Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Black Like Me: Erased from the Noah Movie

I pay attention to the peopling of the world in the vision filmmakers. I want to know if there are people like me in their worlds, people of African descent, people of color. In Darren Aronofsky’s vision of Noah and his world I do not exist. People like me do not exist. Black, brown and beige people do not exist even though the story is the story of the destruction and re-peopling of the whole Earth. Noah and his family and all of his ancestors and even all the lost, dying, drowning people are white people. Adam and Eve glow with the light of innocence in their white skins. Ham, the ancestor of African peoples – at least according to the biblical text –has white skin and as a little boy, dark blue eyes. And that matters to me as a biblical scholar and seminary professor and, as a person of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the Americas, whose enslavement was justified in part on readings of the Scriptures that emerge from ancient Israel because these texts are also my scriptures.

As an origin story, the story of Noah and his sons and their descendants purports to tell the story of human diversity, many peoples of differing ethnicities descended from a single family, a common ancestor. There is an evolutionary equivalent. However on this planet, the first humans were African, all others derivative. Without other genetic material, the offspring of black and brown people can be lighter than their parents, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Expecting an origin story, even a mythological one, to make some sense and correspond in some way to the world from which it emerges is not confusing scripture with science. While they are not incompatible, they are not the same. As a biblical scholar I want to remind readers and viewers that Genesis is a collection of sacred stories in the larger collection of Israel’s sacred stories including ancestral, origin and cosmological stories. Those texts and their stories were neither scientific methodologies – how to make a world in seven easy days if you don’t define a day as the earth’s 24 hour rotation because they thought the earth was flat and… – nor are they historical archives.

As a seminary professor I ask my students how the text is true. These mythological lifespans do not correspond with what we know about human beings, the archaeological or scientific record. They did not correspond to what the Israelites knew about their flat-earth world either. (The prelude to the Noah story in Genesis chapters 6-9 says that Noah is 500 years old when he fathers his sons. Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.) As origin stories the stories in Genesis preserved the cultural heritage of the people who would become Israelites, heritage that converged with and diverged from other ancient near eastern peoples with their own impossibly long-lived ancestors and their own flood stories.

The movie is an interpretation of the biblical narrative as are all readings, whether on film or not – including those that claim to be literal readings. As such, the movie is a midrash, in the tradition of classical Jewish exegesis. One aspect of midrash is filling in the spaces in the stories. We all do that to some degree. Putting the text on the screen requires filling out the story. Darren Aronofsky’s choices create a new interpretation of the story and that is neither a good nor a bad thing. That is the work of meaning making. And we all do it. For those fixated on the truth of the text, proving or disapproving the existence of Noah, the flood or God, I can’t help you. I’m not arguing either case. Nor, I think, is the movie. (Aronofsky speaks about his vision of the film here.) It is telling a story, a story of Noah, based of the biblical text.

The reduction of truth to literally true or not at all is a contemporary notion, like limiting biblical interpretation to literal readings (except maybe for parables). The truth is the biblical text uses a variety of genres, rhetoric and literary devices to communicate the truths of its messages (plural) through the lenses of its original speakers, writers, editors and those who preserved it. Beyond that, religious readers see the hand of God at work in differing ways. Some understand the text to have been dictated and copied unerringly and find their favorite English translation to be an exact rendering. Others find the hand – better breath – of God at work in each phase of the process including among those who hear, read and interpret as much as with those who spoke, remembered, repeated, recorded and translated.

The truth of the text is not in or limited to its literal reading even on the cases where the text is literally true. As a Christian the paradigm that helps me understand the richness and complexity of the text is the nature of Jesus, human and divine. The text is human and divine. The text is not, cannot be, more divine than Jesus. And like Jesus, the human parts cannot be easily listed as separate and distinct from the divine parts. To say that Jesus’ physical hunger was exclusively human is to reify the old dualism in which the body and all of its processes are somehow lower and lesser than the spirit and its processes. God becoming human, embodied, enfleshed, sanctifies our humanity, including our human bodies.

My black, woman’s body is a human body but it is not represented in Darren Aronofsky’s movie. No one in the whole wide world that he has created is black like me.

My review of the movie’s content in relation to the content of the books of Genesis and Enoch is available here.

14 Responses

  1. avatar
    June Green

    I hear you my Sister! I thought about “how” this movie would depict Blacks as well, now we know. No people of color in this movie, it won’t get my dollars!

    28 March 2014 at 8:10 pm

    • avatar
      Rev. Gerald P.McCullar

      Hollywood is all white and all money, what do you expect from a people that are insensitive to the plight of all people!

