How private faith is going public among the African American elite of Hollywood
By Amber Nasrulla, Amber Nasrulla has written for Los Angeles magazine, Toronto Life and Elle Canada. October 22, 2006
Last January, in the parking lot of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Robi Reed had a moment that propelled her career toward evangelism.
After the Sunday service, Reed, a veteran casting director whose credits include "Antwone Fisher" and "Malcolm X," walked up to fellow churchgoer Denzel Washington and asked after his family. The longtime friends exchanged pleasantries until Reed casually mentioned her latest project. "I'm producing and casting an audio Bible with an African American cast. It's the Old and New Testaments."
ADVERTISEMENT Reed remembers that Washington interrupted her, saying, "I have to do it." The Oscar-winning actor didn't talk about lawyers, money, agents or publicists.
"I was trying to be very cool as he said to call his assistant with all the particulars," recalls Reed, a slender woman with waist-length twists. Then she got into her blue BMW, exhaled, screamed a couple of times and began praising the Lord again and again. "I just knew it was the start of something big."
Washington was the first A-list star of more than 200 celebrities—including Samuel L. Jackson as God, Angela Bassett as Esther, Blair Underwood as Jesus and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Judas—who have lent their voices and acting talents to "Inspired By . . . The Bible Experience," a fully dramatized and scored, 70-hour, audio recording of the Holy Scriptures. The New Testament edition hit stores earlier this month. Washington reads the Songs of Solomon with his wife, Pauletta, for the Old Testament edition, which will be available digitally as early as next year. Why would megastars publicly associate themselves with religion, I wondered? What could they get out of it? The answers revealed something surprising and refreshing about that godless den of iniquity known as Hollywood.
If you look in the right places, it's not hard to find God here. The celebrity press tends to focus on Madonna's involvement with kabbalah or Tom Cruise's commitment to Scientology, but often overlooks more mainstream professions of faith. And lately, that faith has begun to flower most remarkably among Hollywood's Christian African Americans.
Tyler Perry is a modern pioneer of touring black musicals. His plays and films blend comedy with gospel music and romance with Christian values. Perry's recent, hugely popular Madea films, including "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," occupy a niche of the church market. Then there's Underwood's charming tome, "Before I Got Here: The Wondrous Things We Hear When We Listen to the Souls of Our Children," in which the "Sex and the City" and "L.A. Law" star examines the "soulful wisdom" of kids. This fall, Haitian actor and producer Jean Claude LaMarre directs and stars in a low-budget feature film "Color of the Cross," shot in the hills of Santa Clarita. LaMarre, who also appeared in the faith-based film "Pastor Jones," plays a black Jesus Christ.
Last fall, showman-turned-spiritualist Joseph "Reverend Run" Simmons launched his MTV reality show, "Run's House." (In the 1980s, Simmons and his hip-hop group, Run-DMC, were a hit on MTV after blending rap with rock in the song "Walk This Way," with Aerosmith.) "Run's House" is a wholesome, profanity-bleeped series that chronicles Simmons' daily trials to raise his five children. Even though most viewers have little in common with Rev. Run (the man drives a $330,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom), the series is a hit. "The show is like my pulpit," he says of his shamelessly materialistic brand of Christianity. "I want to help the world get into spirituality and lead people to Christ."
Robi Reed's primary collaborators on the audio Bible project, all of whom describe themselves as loyal Christians, had worked on religion-based productions before. They include Grammy-winning music producer Louis "Buster" Brown, new media executive Ron Belk and veteran TV and film producer Kyle Bowser. Brown recognized in his colleagues a familiar impulse. "The Bible in our culture has been more than just the word of God. It's been our hope through slavery. It's been our hope through civil rights," Brown says. "It became our mission to make sure it became relevant to this generation."
The quartet formed a company in Beverly Hills, the Inspired By Media Group, with the explicit goal, Bowser says, of becoming "new engagers of God's word, who strive to guide people onto a righteous path, to the Christian path." But they weren't sure their high-profile narrators, many of them friends and acquaintances, saw "The Bible Experience" as anything other than a recording gig. Reed was grateful when some cast members confided that they had longed for a faith-based project. She didn't just hear it from gospel stars such as Kirk Franklin and Shirley Caesar; she heard it from rappers Faith Evans and Heavy D., and actor Cuba Gooding Jr. She marvels, "Cuba has a strong love for God. I had no idea." At the end of his recording session, he opened up. "He said, 'God is everything. He's the reason I'm here, the reason I have my life, my career.' "
Reed is adamant that the celebrities, many of whom already are multimillionaires, didn't do it for the money or the exposure. "We paid them the equivalent of dinner for four at Mr. Chow's. It's really a labor of love."
During the last 15 years, I've interviewed men and women in Canada, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey about their religious convictions. It's been a challenging journey. Discussing religion with strangers is like arriving at a dinner party with a cold. People lean away from you and politely find excuses to help the hostess. And in Southern California, where celebrities abound like candles in a church, a conversation about religion as it relates to the sensibilities of urban culture is . . . unlikely. Celebrities are the gods of our day, and if they bow their heads in prayer to another god, it can be taken as a sign of weakness. And yet.
The West Angeles Church of God in Christ on Crenshaw Boulevard is pulsing. Members of a large gospel choir sway and clap, accompanied by a live band. "We fall down but we get up," they chant over and over. High above them, on both sides of the altar, huge plasma screens display the lyrics to Donnie McClurkin's gospel hit, while Bishop Charles Blake energetically leads the prayer. Wearing a gray robe with a large cross draped down his chest like an exclamation mark, Bishop Blake croons into a microphone. "We fall down . . . . "
Angela Bassett, elegantly dressed in a white blouse and black skirt, is seated in the 5,000-seat cathedral. She and her husband, actor Courtney B. Vance, are standing in the second row a few feet from Bishop Blake. Vance holds a Bible in his right hand, arms outstretched, and moves to the music. He gives Bassett a tissue when she starts to weep. After blotting her damp eyes, she raises her arms in the air.
