Mr. Freeman, You Look Divine
In 1898 a prominent black minister named Henry McNeal Turner wrote an essay titled, ”God Is a Negro.” When even some of Turner’s fellow members of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination objected, he replied in print that ”every other race of people since time began” envisioned God in its image. ”Why should not the Negro,” he concluded, ”believe that he resembles God as much so as other people?”
Some 105 years later Turner’s premise has received unlikely, in part unintended, confirmation in a big-budget Hollywood comedy. The new Jim Carrey film, ”Bruce Almighty,” presents the black actor Morgan Freeman as God. More specifically the movie evokes African-American theology by showing God identifying with the poor and scorned, taking the forms of a janitor and a homeless man.
Audiences have clearly accepted the notion: ”Bruce Almighty,” released on May 23, made $100 million in its opening weekend to lead all films, and by last weekend had taken in $170.8 million. Among black religious figures and film scholars, Mr. Freeman’s performance has provoked both satisfaction and skepticism.
”It’s significant because it would not have happened 20 or 30 years ago,” Professor James H. Cone, an influential African-American theologian who teaches at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, said in an interview. ”The use of a black God reflects how much white Americans can relax with the idea of racial inclusiveness, provided it doesn’t challenge their power.”
The comfort level, Professor Cone went on, also attests to the increasing exposure of white Americans to black Christianity, whether by studying the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or by watching ministers like T. D. Jakes and Frederick K. C. Price on cable television.
The Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, senior pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, Brooklyn, lauded Mr. Freeman’s performance from his pulpit. ”The spirituality of black people is being depicted — not just our singing, our entertainment,” Mr. Youngblood said. ”There’s a sense in this movie that at the highest levels of existence there are black people.”
The film is essentially a comic version of the Job story, with Mr. Carrey as a television newsman named Bruce Nolan who grows so depressed and frustrated that he dares God to do something about it. Whereupon God grants Bruce divine powers, which he proceeds to use on himself: sports car, promotion to news anchor, revenge on sundry enemies. Only then, omnipotent but unhappy, does Bruce realize that the purpose of godly power is to dispense mercy and compassion to others.
Members of the creative team behind ”Bruce Almighty” said the choice to depict God as black occurred more from a desire to cast Mr. Freeman than to make any racial or theological point. Steve Oedekerk, a screenwriter who helped devise the film with Mr. Carrey and the director Tom Shadyac, said their goal was to present God as ”more personal,” less ”generic and pious.” Race did not figure in the screenplay. But in discussing how to cast the film, Mr. Oedekerk said in an e-mail message, the creative team focused very early on Mr. Freeman for his combination of authority, wisdom and comic timing.
”We all knew having a black God was a choice that would be talked about,” Mr. Oedekerk noted, ”but I don’t think we were thinking it would be as groundbreaking as it turned out being. I was personally surprised by the attention this received. For me this type of casting isn’t as groundbreaking as it is overdue.”
Reviewing the film in The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote: ”For Mr. Freeman, playing God is a piece of cake. With his quiet, measured drawl, which implies depths of good-humored wisdom, he may be the most convincing screen sage Hollywood has these days.”
The film’s personal, impious God embodies some central premises of black theology. The concept of God or Jesus being black was first espoused by the writer Robert Alexander in 1829, when his ”Ethiopian Manifesto” called for a ”black Messiah” to liberate the slaves, Professor Cone said. Since then the idea was taken up by figures as varied as Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, who famously deplored the way ”the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.” Many black ministers today cite the biblical verses that describe Jesus as having ”hair like lamb’s wool” and feet the color of ”hammered brass.”
At least one film prior to ”Bruce Almighty” featured a black God, with Rex Ingram playing De Lawd in the 1936 all-black musical ”Green Pastures.” The image of a Christian deity was implicitly altered when the comedian George Burns, whom many viewers knew was Jewish, took the title role in the 1977 movie ”Oh, God!” and two sequels.
In ”Bruce Almighty” the title character first meets God in the guise of a janitor, wearing coveralls and mopping a warehouse floor. ”People underestimate the value of good ol’ manual labor,” God tells the skeptical Bruce. For Mr. Youngblood that scene resonated with black theology’s view of Jesus as an oppressed man put on earth to free the oppressed.
Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of African-American and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said via e-mail: ”Freeman’s God allows Bruce to work out his soul’s salvation in trial and error. That’s part of black theodicy — the attempt to understand, better yet survive, the existence of suffering and evil.”
The praise for ”Bruce Almighty” in black intellectual circles is not unanimous. The cultural critics Gerald Early of Washington University in St. Louis and Linda Williams of the University of California at Berkeley said that Mr. Freeman is carrying on what Ms. Williams, in an e-mail message, called ”the same old tradition of the saintly black man who is shown caring for the relatively trivial worries of white protagonists.”
Both scholars traced that line of cinematic characterization back to Uncle Tom tending Little Eva in the 1927 film adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel ”Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Sidney Poitier took on several such roles in the postwar decades, particularly as the handyman caring for a group of white nuns in ”Lilies of the Field” (1963). Mr. Freeman himself portrayed the moral instructor of a self-absorbed white as a rich widow’s chauffeur in ”Driving Miss Daisy,” the 1989 screen version of Alfred Uhry’s play.
”We have here another instance of a wise black person helping a white person achieve insight, realize his humanity,” Professor Early said of ”Bruce Almighty.” ”That’s about as tired a Hollywood formula, indeed an American culture formula, as one can get.” He added, ”Audiences subconsciously were drawn to it, particularly white audiences who like their black folk nonthreatening and supportive.”
But even those who find the portrayal of a black god problematic laud the performance itself. ”If you’re going to go the route of having a black God concerned about a trivial white person,” as Professor Williams put it, ”you couldn’t get a better God than Morgan Freeman.”
Correction: June 17, 2003, Tuesday An article in The Arts on Wednesday about the views of some black religious figures and scholars on the portrayal of God by a black actor in the movie ”Bruce Almighty” referred incompletely to the biblical phrase ”hair like lamb’s wool,” which some black ministers cite as evidence that Jesus was black. While it is found in at least one translation of the Bible (the New English Translation), it is in the Book of Daniel, which was written before Jesus was born.
The article referred incorrectly to another description cited by the ministers — that Jesus had feet the color of ”hammered brass.” That phrase is similar to a passage in Revelation; it is not a direct biblical quotation.
The article also misstated the amount of money the movie made in its four-day opening weekend, which included Memorial Day. It was $85.7 million, not $100 million.