Thursday, December 17, 2020

Black Jesus (Valerio Zurlini, 1968)


The original Italian title of Valerio Zurlini’s dramatization of the death of Lalubi, a charismatic anti-colonial rebel leader, translates as “Seated to his right,” a title that somewhat subtly evokes the religious charge that runs through the film, while also pointing to the film’s major misstep, that for all its strong desire to positively and respectfully portray Lalubi, it tends to diminish him through misdirection and misemphasis. To enumerate, there’s the casting of Woody Strode (who embodies the role in an effective, beatific manner, but at no time seems to belong to the culture being portrayed); the significant over-reliance on white perspectives (in particular those of the Dutch commander who agonizes in Pilate-style about his role in delivering Lalubi to his fate, and a fellow cellmate who trades his secret stash of pornographic photos to a guard to obtain some oil to apply to Lalubi’s wounds); and the fact that the religious analogy, no matter how occasionally effective on its own terms, blurs local political realities rather than clarifying our understanding of them. Still, Zurlini does invest the film with a potent, spare, power. His most effective device may come at the very end, following the film’s enactment of Lalubi’s “crucifixion,” evoking his resurrection through a little boy, clad all in white, who stands bearing silent witness, and in the end escapes from the soldier’s guns into the distance, embodying a distinctness and freedom capable of surviving the machinations of colonial occupiers and their cynical collaborators. The film is best known as Black Jesus, and an American release poster featured the tagline “He who ain’t with me – is against me,” suggesting a (perhaps not unreasonable) wish for a far more confrontational film than Zurlini actually delivered (the alternative release title “Super Brother” further pushed that angle). Still, the film’s limitations are interesting enough in their own right, in embodying the difficulty of exposing colonial injustice from the outside (the film’s missteps are far less egregious than those of Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, to take a better-known example).

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