Originally intended as a segment of the Italian-French omnibus film Amore e rabbia (1969) aka Love and Anger—a somewhat uneven work featuring segments directed by Pasolini, Godard, Bertolucci, and Bellocchio, among others—Zurlini’s film was eventually expanded into a brutal biblical depiction of the torture and execution of Congolese independence leader and pan-African revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, a man described by Malcolm X as “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent” and who was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, only to be deposed twelve weeks later during the Congo Crisis and executed a little over four months after that. Directed by a man who was described as “the Poet of Melancholy,” and who mostly directed relatively apolitical melodramas, the film is indubitably an oddity in Zurlini’s oeuvre and certainly in more ways than one, as a serious film that bombed at the box-office and was re-released in America during the 1970s in ‘grindhouse' theaters under titles like ‘Black Jesus’ and ‘Super Brother’ and marketed as a sensationally violent and racially-charged exploitation flick to capitalize off of the popularity of Blaxploitation films. Starring black American decathlete/football star turned Hollywood actor Woody Strode (Spartacus, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) as the Christ-like Lumumba figure and sub-proletarian Pasolini actor Franco Citti (Accattone, The Godfather) as a meek thief who befriends and comforts the protagonist when the two end up sharing a cell in a hellish-like prison that more resembles a medieval torture chamber, Black Jesus is sort of like an ‘arthouse-BlaxploItalian’ precursor to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) in terms of its ultra-violent emphasis on the eponymous lead’s gruesome martyrdom. Part quasi-Marxist hagiography, part pioneering torture-porn flick, part ‘arthouse’ fable, part prison-based chamber piece, and part dichotomous meditation on love and hatred, Black Jesus is what you might expect if the bastard progeny of Gillo Pontecorvo and Luchino Visconti was hired to shoot a biblical epic in the holy land about the crucifixion of Christ, but instead decided to travel further south to the Dark Continent and make a pseudo-Fanonian war-melodrama hybrid about Lumumba instead.
Maurice Lalubi aka ‘Black Jesus' (Woody Strode) is a perennially wandering Christlike pan-African revolutionary who moves from town to town spreading the gospel of African liberation and, as such, the new ostensibly black-run government wants to have him liquidated immediately. Lalubi is confident that he will survive as he cannot imagine one of his loyal peasant followers selling him out to the white man, but he does not realize that he has a scheming Judas among his leadership. Indeed, for whatever reason (his motivations are never explained), this Black Judas tells the ‘Colonel’ (Belgian actor Jean Servais of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and the Darryl F. Zanuck produced 1962 WWII epic The Longest Day)—a Dutchman hired by the Congolese government to hunt down the revolutionary—the whereabouts of Lalubi and even provides him with a map of the entire area, but he is not awarded with any money in return. When negro Judas refuses to tell the Colonel why he has decided to betray his leader, the military commander becomes so enraged that he states, “this is a country of liars…you lie when you baptize your children.” Of course, Lalubi is soon captured and he does not even bother to resist arrest, but not before the white soldiers kill all the villagers in their area and senselessly burn down their homes. Upon being brought to a local prison, which is really just a makeshift torture chamber that is run by thugs and sadists, Lalubi gives a knowing smirk to a white prisoner named ‘Oreste’ (Franco Citti), who has been arrested for stealing an army truck and selling it to some of Black Jesus’ revolutionary disciples. While Lalubi is a relatively famous and powerful black man, Oreste is quite the opposite as a loser white lumpenprole who dropped out of school at age 9 and has done a variety of degrading jobs, including “rough trade for homos” and “even served mass,” among other things. As two men that are routinely tortured by boorish Belgian thugs and who face the very real prospect of death, Lalubi and Oreste will become extremely close other the next day or so.
