Why Hollywood’s New Bible Story Just Got a Lot More Colorful

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey dish on their ethnic casting choices for ‘A.D.: The Bible Continues’

NBC’s new Bible-based series features a multiethnic cast. (Photo: NBC)


Mar 31, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a writer specializing in cultural analysis, urban affairs, and the arts. Her work has appeared in Chicago magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebony, and The Boston Globe, and on NBC.

Mary Magdalene—a staunch supporter of Jesus, mentioned in the Bible no less than 14 times—is arguably one of the most important women in that historical text. In A.D.: The Bible Continues, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s new Bible-based NBC series, she’s also black.

To be exact, Chipo Chung, a Zimbabwean Chinese actor who lives in London, portrays the character. She’s brown-skinned, has full lips, and is one of many actors in this new series that seeks to bring more tonal truth to Hollywood’s versions of stories surrounding Jesus. In other words, Burnett and Downey’s series, scheduled to debut on Easter Sunday, features a bundle of people of color—including a John the Beloved who is portrayed by a Gambian and a Jesus who is portrayed by an Argentinean.

The new show is the latest flash point in the persistent debate about how media should reflect the diversity of American society. The debate has heightened in recent days. Last week a Deadline.com editor wrote a provocative article originally headlined: “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?”

Yet there is progress. On Monday, NBC announced that one of its next live musicals would be The Wiz, a black American take on The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile, Comedy Central announced that Trevor Noah, a black South African, would be the next host of The Daily Show. Television shows such as Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Empire are wildly popular—proving that shows with diverse casts can be profitable.

“We wanted to reflect the world that we live in,” Downey tells TakePart. “We wanted the audience to be able to tune in and see the series and see themselves on the screen. This is the story of the early church, and the world at that time—as it is now—is made of very different racial diversity. Judea was a corridor linking many of those countries and regions and trade routes. There would’ve been a diverse group,” adds Downey, who is a Christian.

A.D. takes viewers through the days after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This time period is viewed as the creation of Christianity. The Hollywood power couple, having hired a number of researchers and historians to help maintain accuracy, thought it made sense to more adequately show the diversity of that time, And modern-day theologians and historians agree.

“In early chapters of Acts, it mentions the message of Jesus being talked about in all these languages, and you start looking, and there are people from a wide spectrum of countries,” explains Dr. Timothy Sisk, a professor of intercultural studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. “Jerusalem obviously was a multicultural center. To portray it as all white would be historically incorrect, according to those passages in Acts.”

Burnett and Downey cast Gambian actor Babou Ceesay as John. The angel who showed up at Jesus’ tomb for the Resurrection? Lonyo Engele, a black British actor, portrays him. The first episode of the miniseries, in fact, shows a dark-haired, olive-skinned Jesus practically surrounded, day and night, by at least two faithful people of color.

“[John] was the only apostle who actually was there at the cross,” says Burnett. “It was a great moment for this African actor, where someone asks Peter, ‘Were you there at the end?’ and Peter says, ‘Only John,’ and John describes what happened. It was beautiful for us, not just because of diversity and doing the right thing. But this place Judea was the crossroads of trade from Africa to Asia to Europe. We know that the man who carried Jesus’ cross, Simon of Cyrene, would’ve been a black man, and we showed that.”

Those few details alone, says Boston University professor John Thornton, are cause for celebration. Thornton is the head of B.U.’s African American studies department and teaches a class called The History of Religion in Africa.

“My daughter used to say that every time she sees Jesus [in a movie] he looks like a Norwegian,” says Thornton, who last year joined other critics in taking the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings to task for its lack of diversity among the major characters. “The beginning of this [series] sounds incredible. People who come from the Sudan are going to be present in the early Christian period—and those people are the darkest people on the earth,” says Thornton.

This darker-hued history is sometimes erased from American studies, Thornton adds. “It’s one of the things that got lost along the way, thanks to the slave trade.”

Who else is in the cast? We’ll have to wait until the series airs to see. But so far, there’s the Argentinian Jesus and an Irish Paul. John, Philip the missionary, Ananias, and Sapphira are all played by black actors.

Still, some viewers will no doubt find fault with the series, in part because the dialogue is not specifically written in the historical texts. Downey and Burnett acknowledge that some 50 percent of the dialogue had to be created. But the process, they say, was informed by historical texts and fact-checked by a large group of pastors and other researchers.

The duo did not report getting any pushback from NBC.

This new series picks up where another religious series, History Channel’s The Bible, dropped off. That first series was also produced by Downey and Burnett and was criticized by some for being overwhelmingly white in its casting. The couple took those criticisms to heart and made adjustments. At the same time, they also took great care with certain TV moments—such as the stone rolling away from Jesus’ tomb and whether the light described in The Bible came from outside the tomb.

“Hundreds of millions notice these things,” says Burnett. “It took ages and ages with teams of advisers to make sure. We’ve become aware of every nuance of the story.”