Race in The History Channel’s “The Bible”

Sunday Night saw the airing of the fifth and sixth episodes of The History Channel’s The Bible, and the ratings remained high. 10.9 million people tuned into each episode. However, this airing saw a new controversy – did The Bible‘s Satan look like Barack Obama? Was the Moroccan actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni purposefully made up to look like him?

Glenn Beck was the first media figure to “notice the resemblance”. He tweeted, “Anyone else think the Devil in #TheBible Sunday on History Channel looks exactly like That Guy?” The news media, of course, played up this controversy. It gave them an excuse to run side-by-side shot after side-by-side shot of Barack Obama and Satan. Let the people decide, right?

The History Channel has since stated that they did not intend to make Satan look like Obama, and the shows creator’s said that they considered Obama a “fellow Christian” and that they had “nothing but respect and love” for him.

While the Obama/Satan resemblance is 1. The product of westerners who think Moroccans and Kenyans look alike 2. The product of a weird far right mindset obsessed with the idea that Obama is Satan and 3. The product of right-wing caricatures of Obama that emphasize his “African” features, it’s more telling that The Bible’s creators chose a Moroccan to play Satan. This choice becomes even more suspect when you consider that the series has a Portuguese Jesus, an Irish Mary, an English Peter, an a menagerie of disciples who are generally nationally English but of mixed-race origin. For a story that takes place in what is today Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, there sure are precious few Israeli and Palestinian actors.

Europeans with beards are basically Arabs, right?

In this landscape, of course, the one prominent African in the series is Satan. It’s a pretty typical Hollywood move – westerners as heroes, non-westerner “others” (Africans, Arabs, Russians, Asians) as villains. Add some makeup to displace the race of the actor and make them a placeholder for a biblical figure, and you’ve got yourself a narrative of The Bible where all the actors can be Western, and the villains can be non-western (excepting the white Romans, who are a whole different story). Still, one would hope that our views on race in casting had advanced since Lawrence of Arabia.

But what do you expect? Most of the consultants on the project, such as Rick Warren, are white evangelicals. White evangelicals views  on race are similar to Stephen Colbert’s – they’re don’t see race. And in not seeing race, they easily fall into the subtle racism that is so often present in movie and television casting. And you can’t really expect white evangelicals to be attuned to the need of minorities. The American protestant church is nominally for everyone, even when in reality, it’s massively segregated by race. Churches that are less than 80% mono-racial make up only around 5% of American churches, depending on the denomination. So dealing with the lasting consequences of subtle racism in our society is pretty low on the evangelical agenda.

It’s too bad the producers of The Bible decided, in making a TV series about North Africa and the Middle East, to cast largely western people. It could have been an opportunity for breaking stereotypes about the forefathers of Christianity. Instead, it’s just another step in the whitening of Christianity’s complex history.

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