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God's Entourage

How private faith is going public among the African American elite of Hollywood

October 22, 2006|Amber Nasrulla | Amber Nasrulla has written for Los Angeles magazine, Toronto Life and Elle Canada.

Last january, in the parking lot of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Robi Reed had a moment that propelled her career toward evangelism.

After the Sunday service, Reed, a veteran casting director whose credits include "Antwone Fisher" and "Malcolm X," walked up to fellow churchgoer Denzel Washington and asked after his family. The longtime friends exchanged pleasantries until Reed casually mentioned her latest project. "I'm producing and casting an audio Bible with an African American cast. It's the Old and New Testaments."

Reed remembers that Washington interrupted her, saying, "I have to do it." The Oscar-winning actor didn't talk about lawyers, money, agents or publicists.

"I was trying to be very cool as he said to call his assistant with all the particulars," recalls Reed, a slender woman with waist-length twists. Then she got into her blue BMW, exhaled, screamed a couple of times and began praising the Lord again and again. "I just knew it was the start of something big."

Washington was the first A-list star of more than 200 celebrities--including Samuel L. Jackson as God, Angela Bassett as Esther, Blair Underwood as Jesus and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Judas--who have lent their voices and acting talents to "Inspired By . . . The Bible Experience," a fully dramatized and scored, 70-hour, audio recording of the Holy Scriptures. The New Testament edition hit stores earlier this month. Washington reads the Songs of Solomon with his wife, Pauletta, for the Old Testament edition, which will be available digitally as early as next year. Why would megastars publicly associate themselves with religion, I wondered? What could they get out of it? The answers revealed something surprising and refreshing about that godless den of iniquity known as Hollywood.

If you look in the right places, it's not hard to find God here. The celebrity press tends to focus on Madonna's involvement with kabbalah or Tom Cruise's commitment to Scientology, but often overlooks more mainstream professions of faith. And lately, that faith has begun to flower most remarkably among Hollywood's Christian African Americans.

Tyler Perry is a modern pioneer of touring black musicals. His plays and films blend comedy with gospel music and romance with Christian values. Perry's recent, hugely popular Madea films, including "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," occupy a niche of the church market. Then there's Underwood's charming tome, "Before I Got Here: The Wondrous Things We Hear When We Listen to the Souls of Our Children," in which the "Sex and the City" and "L.A. Law" star examines the "soulful wisdom" of kids. This fall, Haitian actor and producer Jean Claude LaMarre directs and stars in a low-budget feature film "Color of the Cross," shot in the hills of Santa Clarita. LaMarre, who also appeared in the faith-based film "Pastor Jones," plays a black Jesus Christ.

Last fall, showman-turned-spiritualist Joseph "Reverend Run" Simmons launched his MTV reality show, "Run's House." (In the 1980s, Simmons and his hip-hop group, Run-DMC, were a hit on MTV after blending rap with rock in the song "Walk This Way," with Aerosmith.) "Run's House" is a wholesome, profanity-bleeped series that chronicles Simmons' daily trials to raise his five children. Even though most viewers have little in common with Rev. Run (the man drives a $330,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom), the series is a hit. "The show is like my pulpit," he says of his shamelessly materialistic brand of Christianity. "I want to help the world get into spirituality and lead people to Christ."

Robi Reed's primary collaborators on the audio Bible project, all of whom describe themselves as loyal Christians, had worked on religion-based productions before. They include Grammy-winning music producer Louis "Buster" Brown, new media executive Ron Belk and veteran TV and film producer Kyle Bowser. Brown recognized in his colleagues a familiar impulse. "The Bible in our culture has been more than just the word of God. It's been our hope through slavery. It's been our hope through civil rights," Brown says. "It became our mission to make sure it became relevant to this generation."

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