His name was Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode and he was a football star, a professional wrestler, a WWII veteran and a famous Hollywood character actor who should have become a star. But the closest Woody Strode ever got to playing the leading role in an American film was Sergeant Rutledge (1960), in which he portrayed the title character but was fourth billed after Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Tower and Billie Burke. In an ironic twist that makes sense in a Pre-Civil Rights Hollywood, Strode had to travel to Italy to finally receive top billing and the only genuine leading role of his career in Black Jesus (1968) aka Seated at his Right (the Italian title is Seduto alla sua Destra). It is probably one of his least known films but easily his biggest role and possibly his best performance.
The 22nd chapter of Woody Strode’s autobiography, Goal Dust, is entitled Bene, Grazie, Italia and opens with “Well, thank you Italy. I’ve spent a lot of time over there, and made a lot of Italian pictures. The first was Seduto alla sua Destra; Seated at his Right [aka] Black Jesus. From there I went to C’era una volta il West; Once Upon a Time in the West. After that, the Italians just beat a path to my door carryin’ a big bag full of money. I ended up living in Rome from 1969 through 1971, and in all that time, I never learned to speak Italian. But they made a star out of me, and for that I’ll always be grateful. For me, Italy was the promised land.”
Timing is everything and Strode was born too early to enjoy the sort of leading man career that Jim Brown or Fred Williamson enjoyed thanks to his prior trail blazing. If Strode had been born twenty years later (in 1934 instead of 1914), his chances of being a major movie star would have been better and a probable reality. He certainly could have given Charles Bronson a run for his money as a top international action hero during the late sixties and early seventies and was certainly Bronson’s box office rival in Europe.
It’s harder to make a case for Strode as an acclaimed actor simply because he wasn’t given the opportunities in the white dominated, color conscious Hollywood film industry to prove himself. There’s no question of his magnificence as an imposing and memorable screen presence. He’s dynamic and moving in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and one of the iconic images from that film as well as an essential ensemble member of The Professionals (1966) and the cast of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). He also proved in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge that he was more than capable of handling a leading role but, strangely enough, it was his last shot at a major role in U.S. films.
After appearing as the character Chaka in several episodes of the TV series Tarzan (1966-1968), Strode left for Italy and his first film there was Black Jesus (1968), an Italian-French co-production directed by Valerio Zurlini, an internationally acclaimed screenwriter/filmmaker who is better known in Europe than here, despite numerous film festival awards for such films as Girl With a Suitcase (1961), Family Portrait (1962), The Camp Followers (1965) and The Desert of the Tartars (1976).
Based on the capture, torture and execution of Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo in 1960, Black Jesus fulfills Strode’s promise as an actor in Sergeant Rutledge and places him front and center in a harrowing drama. Zurlini’s film is presented as a fiction but is actually a thinly disguised reenactment of actual events that were manipulated to their political advantage by the U.S. and Belgium. Strode plays Maurice Lalubi, a Congo rebel leader who has gone into hiding after a military dictatorship takes control of his country (which is never identified in the movie).
The parallels between the final days of Lalubi and Christ are more than obvious and often heavy-handed in Zurlini’s depiction of a man of high ideals who refuses to compromise his beliefs, even when it means his certain death. Yet, Strode embodies this character completely, bringing him to life and giving the film a much needed moral center that provides a buffer against the violence, corruption and political oppression on display.
Once Lalubi is betrayed by a former follower (a symbolic stand-in for Judas), he is captured and imprisoned in a cell with two other prisoners, a petty thief named Oreste (Franco Citti, a veteran of several Pier Paolo Pasolini films) and an unnamed cellmate (Stephen Forsyth of Mario Bava’s Hatchet for a Honeymoon). The majority of the film takes place in this claustrophobic setting with Strode’s outwardly calm, dignified demeanor achieving a state of grace that befits a martyr. Black Jesus is also that rare film that gives Strode more dialogue scenes than possibly any other movie of his career and proves he had the makings of a great thespian.
According to Strode in his autobiography, ‘Seated at his Right is a biblical reference to Christ when he said to the priest Caiaphas, “Hereafter, shall you see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming into the clouds of heaven.” Originally, the film was supposed to be a forty-minute segment of a five-part film called Rage in Love, but Zurlini must have found some extra passion for the story because he blew it up into a full-length feature. It became Italy’s official entry at the Cannes Film Festival.’