In an interview a few days later, Bassett, who has attended services in the West Angeles Cathedral for more than 15 years, talks about the tears. "When you realize that every breath is a gift from God. When you realize how small you are, but how much he loved you. That he, Jesus, would die, the son of God himself on earth, then you . . . you just weep."
During a 40-minute telephone chat, words pour from the Oscar nominee as she explains that taking on the role of Esther for "The Bible Experience" was an easy choice. And if there ever is a film version, she'll be the first in line. The Bible is the greatest story ever told, she says, the greatest drama. She sprang at the chance to mingle her creativity with her spirituality. "Oh, yes, I was waiting for the opportunity.
"It's all a quest. We're all searching for fulfillment and for purpose. We can't find that without God. We'll find something . . . Is it yoga? Is it promotion and prestige? Is it fame? Is it shopping? Is it being highly favored by men and by peers? Something is at the center of our lives, and for me it's God."
In between bites of broccoli and a boiled egg, Bassett says: "I really believe that what I do as an actress is my God-given talent. This is my calling . . . not my career. And I appreciate it. To lend my voice and my talent to 'The Bible Experience' is just a way of saying, 'Thank you.' "
Asked if she's uncomfortable discussing her religious beliefs in public, she sounds surprised, even impatient. She grew up in the church, sang in the choir, performed in plays. "Loving God is like my being black. I just am. [No one says] 'You know what? I'm gonna be blacker today!' It's my culture. It's not something I put on or take off or show more. You just communicate that in the way you live your life."
Blair Underwood agrees. In 1992, he directed, executive produced, co-wrote and starred as Jesus in "The Second Coming," a short film in which Christ comes back to earth as a man of color. Fourteen years later, he says, "The Bible Experience" allowed him to portray Jesus as a man rather than a deity. He explains that the audio Bible is about spiritual understanding and making the word of God accessible through familiar voices and a musical soundtrack. "Rather than preaching to you, it's meeting you where you live. It's making God's word relevant."
Like Bassett, Underwood attends church regularly, but his is a more private spirituality. He wants to understand what Jesus meant and to learn how the Bible applies to his life without getting bogged down in dogma. "I think religion can be very divisive," he says. "The most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning between 7 a.m. and 12 p.m., and it's a shame."
Hill Harper plays Philip the Apostle in the audio Bible. Though the "CSI: NY" star won't call himself a Christian actor, preferring "an artist who happens to be Christian," he carries a Bible on his travels and can quote the Scriptures and discuss parables with ease and eloquence. "It's an impulse to work on projects that can help improve other peoples' lives, and I think that this ['The Bible Experience'] project does that," he says from the New York set of "Shanghai Hotel." "The Bible is a divine gift that many of us use, but different people have different ways of understanding and of coming to the Word. So this is a new way of understanding."
For Tisha Campbell-Martin, who narrates the part of Mary Magdalene in the audio Bible, such understanding has been a long time coming. Martin, the star of the syndicated series "My Wife and Kids," grew up in The Bricks, a housing project in New Jersey. That steel-and-concrete complex was designed with few places for a child to play. She sought refuge in church. The holy book didn't always make sense to her, so when "The Bible Experience" came up she was happy to participate. "To be able to help someone else understand and not be confused like I was as a child with the thousand thous—and thee this and that!" She bursts out laughing.
As an adult, Campbell-Martin says, she's determined to weave aspects of many faiths into her life. She's building her dream home with a prayer room that overlooks a garden. It will have an altar, pillows on the floor, fresh flowers and loads of reading material. "I have the Torah here. I have the Bible. I have Buddhist books. The underlying message is love and understanding yourself and being awakened by your own spirituality."
Dr. Judith Weisenfeld, a professor of religion at Vassar College, suggests that the political climate may play a role in spiritual openness among some African American entertainers. "We're in a moment when our president says his favorite philosopher is Jesus and religion has a very real public nature, a public face," says Weisenfeld, author of the forthcoming book, "Hollywood Be Thy Name: African-American Religion in American Film." "You can still be taken seriously as a serious actor-performer even if you are open about your religious commitments."
Is God in Hollywood just another celebrity trend, such as Ashtanga yoga or pole dancing? I believe it's something more. In his new book "Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny," actor Hill Harper gives young black men advice and encouragement on how to navigate the world. Dream and work hard to achieve those dreams, he writes, because "God and the universe have much more planned for you than you can even imagine."
He points out that many of his contemporaries are discussing spiritual consciousness as well as institutionalized religion. "It's a shame that politics and political people have been able to spin this idea of the liberal Hollywood as being anti-Christian and anti-Bible and anti-God," he says.
It turns out that in Hollywood, the unlikeliest of places, God has an entourage. Quietly and passionately, Tinseltown's biggest African American stars are expressing their faith. They're marrying their spiritual beliefs with their creative impulses in a way that is hip, accessible and grounded in Christianity. It's not just rappers saying things like "The Almighty is dope" or "Jesus is my homeboy" during awards shows. This collision of the secular and sacred has the potential to grab and inspire a generation raised on MP3 players.
Faith-based entertainment is emerging at a time when many of the world's conflicts are based on religion. There's a hunger for theological dialogue. The fact that popular entertainers aren't shying away from spiritual conversations suggests that Hollywood's old warhorses—sex, money and power—will be sharing the limelight with the Almighty for years to come. Amen to that.
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