Does race matter in ‘The Bible’? Actor Lonyo Engele weighs in

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Lonyo Engele in History Channel's 'The Bible.'

Lonyo Engele in History Channel's 'The Bible.'

“The first surprise television hit of 2013 came in the form of God’s wrath, spectacle, and divine intervention, but not necessarily his cultural legacy.”

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s reenactment of The Bible for the History Channel raised the spirits of 13.1 million viewers in its debut, and held onto that momentum throughout its 10-hour progression to rank as the top cable entertainment telecast year to date. It regularly beat out the popular AMC show The Walking Dead, with the exception of finale week, and for once, “bible” was trending on Twitter.

Generally, the miniseries was met by applause from all audiences, yet the cast proved a fairly stereotypical interpretation of the Christian faith in terms of racial diversity. The main characters of Jesus Christ, Abraham, Moses, and Noah were all portrayed as white men, while the most prominent black character was the supernatural figure of Samson. Critics also ignited a fiery debate as to whether Satan was made to look like President Obama.

Was The Bible TV series diverse enough?

Actor Lonyo Engele, who plays the Guardian Angel in the first episode, doesn’t take issue with the casting however. He believes the miniseries serves as a vision and renewal of faith, and that, regardless, it’s a story that transcends race.

“When I read the Bible, it isn’t in color, I’m reading the stories and trying to get knowledge out of it,” the 39-year-old actor from London tells theGrio. “I’ve seen some productions of the Bible stories where Judas is black, for example. Do I get angry, and go ‘Why does it have to be a black guy that portrays Judas, who betrays Jesus?’ I don’t get caught up in that…I might be living in an idealistic cocoon here, but no. I’m trying to get the source of the story without wondering about the race of the apostles.”

Religious scholars and devotees have often pondered racial diversity in the Bible given most of it takes place in the Middle East where neither white nor black skin is predominate.

While many characters in the miniseries fell into common mold, there were also unique composites sprinkled throughout the narrative. One of the three kings was black, as was Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry the cross. The interracial marriage of Samson and Delilah provided a different angle on the storyline, and the multiracial duo of angels, including Engele, who appeared to Abraham and assisted in the destruction of Sodom, allowed God’s most elite to be people of color.

There is room for interpretation in The Bible

As Engele suggests, there is room for interpretation, and countless derivatives of the tale.

“If you were telling the Bible story or I was telling the Bible story, and we had that budget we would make it the way we perceive it,” he says. “We might make Jesus [Asian] for example. There are people of color who are in it, or I should say different ethnic orientations…I think people have told the story through their own eyes. I think they’re allowed to see it through their own eyes. I’m not mad there are not more black characters or Asian characters.”

Furthermore, the actor suggests that many epic drama series on TV today may not display a diverse cast because they serve as a model of reality. Though he agrees depiction of the black experience has been limited, he also points out that shows should stay true to the environment in which they are placed.