the new movie “Revival!” — a retelling of the Gospel of John with a mostly black cast — is a film whose time has come.

“I think to be able to imagine yourself as somebody like Christ is a great, powerful tool that has been denied us, not necessarily even from outside sources,” said Lennix, a black writer, producer and actor in the film.

Neither John nor the other gospel writers describe Jesus’ skin color, but Lennix, in an interview just after the film’s world premiere Tuesday (Dec. 4) at the Museum of the Bible, said depicting him as a man of color is something black people often “don’t have the daring to delve into, and that’s a shame.”

The movie, which features singers Chaka Khan as Herodias, Michelle Williams as Mary Magdalen and Mali Music as Jesus, is to be released Friday (Dec. 7) in 10 cities from New York to Los Angeles. It is expected to expand to more cities in January.

Lennix, co-star of NBC’s “The Blacklist,” said the production — which mixes onstage, movie-set and technological performances — was conceived at his New Antioch Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, with an aim to include spirituals and gospel music.

Harry Lennix addresses the audience after premiering his film “Revival!” at the Museum of the Bible on Dec. 4, 2018, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“New Antioch is made up of mostly black people,” he said of the Pentecostal congregation. “When it comes to singing that kind of music, it is vital to have the authentic voices.”

Lennix’s twin goals for the look and the sound of the movie were met in his choice for the character of Jesus. Mali Music is a Grammy-nominated gospel and R&B artist who added original songs to the movie, including “Not My Will,” sung in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus contemplates his pending crucifixion.

“Acting as Christ and portraying Christ is so powerful, but portraying Christ in a musical is even more because no one thinks how he would sing, what words it would be, how his voice would be,” Music said before the premiere, attended by 350 faith, business and community leaders.


RELATED: At Christmas, the babe in the manger isn’t always white


In addition to Music’s and other contemporary gospel tunes, spirituals are used to accompany the story: “Down By the Riverside,” in the scene where Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist; “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” as Mary and Martha share a short-lived grief over the death of their brother Lazarus; and “Wade in the Water.” During the latter, dancers surround an onstage boat and use blue strips of fabric to simulate waves as Jesus walks on water.

Lennix said he chose the Gospel of John in part because it was the poetic book that included “dense imagery” that was “perfect for film,” with the wedding at Cana — where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine — and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

The former Catholic seminary student — Lennix had considered joining the priesthood — cited Romans 8, which speaks of conforming to God’s image, as a key motivation for the people who partnered on “Revival!

“That’s a mighty thing: ‘so that you can be conformed to look like him in his image,’ and nobody does that with us,” Lennix said of black people. “So I’ve taken the liberty.”

T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh plays Rebah, a female member of the Sanhedrin, the traditionally male tribunal of rabbis, who calls for Jesus’ death. She embraced the focus on what she called “the color correction” of the film.

“It’s not colorblind casting, in my opinion; it is correct,” said Keymáh, who was an original cast member of the sketch comedy series “In Living Color.” “The people of that time were brown so this is, to me, not a black version of something. It’s just telling of a story.”


RELATED: Black Voices Bring the Bible to Life


“Revival!” is not the first time a predominantly black cast has recounted biblical stories. Playwright Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” which premiered more than a half-century ago, was adapted into a 2013 movie that mostly focused on the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Mali Music, who starred as Jesus, performs during a premiere event for the film “Revival!” at the Museum of the Bible on Dec. 4, 2018, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

More than a decade ago, Lennix played a Pharisee — in the three gospels other than John — as part of an all-black cast of voices for the audio Bible “Inspired By … The Bible Experience.”

Lennix, who created his own adaptation of John’s gospel, unexpectedly joined the cast as Pontius Pilate when Scottish actor and “Braveheart” star Angus Macfadyen was not able to film his scenes because a snowstorm canceled his flight.

“It’s kind of a big part and so I had to figure out a way that somebody could know those lines,” Lennix recalled. “Since I wrote them I figured, ‘Why not?’”

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.

26 Comments

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  • Will look forward to hearing the original songs in this, as I would expect them to be extraordinary for such an undertaking.

  • Who are they kidding? According to Meghan Kelly and Fox News, Jesus is white. One a side note – in keeping with the upcoming holiday – so is Santa.

  • Jesus from Judea and Santa from turkey just up the road. wonder if they knew each other? wouldn’t that be a hoot ? Jesus and santa get together with some wine and hookers named mary and conspire to fool the world with walking on water and flying reindeer. And it worked.

  • If there had been a Jesus, a John, walking on water, this might get some play. But since belief in these stories is only 25% now, they will get the 25% of the 25% that attend these things. Good luck with that. They should have consulted ken hamm and his sinking ark first.

  • Stupid idea for casting a film about Christ.

