"Do you think they are doing this because he is black?," Jesus' mother Mary intently inquires in "Color of the Cross," tidily summing up the novelty of this first bigscreen depiction of the Messiah as a man of African heritage. pic is being marketed strongly to the black faithful, indicating good early returns in urban and Southern markets.

“Do you think they are doing this because he is black?,” Jesus’ mother Mary intently inquires in “Color of the Cross,” tidily summing up the novelty of this first bigscreen depiction of the Messiah as a man of palpably African heritage. Like “The Passion of the Christ,” this earnest, tediously paced low-budgeter traces the final two days of the savior’s life, although new entry cuts directly from his arrest to his final words on the cross, as if ceding everything in between to Mel Gibson. With the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray of the First AME Church in Los Angeles as lead producer, pic is being marketed strongly to the black faithful, indicating good early returns in urban and Southern markets. Appeal to more general auds and an international public will be negligible due to feeble dramatics.

Rocky Mountain Pictures, which scored a modest success with the religious-themed “End of the Spear,” launches initial engagements Oct. 27 in Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., with further openings Nov. 10. Fox Home Entertainment will handle DVD release — as it did for Gibson’s blockbuster — in January.

Director/co-writer/co-producer/star Jean Claude LaMarre, an actor who has helmed several features, most recently “Brothers in Arms,” injects a smattering of racial references into his sliver of the greatest story ever told. Indisputably, there has never before been a telling of Jesus’ life in which the itinerant preacher has claimed he was born in a manger because discriminatory lodging laws in Bethlehem denied his mother a bed at an inn. And nowhere else has Nicodemus asked his fellow Pharisees, “Can we believe that this dark-skinned Nazarene is really Him?”

But once the revisionist frisson of a black Jesus, not to mention Mary, Joseph and Judas, has worn off, one is stuck with more mundane matters such as story dynamics, visual style and character verisimilitude, much to the misfortune of the audience. Even at a brief 81 minutes (before end credits), this is lugubrious stuff, as LaMarre wearisomely elaborates on the assorted uncertainties of that fateful night; Jesus and his followers furtively search for a location to hold their Passover supper, the disciples protest their teacher’s insistence that he will shortly die, Judas is amorously detained by Mary Magdalene prior to collecting his 30 pieces of silver and the Jewish elders endlessly dither over what to do with the putative King of the Jews. “What have we done to deserve such a fate?” one wails.

Draped in a pure white robe, LaMarre’s Jesus spends most of his time staring up meaningfully into the heavens in anguished colloquy with his Father, or solemnly admonishing the disciples, who rep a genuine rainbow coalition of the faithful. Thesps across the board adopt odd guttural accents that share a catch-all Mediterranean quality, with occasional Yiddish inflections.

“Color of the Cross” compounds one of the problems of Gibson’s film by telling only the end of the story; seeing this picture with little or no prior knowledge, one would be hard pressed to figure out what all the fuss is about. Still, uninformed lay people didn’t stumble on “Passion,” nor will they likely do so here.

But lacking the drama of Jesus’ trial and the passion, as well as the substance of his teachings, LaMarre’s turgid take has very little to offer dramatically or inspirationally. Except for an unusual late-on sequence in which his Jesus becomes virtually hysterical with fear about dying, the helmer’s leading performance is marked by monotonously deliberate elocution.

Shot around Santa Clarita in rugged terrain north of Los Angeles, the pic consists mostly of close-ups that make no use of natural backdrops, but can’t disguise the minimal production values; “crowd” scenes are particularly threadbare and unconvincing. The mostly synthesized score drones on and on under most scenes.

Color of the Cross

Production

A Rocky Mountain Pictures release of a BlackChristianMovies.com presentation in association with Nu-Lite Entertainment. Produced by Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, Jessie Levostre, Kenneth L. Halsband, Jean Claude LaMarre. Executive producers, Paul Noe, Sinclair Noe, Eddie Lahens, Che Hirsch, Donald Mattson, Nelson Quintanilla, David Aviv, Isaiah Cabbai, Rachel Burch, CNL Management Corp., Elena Goodman, Michael Gonda, Marc Porterfield, Lila Aviv. Co-producers, Marcello Thedford, Liz LaMarre, Albert C. Chevalier, Horacio Blackwood, Yarden Levi. Directed by Jean Claude LaMarre. Screenplay, Jean Claude Nelson, Jim Troesh, LaMarre.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Paul Mayne; editor, Darlene Haussmann; music, Flexx, LaMarre; production designer, Steve Saklad; art director, Teresa Keith; set decorator, Mario Solorzano; costume designers, Jerbethaqui , Beth Strickland, Teddi Brown; sound, Itmar Ben Jacob, Dennis Grzesik; associate producers, Kristian Bernard, Brown, Akiva David, Beatrice Fakhrian, Marvin Wethington, Strickland; assistant director, Alex Korp; second unit camera, Warren Yeager; casting, Matthew Gray. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, Oct. 23, 2006. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Jesus - Jean Claude LaMarre Mary - Debbi Morgan Horatius - David Gianopoulos Caiaphas - Elya Baskin Peter - Pacinto Taras Riddick John - Akiva David Judas - Johann Jean Matthew - JR Dziengel Mary Magdalene - Marjan Faritous Thomas - John-Pierre Parent Thaddeus - Adam Green Timothy - Michael Govia James - Shervin Daratzan Nicodemus - Melvin Weiss Joseph - Marc Winn
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