      29 March 2014 at 2:29 pm

  2. Thank you for writing this

    29 March 2014 at 8:08 am

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  4. OK, let’s be (allegedly) historically accurate. Three ways to play this:

    1) All of Noah’s family are portrayed by black actors. Two problems with this: (a) Immediately, this is perceived as a Tyler Perry production, and white people stay away in droves. (b) Portraying a Bible-era family as all black falls into the demeaning, condescending Hollywood meme of “allowing” black people to be religious. It is perhaps one of the most racist practices in film/TV, as the tacit message is that, hopefully one day, black people will “evolve” like the rest of us already have, and no longer need the “crutch” of religion.

    2) Noah’s family is portrayed by a racially-diverse cast. Even those who are not looking for a politically-correct conspiracy under every rock are going to roll their eyes. Because this will look like another pandering to crowbar every demographic into a story, regardless of its relevance. This may not have been the motivation, but that’s how it would come across.

    3) Only the actor portraying Ham is black. Outside of those who know historical specificity, to anyone (of any race) to whom race is an important issue, this would be quite distracting. I am reminded of friends of mine who are in a “mixed-race” marriage — he’s white and she is black. Three of their four children are black. Their four-year-old white son said one day, “Mama, what happened to me?” Not everyone has the lack of understanding of a four-year-old. But if race is fairly important to them, then they’ll miss a lot of the story because they’ll be wondering (at least in the back of their minds), “Mama, what happened to Ham?”

    So which of these scenarios do you find more palatable than how the movie was actually cast?

    29 March 2014 at 2:57 pm

    • There’s a fourth option: Portray Noah’s family not black or white, but brown. That would fit the look of Arabs, Persians, Sephardic Jews and others who actually live in the Middle East.

      1 April 2014 at 1:45 pm

  5. I’d go with:

    casting agent does not segregate out non-white people and “Noah’s family is portrayed by a racially-diverse cast.”

    Are you thinking more people will eye-roll over being PC than segregationist? Well… depends where you live. Does you city have any stained glass portrayals of Jesus as non-white? If not, you might want to get out a bit more, you’re missing a whole lot of Jesus!

    29 March 2014 at 4:47 pm

  6. What about the other three kids that look at the movie and say “Mama, what happened to Great, Great Grandma and Grandpa?”

    29 March 2014 at 4:50 pm

  7. On the other hand, God had to wipe out an all-white, horribly evil world… hmmm… I can see a couple sequels…

    29 March 2014 at 4:52 pm

    • So you’ll go with #2, but feel the necessity to preface that statement with an omniscient pot-shot at the motives of someone you don’t know (the casting director)? Is “cyberGRACE” supposed to be ironic?

      As to your other paragraph, I don’t *think* that more will eye-roll over seeming PC than over seeming segregation; I *know* it. The vast majority of the movie-going public thinks that even Jesus was a white man, so 99% of the people (through ignorance, if nothing else) will see no segregation.

      Your “stained-glass” comments actually bolster this statement. You are arguing from a perspective of actual knowledge about biblical history. That you would in any way expect the creators of this movie to mirror that is bemusing.

      30 March 2014 at 4:35 am

      • Sounds good. .but your so genetically incorrect. Im sorry but writing black out of history is a fact. There were no whites in Ethiopia or Egypt 5k years ago..just like there were no whites in America 600 years ago..Geneticly speaking. .if noah and everyone in the beginning was white. . Then where do blacks come from? It’s genetically impossible for blacks to come from whites. .

        30 March 2014 at 11:23 am

        • avatar
          Wil

          You’re arguing my point but seem to have missed that it is my point. I have no idea what you mean by “writing black out of history is a fact.” You are partially correct. Neither Ethiopians nor Egyptians were white in antiquity by our standards – those categories didn’t exist in theirs. However individual Europeans did travel to West Asia, North and East Africa so there may have been the occasional European in the region, but your broader point is taken.

          30 March 2014 at 11:32 am

  8. avatar
    Dr. Saxon

    I am more concerned about the psychological impact that a white Jesus Has on the young brother in the hood. Is the effemenite Jesus palitable to the thugged out brother listening to jay z or kanye? Sociologically what are white film makers trying to suggeast by the postulation of these inaccuraces.
    it is the affirmation of young white boys, and the isolation of young black boys. I wouldnt waste a dime on the flick. My dignity and self respect wouldnt alow me too.

    31 March 2014 at 1:52 pm

  9. Why is it that everyone weather factual or fictional is always played by white actors, even superman who is from another planet, Thor, batman, aquaman, hulk, Jesus, Noah and so on and so forth. It seems to me that somebody has a gods complex and are doing everything within there power to hide the truth… I can go on and on but I!m sure you all get the picture…

    1 April 2014 at 5:07 am

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