    Christ had olive colored skin, like many Jews and the seed of Abraham still do.

  • MY THEORY: “Harry Lennix … created his own adaptation of John’s gospel” – and of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid – in much the same way. Here’s how, from Harry Lennix himself:

    “I think any good leader, any good general delegates. Hillary Clinton has a pretty well-established and well-developed organization. She needs people to delegate to and people they can delegate to. … I was a Clinton surrogate in 2008. She has an opportunity to double down on the fulfilled promises after eight years of President Obama. … What makes me more attracted to her is her absolute transparency. Her cards are on the table. She is held to a standard higher than that of any other person on the planet. … The people deserve protection. They deserve answers. They deserve accountability, and Hillary Clinton is all about that. … [‘Republican nominee Donald Trump’, on the other hand, is] unpredictable … [and] completely temperamentally unfit … The fact that he’s here is the result of a fractionalization of a Republican Party that is out of step with where America is and where the world is going.”

    Source: Corey Friedman, “‘Blacklist’ actor motivates Dems: Harry Lennix stops in Wilson to address campaign volunteers”, The Wilson Times, September 25, 2016.

  • He certainly didn’t look like Max von Sydow, Robert Powell or Jeffrey Hunter!

    Hollywood didn’t start getting it right until at least the mid 1980’s.

    Willem Defoe and Jim Caviezel were probably the most realistic looking ones.

  • Great idea. The relationship between American blacks and Christianity is one of the most warped chapters in Christianity. No where in Gospel does it say that Christians can enslave Christians in the manner it was done to American blacks. I believe Christ was betrayed by America’s slave holders.
    Then there is the extremes of America’s society. At the bottom of our economy most blacks live while at the very top of our economy most Jews live.
    Finally there is the portrayal of Christ and Jews as Europeans. Hollywood always cast White Actors to play Jews. It is time that Black actors played Christ and Jews
    Since Jews are neither white or black it should not matter.

  • Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker was Bishop of Myra in Lycia. No Turkey or Turks at that time (early 4th Century AD).

    Santa is a modern American invention, resident at: North Pole. No Turks there either, btw.

    Don’t confuse them.

  • Yes, the quote you supplied distinguished between “a monk named St. Nicholas” – an actual person – and the many centuries later “legend of Santa Claus” – a modern fictional character. The two are very different; I cannot, for example, imagine Santa bopping Arius for denying the divinity of Christ -unlike the actual St. Nicholas!

  • “Since Jews are neither white or black it should not matter.”

    Oh, but it does matter. The Jews are not only “neither black nor white,” they are also unlike anyone else, period – and some of them tend to get upset when they aren’t portrayed or written about that way. But portraying Christ in anything but a negative light is anathema to those folks anyway, so in that limited sense, the race assigned to Him probably DOESN’T matter – the emotional freight of the portrayal is what counts.

  • I have no problem at all with portraying Jesus as Black, Asian, Amerindian…or whatever. It’s a dramatic and visual portrayal of an identification that Christ Himself already established. In assuming His Office as Victim-In-Chief through His sacrifice, Christ (in His role as universal savior) identifies Himself with genuine victims everywhere, and validates the finding of their own struggles reflected back to them by His story.

    Of course, how that resemblance (or identification) is handled and applied, is quite a different matter. Given the fallen human tendency to interpret everything through the filter of self-serving desire, the options for misinterpreting and misapplying the identification are virtually endless. But “Revival!” seems to be a straightforward presentation of John’s gospel. Power to them. Interestingly, the article doesn’t mention how the play treats the resurrection. That would be a key indicator.

  • So Jesus was a blonde haired blue eyed person like Max von Sydow (but not anyone actually from that region of the world).

    Because “white power!!”

  • I can see the dilemma of Christ as God conflicting with Judaism on several levels.but it is such a loaded issue for Judaism that Christians cannot be burdened by it. For me Christ is God and I am fine with any race portraying Christ. Outside of Race I cannot extend that courtesy to other minorities such as Gays or Transgenders, simply because I don’t like it.

  • I hope this production of the Gospel of John reaches an audience – that’s what matters most of all. If using a mostly black cast helps that cause, then the casting choices are inspired.

    I don’t have a problem with people creating art that portrays Jesus/God as looking like someone to which they can relate, whether it’s Max Van Sydow, Mali Music, or someone else. However, I don’t know what the statement that “The people of that time were brown so this is, to me, not a black version of something. It’s just telling of a story.” is supposed to mean. The people who lived in ancient Israel most likely had the complexion of those who inhabit the Mediterranean region today. It’s highly unlikely they had the complexion of those who originated in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Whew! For a minute there, I thought you were talking to me. I’m relieved to find out you were just talking to your favorite internal bugaboo – the racism and general bigotry of white conservatives. Got it – carry on.

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