Woody Strode fans who are accustomed to seeing him play formidable men of action in Once Upon a Time in the West or The Professionals or The Italian Connection will see a different Strode on display in Black Jesus. It’s at the other extreme of escapist fare. As grim and unrelenting in its attack on dictatorships and torture as Costa-Gavras’ The Confession (1970), Black Jesus might not be a fun night at the movies but it is an admirable attempt to make both a political allegory and an art film.
It is not entirely successful. The movie doesn’t provide you with any background on the oppressed or the oppressors so you are thrown into the film without any understanding of the complex political situation depicted. There is also little subtlety in the presentation of Lalubi’s enemies who, with the exception of Jean Servais’ interrogating commander, are all cruel, murderous brutes. Zurlini’s attempt to demonize the type of government officials and despots who collaborate in the murder of peaceful, non-violent leaders like Lalubi ends on a final note of cynicism and despair with no ray of hope. Perhaps Zurlini meant for the film to be incendiary, to provoke rage and controversy. Yet, despite the movie’s flaws, Black Jesus remains a tense, riveting drama if you are open to the experience and can stand the sight of Strode being tortured with nails driven into each finger. The idea alone is bad enough – and even though the torture scenes are not visually explicit or exploitive – the sound effects of Strode screaming in pain will tear your heart out and curl your hair.
“The violence is unbelievable,” Strode later commented in his autobiography. “Zurlini was trying to show the total devotion to violence of the men who were torturing me, and the horrors of a dictator-style government. For a good third of the film I anguish in pain, and that was probably my most difficult performance ever. The courtroom scene in Sergeant Rutledge was probably my most emotional scene, but Seated at his Right had the most sustained emotion. And Zurlini was a good director; he got everything out of me.”
As you can imagine, Black Jesus was not an easy sell to film distributors who knew the market for this movie was limited at best. The film would hold no appeal for audiences who liked Charles Bronson or Jim Brown action films and it wasn’t quite prestigious enough to garner glowing reviews from high profile critics. Even though Black Jesus was made before Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968, it didn’t get picked up for U.S. distribution until 1971. Not surprisingly, it only played a few major cities and one of the few reviews it received from Howard Thompson of The New York Times was negative. He wrote, “The film is a shadow play, hardly a movie at all…The picture is stark, studied and slow as a snail…The direction of Valerio Zurlini is so deliberately careful and overly detailed, much of it meaningless, that the film gets downright tedious.”
Thompson, however, did compliment Strode, writing “…Strode, with his keen, lidded eyes and strong, gaunt face, does a perfectly respectable job of portraying an imprisoned, tortured and executed visionary leader in an African country. His gentle spirit of nonviolence and agonized endurance under pressure are painfully real.” Black Jesus also provides a fascinating contrast to Strode’s early years of paying his dues in thankless roles (The Lion Hunters, Tarzan’s Fight for Life) and his later years as a greatly admired character actor.
My own favorite memory of Strode is of seeing him at the 1981 Telluride Film Festival. with his soon-to-be second wife Tina (his first wife Luana died in 1980). There he was, bigger than life, mingling with fans and movie-goers, and loving every minute of it, especially the night they showed Sergeant Rutledge in Elks Park with Woody in attendance.
For Woody Strode fans interested in seeing Black Jesus, there is only one option, the English-language version from Eclectric Cinema which was released on DVD in February 2002. Although presented in letterbox format, the aspect ratio is not correct and the print is in fair condition at best with faded colors and night scenes that are particularly hard to see. There are no accompanying liner notes, audio commentary or information on the film. There are, however, extra features that have absolutely no thematic connection to Black Jesus and had me wondering, “What were they thinking?” as I scanned the bonus material: the 1933 Our Gang episode The Kid from Borneo (!!), Count Basie and his orchestra in the 1945 music short Basie’s Boogie, and an episode of the 1950s Buck Rogers sci-fi TV show. Prior to its release on DVD, Black Jesus had first been available on VHS under the title Super Brother, which sounds like a martial arts blaxploitation film. This is a film that is solely in need of a restoration.
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