Why the Upset? On the History Channel, Jesus is a White Surfer Guy and Satan Looks Like Barack Obama
The History Channel's series The Bible has introduced its viewers to Satan: he is President Barack Obama.
In our discussions of the politics of popular culture, I continually return to two several themes. Most importantly, a creative work does not appear magically out of the ether. It is the result of decisions made by the participants in a given project. These agents have made a series of choices in the pursuit of a given goal and end product.
These choices are related to questions of intentionality, but do not necessarily override them. Because cultural workers are part of a given society, and therefore reproduce its values on a subconscious level, they may not always be fully aware of how a set of "common sense judgments" (can quite literally) color their decision making.
Moreover, intentionality does not take precedence over how audiences and individuals choose to process, receive, and interpret a work of art, film, movie, or literature. Sure, what a given cultural worker "means" by their work "matters." However, a cultural product has a life all of its own once out in circulation.
The creators of The Bible on the History Channel have made a series of predictable, albeit no less problematic choices related to how race will be represented in their story. The result of these choices is aparticularly noxious type of conservative multiculturalism.
In an effort to be "historically accurate" in their translation of a mythical text, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have chosen to cast a racially and ethnically diverse range of actors and actresses in The Bible miniseries. In post Civil Rights Age of Obama America this must have just "felt right" to the director and lead writers of the show.
Efforts at inclusion and multiculturalism through "diverse" casting can be a great metaphorical sugar rush.
These same agents then chose to make a series of anachronistic choices. Jesus was cast as a white surfer dude with a tan. The historical Jesus was in all likelihood a person of color and not a white European of swarthy complexion (or not). Satan, who was introduced during the most recent episode of the TV show, is never actually described in literal terms by the actual text of the Bible. This led to a choice by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. Do they not show his face? Do they distort it somehow? Or do they perhaps make a choice, as they have in every other aspect of creating The Bible TV series, to depict Satan as a white person?
Their working through those choices is the very moment when conservative multiculturalism runs off of the rails and into the proverbial ditch of the white racial frame and colorblind racism.
In an effort to be multicultural, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey cast the background characters and a few others like Samson as black and brown. The main players in the narrative--here being Jesus, Mary, Moses, and John--are "naturally" cast as white people. These depictions are inaccurate. But, they feel somehow make sense to those invested in the normativity of Whiteness. Likewise, it followed through on The Bible's creators' judgement that the Devil would be a brown man who is a doppelganger of President Barack Obama.
If Mark Burnett and Roma Downey were consistent in their commitment to "accurately" depict the events relayed in the biblical text, they would have cast all (if not most) of the characters in the show as Middle Eastern people of color.
Ultimately, the creators of The Bible are not interested in the truth per se.
They are more compelled by an imperative to reproduce god in their own image: in this case white folks make an ahistorical anachronistic vision of their godhead who looks like a European surfer guy with long flowing hair. On a psycho historical level, Whiteness sees itself reflected back onto itself as something inherently good, just, righteous, loving, and innocent. Projection deems that Satan is something other than "white" in the West.
In The Bible, he is a "black" guy who is almost identical in appearance to Barack Obama.
I do not advocate for more racial, gender, class, and sexual diversity in the workplace and government, generally, and in Hollywood and the Arts, specifically, because of some trite belief that having different folks in a room will magically subvert institutional and social Power. I sincerely believe that having the best people doing the job is in the interest of the Common Good because it leverages our full human resource capacity as a society in a highly competitive global economy.
Diversity is a net bonus in small ways as well. For example, if there were some other folks in the room with the power to speak and be heard when The Bible TV show was being developed, maybe someone would raise a hand and say, "you know, this is sort of a problem here, we got the white guy as Jesus and all these brown people 'cause we want to be 'historically accurate.' But, then we are making the Devil a brown guy who looks damn close to Obama. None of this makes sense. Can we at least be consistent?"
The mass media in the United States, and as a global product, disseminates White ways of seeing, looking, knowing, understanding, and processing reality, history, philosophy, morality, pleasure, and truth-telling. This is not a conspiracy; it is simply business. The creators of The Bible TV show made a series of choices with the intent of making lots of money. Historical "truth" is always a victim to the reality of the market...even if this truth means a white lie of a Jesus and a Satan who looks like Barack Obama.