Seduto alla sua destra / Black Jesus (1968, Italy)

Black Jesus - Woody Strode as Maurice Lalubi

That this follows on from my review of Strange Cargo (1940) is pure coincidence, I can assure you, but the two films’ themes are eerily similar.

I’d read about the central character in this film, Maurice Lalubi (Woody Strode), being loosely based on the first post-colonial Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Or, to be completely honest, I had thought that Black Jesus was the story of Patrice Lumumba, and had guessed that the English title arose from the people of the Congo elevating him to a Jesus-like status after his execution in 1961. It’s much the same story with the Italian title, which translates as ‘seated at his right’ (a reference to Christ in Ephesians 1:20, for example). What I hadn’t expected, for some reason, were the Christian references so heavily linking the martyred Lalubi-Lumumba hero to Christ that he is essentially portrayed as an embodiment of Christ.

The film starts with the charismatic Lalubi addressing villagers at underground meetings and then going into hiding, and the colonial armed forces razing whole villages while trying to hunt him down. Ultimately Lalubi is betrayed, is captured without resistance, and is taken to prison – where he is promptly delivered to its Commander, a Dutch Colonel (Jean Servais). The two men’s alternative views about colonisation are quickly laid out. “And civilisation, Lalubi,” says the Colonel cordially, “…when white men abandon these countries, what happens? I’ll tell you. They shed enough blood to overflow the rivers of the Congo.” “If Africa is like that, Colonel,” Lalubi replies, “either you never taught us anything, or it would have been better if you hadn’t.”

It is a largely amicable first meeting, with Lalubi giving glimpses of a God-like prescience. Ultimately, the Colonel invites the avowed pacifist to sign a document calling upon his followers to lay their weapons down… and declaring those who disobey to be fighting against him. Lalubi refuses. He is given an hour to reconsider his position and is placed in a cell with a talkative, worldly thief, Oreste (Franco Citti). Lalubi needs the distraction; he is terrified of the torture that he knows is coming, and like Jesus predicts that his end is not far away: “I shan’t leave this place, except to go to my death,” he calmly tells Oreste.

He is right to be afraid. When the authorities come back for him, he is brutally tortured. As opposed to gently tortured. They drive nails through his hands (did I say that the Christian symbolism was on the heavy side?), and his screams reverberate around the whole jail. In perhaps the strongest scenes of the film, we witness the silent reactions to his suffering: of the restless Oreste, of the Colonel (who has authorised the torture but is uncomfortably reminded of Lalubi’s earlier reference to his two boys “who… admire you”, and visibly starts to question the admirableness of his actions), and the Belgian and Congolese soldiers, some of whom are unmoved, and some who shift uneasily at each howl.

Lalubi is returned to the cell half dead. Oreste barters with a guard for some oil and dresses his wounds. But on the instructions from an African leader (modelled presumably on Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who led a coup d’état against Lumumba and finished up ruling Zaire for more than 40 years), Lalubi is taken from the prison on the pretext of being moved to another jail, and en route is summarily executed – stabbed by his initial betrayer. “Now we’ll see if you’re really invulnerable,” the man says to Lalubi as he drives the knife in – not only reminiscent of the soldiers taunting Christ on the cross and challenging him to save himself, but also mimicking Lalubi’s ‘invulnerable’ followers who “march singing against machine guns”.

Lalubi is what you might imagine Jesus to be like: measured, wise, stoic, humanly afraid, unchanging under attack from the evil forces still sympathetic to the Belgian colonial rule. One cannot of course fail to appreciate that Jesus, too, was executed under foreign rule.

There is plenty of prison time in this film; the bulk of the action takes place in a prison… yet it is not a prison film. It might be a Lumumba film, or an anti-colonial rule film, or a Jesus-dropped-into-a-modern-setting film. The prison scenes are basic; a cell, a squad of torturers, torture. The Christian allegory, and the Colonel’s Pilate-like doubts, are less simple.

Is it a Jesus-like Congolese martyr in prison, or Jesus as a Congolese martyr in prison?  It probably doesn’t matter.  But it’s an interesting, challenging exercise.

Black Jesus #2 - Woody Strode as Maurice Lalubi and Jean Servias as the Commander Black Jesus #3 - Franco Citti as Oreste Black Jesus #4 - Woody Strode as Maurice Lalubi being gently persuaded

Posted on February 28th, 2017 at 8:59 pm. Updated on February 28th, 2017 at 8:59 pm.

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