‘Cross’ promotion

Black Jesus pic looks to tap controversy

The success Mel Gibson had in transforming churchgoers into moviegoers with “The Passion of the Christ” has inspired another indie production on the story of the last hours in the life of Jesus Christ.

But “Color of the Cross,” produced on a tiny $2.5 million budget, will feature a black actor portraying Christ.

Nu-Lite Entertainment production hopes to capitalize on the controversy of depicting a nonwhite Christ.

Under a recently inked deal, 20th Century Fox will distribute the film on homevideo, and the pic’s producers say money from that deal will be put toward the marketing effort for the film’s theatrical release in November. No distrib has been signed yet.

One of the producers is the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, who during his 27 years as pastor at L.A.’s First AME Church used his pulpit to become a national religious and civil-rights leader. He said he hopes the film will reverse negative stereotypes of African Americans.

“We really need to do something about the negative imaging of black America,” he said. “Black America is the only culture that worships in the form of foreign symbols. The good that can be done is that it can help lift people’s interest and combat racism and discrimination.”

While acknowledging the potential for controversy, Murray said the notion that Jesus was African isn’t far-fetched.

“It’s more likely that Jesus was black than it was that Jesus was European,” he said. “It’s not an assertion that is a difficult one.”

“Color of the Cross” will star Jean-Claude La Marre, who is also directing and scripted the film. His past pics include African American-themed Westerns “Gang of Roses,” which starred musicians Lil Kim and Bobby Brown, and “Brothers in Arms.” None have made a big dent at the box office.

Recent portrayals of Jesus as black — whether musician Kanye West posing as Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone or the depiction of Jesus as a modern-world African revolutionary in “Son of Man,” which recently preemed at Sundance — have attracted media coverage.

“Our movie is not about dividing Christians but broadening their perspective,” La Marre said in a statement. “For centuries, Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrayal of Jesus has been widely accepted. We are offering an alternative image. There’s room for all.”

Production got under way earlier this year and will resume later this month. La Marre hopes to have a version of the pic to show to potential theatrical distribs some time in April.

Also producing are Jessie Levostre, Marc Porterfield, Michele Gonda and Kenneth Halsband; Marcello Thedford is co-producer.

In addition to Jesus, black actors will also portray Mary (Debbi Morgan of “Coach Carter” and “Woman Thou Art Loosed”), Joseph and Judas, while the rest of the cast will be white or Middle Eastern.

The booming $371 million gross of “The Passion” has sparked a wave of other films with Christian themes, including major studio releases such as “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and the upcoming “The Da Vinci Code.”

But even religious-themed indie pics made on tiny budgets with no big- name stars have done respectable biz, including current release “End of the Spear,” a story about missionaries in Ecuador seeking to convert indigenous tribes. Since its Jan. 20 release, it has grossed $8.6 million. Likewise, “Therese: The Story of Saint Therese of Lisieux” did $2.6 million since it hit theaters last October.

Distribs have also found commercial success by reaching out to African-American churchgoers. Lionsgate credits such outreach for the $50.6 million gross for last year’s “A Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” which it hopes to repeat when Tyler Perry’s follow-up “Madea’s Family Reunion” bows Feb. 24.

In October, Sony and Screen Gems’ church drama “The Gospel” grossed $15.8 million; a year earlier, the adaptation of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ self-help novel “Woman Thou Art Loosed” collected $6.9 million.

In Murray’s 27 years at First AME, his services attracted the likes of Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson. He’s now joined the faculty of USC’s Center for Religion but hopes that by adding movie producer to his long resume he’ll continue to spread his faith.