Not long after arriving at the prison, Lalubi is sent to the office of the Colonel who attempts to pick the negro revolutionary’s brain to see what makes him tick and to judge the true quality of his character. Lalubi pleads in a discernibly worried fashion, “Let me go, Colonel…I have a feeling that something serious is about to happen to me,” to which the commander replies, “that depends on how you answer my questions." When the Colonel asks the revolutionary to reveal information on his black nationalist comrades, Lalubi denies he has any and explains that he merely gives speeches to people and these people in turn spread these ideas from village to village. In fact, Lalubi goes so far as describing himself as a “pacifist,” adding, “I’m not a man of war and I hate violence.” Lalubi also has no sympathy for the white victims of his political ideas, callously remarking when the Colonel mentions that a group of his disciples tortured, skinned, and killed two of his soldiers, “you can tell their mothers that they died here and not in Belgium,” thus reflecting his belief that not a single cracker should be in Africa. The Colonel is so offended by Lalubi's rather cavalier remark that he responds in an equally ruthless manner by stating, “You mean we should have remained at home? When white men abandon these countries, what happens? I’ll tell you…They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo.” After revealing that he is neither Belgian or French, but an old Dutchman who feels lost, tired, and homesick for his home city of Amsterdam, the Colonel offers to spare Lalubi’s life if he merely signs a document ordering his followers to put down their arms and give up their murderous attempts at revolt, but the pan-African messiah refuses to even read it, let alone sign it. After that, the Colonel gives Lalubi an hour to think it over, or else he will face immediate torture that night and death the next day. Of course, Lalubi has no intention of signing the document and is merely biding his time until he is executed.
While waiting the 60 minutes that will ultimately result in him being tortured at the hands of young sadistic Belgian soldiers whose only form of solace is torturing and killing the negroes that want to torture and kill them, Lalubi gets to know Oreste who, due to his sorry lot in life and lack of education, is essentially a “white nigger” who is not even worthy of kissing the black power advocate’s boots. Needless to say, Oreste is quite taken aback by the fact that another person, especially one who is as famous as Lalubi, would ever want to get to know him. Knowing they are both doomed to an unspeakable fate, Lalubi and Oreste try to make the most of their hour of peace together. At the end of their talk, Oreste somewhat pathetically asks the revolutionary, “say now, when you get important, will you remember me?,” to which Lalubi replies, “I promise you…Oreste…when we get out, we will meet again and we will be a lot happier.” At the end of their talk, Lalubi thanks Oreste with the utmost sincerity for “making that hour go by so quickly.” Of course, after refusing to sign the document when the hour is over, Lalubi is tortured so badly that he can neither walk nor see when the odious ordeal is over. Like J.C., Oreste also has nails driven through his hands. Meanwhile, one of the Belgian soldiers is arrested and put in the jail cell with Oreste, who attempts to make small talk with the new prisoner (Stephen Forsyth), but he acts like a total asshole and says nothing. When broken, beaten, and blind Lalubi is brought back to the cell, Oreste becomes hysterical and tries in vain to comfort his new friend. Hoping to ease Lalubi’s suffering, Oreste calls for a prison guard and offers him ten pornographic photos if he brings him back a mess tin full of oil to treat the revolutionary’s wounds. While Oreste receives the pseudo-medicine, a senseless fight with the seemingly half-deranged soldier prisoner results in the oil being spilled on the floor.
In easily the most subversive and racially-charged segment of Black Jesus, the Colonel has a heated conversation with the puppet leader of the Congo, who is clearly modeled after Belgium-U.S.-backed Congo leader Joseph-Desiré Mobutu that had the real Lumumba liquidated. While the Colonel has second thoughts about having Lalubi executed, the Mobutu character threatens to take away his job while rubbing it in his face that he is now a deracinated man without a nation by remarking regarding his European homeland that it is, “an almost forgotten land…and one that most certainly has forgotten you.” When the Colonel states regarding Lalubi, “Let us make no martyrs…it would be better,” Mobuti remarks that the Christlike leader “has a great deal of charm” but that his people will soon forget him because, “We are not white men. Our people are much more simple and direct. They accept what they see…believe in a man because he is there, not because he was there. Believe me, Colonel, eliminating a black leader is child’s play.” Of course, the Colonel finally gives into Mobuti’s demands when he replies regarding Lalubi’s next day execution, “We ourselves will supply the executioner if that will ease your conscience.” Not surprisingly, the Judas “Uncle Tom” who sold Lalubi out is now one of Mobuti’s aides.
