Casting Jesus in his own image

Spotlight

Spotlight on Jean-Claude La Marre

October 27, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

As a 6-year-old growing up in Haiti, Jean-Claude La Marre lived under the watchful eyes of two portraits hanging from the wall. One was of the island's dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, and by government order had to hang there. The other was of a blond-haired, blue-eyed white man with a beneficent stare.

More than three decades later, La Marre still vividly remembers his reaction to that second portrait - the one that nobody was forcing his family to hang on the wall.

"He didn't look like anyone around me," La Marre says. "All the doctors [around me] were black, all the policemen were black, the firemen, every professional I had known was black. Our president was black. I didn't quite understand why I had this picture hanging on my wall.

"I asked my grandmother, who was raising me, and she said, `That gentleman is more powerful than the president. He is the son of God.' That stayed with me."

It wasn't just that man's power that made an impression on young Jean-Claude. His race did, too. Now 39, La Marre says it was that early encounter with Jesus that would eventually grow into the feature film Color of the Cross, which he wrote, directed and stars in. He says the film - opening today in six U.S. cities, including Baltimore - is the first to cast a black man as Jesus.

"As a Christian," La Marre says over the phone from his Los Angeles home, "I've always had trouble with the prevailing image out there now, which is that of Jesus as a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy. As an African-American man, I thought that there was a need, at least in literature and film, for that image to change. After I saw The Passion of the Christ, it just really drove home the point that we need a Christ who more properly reflects our image."

His film, La Marre stresses, is meant to convey Jesus' message of universal brotherhood and not dwell on the violence done to him.

"It was a conscious decision," he says. "I thought, first and foremost, that the message of Jesus was one of love and peace. We always experience him during moments of brutality and pain as a Christian community. I wanted to move away from that, at least in this film."

La Marre, who came to the United States at age 12, never planned on being a filmmaker. He was attending law school when a chance meeting with writer-director Spike Lee pointed him to a new career.

"He liked my look or whatever," La Marre recalls, "and said, `I've got this little film that I'm working on right now, I'd love for you to play a role in.'"

The film was 1992's Malcolm X. In it, La Marre plays Malcolm's protege, Benjamin 2X. He liked the experience. "I caught the acting bug, got an agent and started doing things," La Marre says. Since then he has appeared in feature films (Fresh, Dead Presidents) and guest-starred on numerous TV series, including Law & Order, New York Undercover and NYPD Blue. But simply acting, he soon decided, wasn't enough.

"I realized there was a part of me that wasn't being satisfied," La Marre says, "the side that wants to tell the story, rather than be part of someone else's story.

His first film as writer-director-producer, a comedy called Higher Ed, was released in 2001. Since then, he has directed five more films, all made without big studio backing.

"As an artist, you ultimately want the idea to look very much like the final product," he explains. "Sometimes, there is an immense divide, in working through the system, from the idea to the final product, because so many people have so much to say about which direction it should go in. To me, that's not art."

None of his films has really put him on the Hollywood map, but that could change with Color of the Cross. If nothing else, its subject and casting should get it noticed. And maybe help some people.

"Our film is in no way challenging the religion or theology," La Marre stresses. "But if you go to China - the Chinese, the Koreans, worship Christ in their image. If you go to Africa, there are African Jesuses. African-Americans are the only race of people who worship a Christ outside their own image.

"To me," he adds, "there is a correlation that can be made between the state of black people in this country and how they look at their God. This is just one step toward helping that condition."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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