Son of Man – A new Jesus or an old Jesus in new clothes?
On Thursday night, Brenda Becket, Rachel & I went to a special screening of the new South African film, SON OF MAN at the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square. Was a bit surreal to be invited (they wanted people from different churches, social action networks and those with African links apparently) but it was fun and an interesting evening. The film was made in 2006 and has won various prizes including a major nod at the 2006 Sundance festival – the aim is to generate a buzz for it in the UK. It is produced by the same people who created THE MYSTERIES – the group is called Dimpho Di Kopane from Cape Town (the name means company of talents and is made up of all kinds of different people from South African am-dram and singing groups, talent spotted by the British director Mark Dornford-May & his South African Wife Pauline Malefane, and Conductor Charles Hazlewood). Despite being created for the stage, I remember watching the DVD of the Mysteries while we were in Uganda and being completely blown away. Such a simple concept (which so often is the heart of genius, is it not?) whereby the medieval York Mystery plays are transported to contemporary South Africa with its 9 official languages and huge musical diversity. There are many great things about it and it has rightly been a triumph around the world.
So SON OF MAN seeks to take things the next stage with an equally simple premise. Take the life of Jesus and transpose it to the Cape Flats townships in Cape Town. This is nothing if not provocative – but of course is not the first time someone has done something like this (eg Jesus of Montreal). The bit issue is how one handles that. Now there are some fascinating things about the film – it recreates Judea as a fictitious country in ‘Afrika’, where there are constant political tensions and invasion. Sadly these political realities are tragically familiar to an African setting – but they also bring to life a sense of the turmoil and confusion caused by the different vested interests at work in 1st Century Palestine. And that is representative of one of the big strengths of the film – it obliterates any of the beautification of the Jesus story created by Old Master paintings. The shed where the baby is born is just that – a shed, full of old tyres and the other detritus of modern life. Herod is more like an African rebel commander whose face is printed everywhere. His militia are just thugs: unpredictable, intimidating, lethal. This is particularly powerful in the telling of the massacre of the innocents sequence. The insecurities of Jesus’ family are palpable in the world of warlords and refugees.
There are other nice little touches – the angels and shepherds are played by children – echoing the value that Jesus gives children. And the scene where the angels throng round the risen Jesus is exhilarating (see left). The music is wonderful – much of adapted from the music of the Mysteries stage play. Mary (played by Pauline Malefane) is a very poignant character, full of unspoken grief and pain. Satan is a constant malevolent presence – from the temptation in the wilderness which opens the film, then backtracking to Jesus’ birth all the way up to the crucifixion – he is superbly played by the red & black clad Andries Mbali (see below). It was fun to see that the Centurion present at Jesus’ execution is called ‘Hundred’, a suitably gangsterish name! Some adaptations were very clever but I’m not quite sure how appropriate they are because they miss the point somewhat – so Jesus’ baptism is now seen as part of a Xhosa man’s coming of age ceremony with the wilderness temptation rather like an Aboriginal walkabout. Clever – but more a ritual with sociological and personal significance than it is spiritual. It is not now something one chooses to do but is compulsory for all men of the tribe. The crucifixion now becomes a totem post-execution whereby Jesus’ followers dig up the body from his unmarked grave and hang it high to bring his death to everyone’s attention.
And this is where the problems do begin somewhat. For what actually is the film seeking to communicate? This film powerfully exposes the nightmare of war-torn and riven Africa (and while things are not quite as extreme as this in South Africa, they certainly are in places like Somalia and Liberia). It exposes the injustices caused by evil and sin, not just within Africa but on Africa by the west. So there is such a thing as evil. But as soon as this Jesus starts preaching, he speaks of the ‘inherent goodness of humanity’ and his message is one of peaceful revolution. The sermon on the mount then becomes more of a rally on a soapbox. Andile Kosi who plays Jesus is a wonderful actor, who exudes humanity and compassion – it is impossible not to warm to him or be drawn to him. So in that sense he is well-cast. But this is the problem with so many (if not every) portrayal of Jesus: you have to pick and choose what to play because it is impossible to encapsulate the Incarnation in a performance, impossible even for a redeemed sinner to portray the divine-man.
The Son of Man’s Jesus then is more like Gandhi with an OT prophet’s passion for justice and society. That this is a message that Africa, let alone the rest of the world, DESPERATELY needs to hear is not in doubt. That this is a profoundly Christian message should not be in doubt either. But that this was the totality of Jesus’ message is clearly false. For Jesus addressed the root causes of injustice much more than he tackled oppression – not because the latter was unimportant (far from it), but because it is impossible to deal with the latter without facing the former. Human sin against God leads inevitably to human inhumanity to fellow human. While we ARE created in the image of God with all the wonders and joys entailed by that, it is not enough to leave it there. To do so is actually to endorse the status quo of a fallen world. Then perhaps the biggest problem with the film is the death of Jesus – how can it not be a failure of a successful political martyr (if I can put it like that). Is that all it achieved? In the film it can only be a stimulus for political change. God, while mentioned a few times, is only a bit player in the story – and not the subject of the story, not the one who is at work bringing about his purposes. Of course, his angels are there – more to protect Jesus from Satan until the right moment (which is good) – but Satan certainly has a greater presence. It is hard not to conclude that in some ways he has won by the end of the film. Because whether intentionally or not, the resurrection of JEsus is only witnessed by the hoard of angels and us the audience. None of the dramatic characters get a chance to see what we see.
And that’s why in the end i think that the film does not do justice to the Christian message. Perhaps that is because no cinematic life of Christ can (and maybe that is why cinema should steer clear altogether – but of course that will never happen because whatever society makes of Jesus, he is still unavoidably fascinating). For there is a sense in which Jesus is both attractive to those from every walk of life but at the same time hugely difficult and challenging. NO ONE can be comfortable in his presence, however much they want to be there (as the disciples so often discovered). That means that the campaigners for social justice may well champion the SON OF MAN Jesus – but even they will find things they won’t like about the real Jesus – just as those who exploit and oppress the poor will.
But as long as we understand that there is so much more to Jesus that can ever meet the eye on screen, I think there are things to gain from this film. NT Life was gritty and grimy not cosmetically enhanced. The gospel is supremely relevant in Africa – and it is wonderfully refreshing to have to face a BLACK Jesus – a corrective that is only healthy if we remember that Jesus TRANSCENDS culture as well as inhabits culture – he was of course a 1st Century Jewish male (the scandal of his particularity) but he is also the one, true, universal, human being (and therefore, neither white, black nor anything else). The film is beautifully directed and put together, with strong acting from people who are not professional film-stars, backed by an evocative soundtrack, and full of nice creative touches. If it gets people thinking, then great. If it spurs people to reread the gospels, even better.
- For Jesus’ followers, I hope that means they will revisit his radical and subversive ethics which challenge so many of the assumptions of the modern era;
- But for non-followers, I hope that above all his radical analysis of the human heart will drive them to the cross where the madness of the divine solution to sin is uniquely to be found. And it is far more radical than political revolution ever could be.