The next morning, the Belgian soldiers put Lalubi, Oreste, and the soldier in a prison truck and drive them to a remote building in ruins. While Oreste pretends that the Belgian soldiers are “nice guys” who mean them no harm, Lalubi has already accepted his death and accepts it stoically. Indeed, Lalubi is marched into the building where he meets a negro with a dagger who drives it into his gut. Seemingly because he is jealous that another black man gets to kill the great black nationalist leader, the main Officer (Pier Paolo Capponi of Francesco Rosi’s classic 1970 WWI flick Uomini conTRO aka Many Wars Ago and Dario Argento’s 1971 giallo The Cat o’ Nine Tails) finishes Lalubi off with a submachine gun. When Oreste hears the gunshot blasts from outside, he manages to escape from the Belgian soldiers after attacking them and runs inside the building where he finds Lalubi’s still warm corpse. Of course, it is only a matter of seconds before the Officer catches up with Oreste and liquidates him. Not satisfied with killing Lalubi and his white cuckold, the Officer also kills the soldier prisoner so there will be no witnesses, even though the unlucky fellow is one of his comrades and racial kinsman. While driving back to the prison, the soldiers spot a young negro and the Officer complains, “damn, another prisoner” and commands the lad to come to him but he runs away. Naturally, the soldiers start firing at the boy, but somewhat inexplicably, he manages to get away in an allegorical scene that seems to reflect that director Zurlini was a tad bit too optimistic in regard to the Congo’s future.
Despite the film’s quasi-Marxist black power message, Black Jesus ultimately depicts a curious character who calls himself a pacifist but whose words of collectivist race-hate and class warfare have resulted in the worst kinds of atrocities, including the skinning and burning of people while still alive, among virtually every other form of ‘cheap’ torture that is accessible in the third world. Unquestionably, the protagonist's greatest sin is lurking from village to village to spread his message while knowing damn well that these villages will be treated with an extermination-based ‘scorched earth’ policy. Additionally, the Dutch Colonel character that has the protagonist captured and sentenced is also treated in a somewhat sympathetic fashion, as he is depicted as a troubled old man who suffers major guilt and tries to spare Lalubi’s life but cannot because he is merely a pawn in the game and a military bureaucrat who really has no power and can only carry out orders from his superiors like any ‘loyal’ military man. Notably, star Woody Strode would go on to describe his role in Black Jesus as the most challenging of his career, which is something that spaghetti western maestro Sergio Leone noticed as he subsequently hired the American actor to star in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). If the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, which Zurlini’s film was supposed to compete in, was not cancelled as a result of the so-called ‘May 1968 events in France’ as carried out by Trotskyites and their fellow far-left allies, Black Jesus might be better known today, which is somewhat ironic considering the political nature of the work. Luckily, despite its somewhat superficial Trotskyite sentiments, Zurlini’s flick actually has heart and does not feel like it was directed by some pedantic commie like Godard but rather a halfway sensible fellow who is, at the very least, more honest and objective than ardent crypto-agitprop hacks in Hollywood. Aside from Zurlini’s film, black Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck directed two films about Patrice Lumumba, including the documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990) and the melodramatic biopic Lumumba (2000) starring Cameroonian-French negro Eriq Ebouaney as the eponymous lead, but, at least artistically speaking, Black Jesus will probably be the film about the martyrdom of the Congolese pan-African leader that will prove to stand the test of time. A film where only two of the characters have names and none of the characters' backgrounds are really ever disclosed, Black Jesus is ultimately a filmic fable featuring archetypes as opposed to a historically faithful biopic, thus giving the film a more timeless quality than some might suspect. Indeed, as far as black nationalist biopics are concerned, while I don't plan to watch Spike Lee's deceptively mythmaking hagiography Malcolm X (1992) ever again unless I'm feeling terribly masochistic or I'm being forced to do so at gunpoint, I would not mind spending some time with Black Jesus in a couple decades from now.