Son of Man: An Updated Gospel Story of Jesus Set in South Africa by Michele Stopera Freyhauf
January 12, 2012
Son of Man is an updated story of the life of Jesus set in the fictional State of Judea that is modern day South Africa – complete with warlords and child soldiers. It could easily be mistaken for modern day Rwanda or Darfur with its modern issues and political overtones. Roger Ebert stated, “The secret of the movie is that it doesn’t strain to draw parallels with current world events – because it doesn’t have to.” The director draws parallels between the gospels and 21st century Africa. According to Dartford-May, “we wanted to look at the Gospels as if they were written by spin doctors and to strip that away and look at the truth.” The director “captures the rhythms of African life in both rural settings and sprawling townships.” “Feather-clad young angels offer an eerie echo and reminder of Africa’s lost generations.”
The movie also sticks with what Eric Snider calls “Traditional African trial music, dance, and costumes” as a type of worship or or allusion to Jesus’ godhood. Judea is in flux; warlords and corruption take center stage. Poverty, violence, and oppression affect the all of the people. The key idea is that Jesus is a freedom fighter – one that fights injustice and oppression. The director does not emphasize “Jesus’ divinity so much as his leadership, good sense and compassion.” Jesus is not violent and his followers, most of whom were former child soldiers, are encouraged to respond non-violently, which goes against their upbringing and training.
According to Roger Moore, Jesus “speaks Xhosa and teaches his followers not just the basics – tolerance, forgiveness – - but also fairness, as well as decrying drug companies that price their wares out of the reach of those they could save.” The one particular scene that really emulates the character of Jesus effectively is when Jesus is talking to his followers. He is using language that brings the beatitudes to mind, however this version is updated to address present day issues, which include the aforementioned drug companies as well as the oppression of people by other nations. It calls evil by its rightful label. In fact his statements that “address political violence and ‘protectionism’” are relevant today. In fact, you could assume that he stands with the current Occupy movement and the 99% who are affected by corporate greed as well as hegemonic control and corruption.
Mary’s character is also interesting. She demonstrates strength, courage, perseverance, and fortitude. She is a witness to the army’s execution of school children at the beginning of the movie. She also teaches Jesus how to look at injustice directly “in the eye.”
Snider further elaborated that “Africa is depicted as being caught between traditionalism and modernism” and as the “news of Jesus’ miracles spread through video footage as well as via colourful murals that the villages paint on the wall.” The apostles’ cast in this movie are all-inclusive – they are both men and women. We view this movie at times as an onlooker and other times through the lens of the video camera of Judas – the video footage that documents the actions of Jesus in order to prove his guilt and threat to the warlords. It was through this video footage that brought Jesus to the attention of the warlords, and led to his death.
Arrested Jesus disappears and privately executed. His death does not occur on a cross after public trial and condemnation but through a torturous and brutal killing alone in the dark of the night, with his body dumped in a shallow grave. This type of execution was a façade – treated as if the victim voluntary disappeared forever.
Mary leads the search for her son and brings public awareness to those that have also “disappeared” in the night. Women posted photographs all over the city to prove his existence. Ultimately Mary finds her son’s body in a shallow grave. In a statement against the oppressive warlords, she hangs his body on a cross in the public square for all to see that he did not disappeared but rather was brutally executed. This public display was also to demonstrate that others who disappeared probably did not do so voluntarily and met the same fate. It showed the oppressive and violent actions of the warlords against the under privileged. This movie uses crucifixion and death in a way that is entirely different, but in a way that is just as effective as the biblical story. While the crucifixion in the gospel is demeaning and de-humanizing, the Son of Man uses it as a statement of evidence and humanizing of the oppressed. It was also a statement of visibility and evidence to the people.
This film does not rely on one particular gospel story. All four can be recognized throughout the movie, however they have been updated to capture Africa:
- The moments portrayed start at the visitation of the angel to Mary to deliver the news of her pregnancy which relies on Luke 1:26-35, but the visitation happens in a school filled with the bodies of murdered children.
- Jesus is not born in a manger, like in Luke 2:6-8, but an old abandoned warehouse.
- The warlord ordered the death of newborn boys, and unlike Matthew 2:13-16, there is no flight to Egypt.
- The story of stoning the Prostitute is updated. She is about to be killed because “promiscuity spreads disease.”
- After the prostitute is saved, she is seen pawning her jewelry to buy expensive oils that are used to wash Jesus’ feet. (Matthew 26:6-13).
- The miracle story of lowering the cripple through the roof is revised to show a mother and either a sister, friend, or aunt, carrying a child to be healed by Jesus. Carrying the child across the tin rooftops and watching them reach their destination to find that miracle was incredible (Mark 2:1-12).
- The exorcism story portrayed in Matthew 8:16 shows the family and especially the father, gathered around a little girl’s bedside. The exorcism is performed by Jesus and documented on film.
- Peter’s denial was also included. Though carried out differently, as he was trying to hide, it was certainly recognizable (John 18:14-16, 24-26).
- When the occupying general washing of his hands, when Jesus finally agreeing to the arrest and “disappearance” of Jesus, I found this to be documented in an interesting way. It was a “gotcha” type moment in that when you saw it, you knew what was going to happen, even without the aid of subtitles (Matthew 27:23-25).
I believe that this was a brilliant film and theologically correct. In fact, the reliance on the information in the gospels and its portrayal is probably the most historically accurate of all of the Jesus films I have watched thus far. Portraying Jesus as political, standing up for the poor and the oppressed, is on target. The great strength, passion, and deep love that Mary shows is also correct. The additional qualities attached to her character, I believe, were also part of her character. The apostles and followers of Jesus did not discriminate – he included both men and women as disciples, which is also an accurate interpretation.
While the setting of this film is recognizable to the viewer of the twenty-first century, the themes of oppression and corruption become evident and tangible. This tangibility makes this interpretation profound. It is not confrontational, but meaningful in its approach. It addresses real modern day problems and the producer’s message is one that stands up to political oppression without violence, but with one unified voice.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf: Feminist scholar, activist, and has her Master of Arts degree from John Carroll. She is now a graduate student at the University of Akron in the Department of History focusing on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality. Michele is the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS) and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia.” Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and her website can be accessed here.