Anne Baxter, Charlton Heston, church, Diahann Carroll, Easter Baskets, Humor, Jelly beans, Jesus Christ, Julia, Julia TV Show, Mel Brooks, Museum of Bible History, Nubians, Oatmeal, Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner
One of my most vivid family memories is Easter night…digging deep in the plastic grass of my homemade basket (the bottom half of a Quaker Oats box with a construction paper handle attached by staple), mining for the black jelly beans entwined among the boiled eggs and marshmallow peeps (that felt linty and always gave me hic-cups). The black jelly beans were not to eat, but to chew until soft enough to enough to mold over our front teeth to pretend we were from Kentucky.
After dinner we’d gather at the TV – some combination of the five of us kids, an aunt or uncle sibling of Mother, whatever houseguest was living with us, Mother AND Dad – and watch “The Ten Commandments.” THE Ten Commandments. Sure, it was a church movie – a BIBLE movie. And we were stuck in the living room with all these old people (whom I today realize were younger than I am now), and the rest of the year you couldn’t pay me to hang with. But each Easter night, “The Ten Commandments” was a family event.
Bond. Family Bond.
Easter Weekend was always full of Bible movies – “Jesus of Nazareth,” “King of Kings;” you know, movies about Jesus whose-resurrection-was-the-reason-for-Easter but not really compatible with Kentucky jelly beans – and over time we’d catch a scene or two. But viewing those movies was neither purposeful nor an event. They were just on.
In a way, those Bible films – like “The Greatest Story Ever Told” — seemed like “Ten Commandment” imitations. They were made in the ‘60s, boasted casts of 1000s with big-name cameos, and were humorless. There was no Pharoah or Dathan to make fun of. Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sydow were no Yul Brynner or Edward G. Robinson. M’yeah, see. Jesus always seemed dulled, ethereal and moved in slow motion. There was no action. The color always seemed faded – which was odd since we never saw “The Ten Commandments” in color until I was 17. (My color sensation was, I discovered later in our basement, because somebody had seen the movie when it came out in the theater in the 1950s and had brought home a hardcover souvenir booklet.)
The life of “The Ten Commandments” was its action. Its significance was family bonding.
We’ll Be Right Back
Now, honestly, I didn’t care much for Bible movies then, or the Bible. Sunday school was where I collected Bible comic books to take home to show Mom; to prove I’d been to church, whether I’d gone or not. (Our variation of trading Sunday School money for candy that predated Stevie Wonder’s memory in “I Wish.”) However, the annual “The Ten Commandments” network showing bonded us across generations in a way I only understood later. Our ever-boisterous family willingly became silent once the film started, speaking again only during commercials – as if someone had turned on the volume in the house. While Mother did the hostess food check, Dad recounted the Biblical accuracy of the film, and we kids madly dashed for the Easter baskets and the bathroom, fighting for who got the seat first. Because when the announcers said, ” ‘The Ten Commandments” will be back in a minute,” they actually meant 60 seconds.
Someone – usually Mother – would reconvene us shouting, “It’s back on!” commencing a mad dash back to the living room whereupon we became muted statues until the next commercial.
Over time, we knew sections so well, speaking dialogue without knowing, or, for extra emphasis, really shush a grownup when a favorite line was coming – “Where’s your Messiah, now?!,” “So let it be written, so let it be done!,” and collectively, “Look, grandfather, Nubians!”
Colored Folk on TV
In that moment, we not only embraced unity and laughter, but ethnic pride. In the mid-1960s, “Look, Grandfather, Nubians,” elevated “The Ten Commandments” into the upper echelon of Negro must-see-TV…like waiting for Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis to show up on “Ed Sullivan,” or “Julia” (yes, Bill Cosby broke barriers for his breakthrough co-star role on “I Spy,” but Cosby was a star, Diahann Carroll was THE star).
Yes, it was cheesy (what 1950s epic wasn’t?), and like most of the films, as Dad would point out, not biblically accurate. But having been made in the ‘50s when overt positive references to colored folks was rare, this “Ten Commandment” moment was validated. We were in the Scriptures. Nevermind that the movie Nubians could also be interpreted to symbolize that blacks were slaves even back in Bible times; this brief, shining moment said to us that there were more black folks in the Bible than the sexually provocative Queen of Sheba and the Ethiopian eunuch who met the apostle Phillip after the Resurrection. This was a notable message in the midst of the Malcolm X “white man’s religion” rhetoric. DeMille’s Nubians seemed much more sincere than Sidney Poitier’s cross-carrying cameo in “The Greatest Story…” (though equally as brief). The image took on new significance when I later came across the teachings of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose original Afro-centric sermons were to encourage African-Americans to embrace Christianity because many Bible people were indeed Negroid — as in born on the African continent — including Moses.
When the movie was done, Moses had made a clear impression upon Mother, but Negritude had nothing to it. Mother’s Moses was purely Charlton Heston of whom she’d speak with an excitement we’d never hear her speak about of any man, including Dad. Dad, meanwhile, immediately turned the movie into an extended Bible school – sort of compensating for all those times I’d spent skipping Sunday school and trading for the comic book. Mother’s reverence for Heston was alternately confusing and amusing because I could never figure out why, if she liked him so much, she never said his name right. I’d often catch myself yelling at her (in my head, lest this story not be written), “His name is CHARL-TON, not Charles-ton! Charleston is a dance!” I relented, however, recognizing that any parents who named their kid Charlton and any actor who didn’t change in the era of Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter deserved to have his name mispronounced.
The sensual and ethnic impact of “The Ten Commandments” was not relegated to my clan. This, I discovered when I met my wife-to-be. Sometime during our dating phase, probably entrenched in an environment (as often occurs) where we thought we were The Only black folk around, we saw another couple of color and simultaneously exclaimed, “Look, grandfather! Nubians!” Our betrothal was sealed.
During this same time frame, when we happened to catch “The Ten Commandments” on TV (“happened to catch” because it had long-since stopped being an annual event, a victim of the times and ubiquitous DVD on-demand), my betrothed invoked Mother’s sensual observations of the film, impersonating Anne Baxter’s elongated and throaty utterance, “Moses,” said as if the first consonant was in response to devouring chocolate. (Since my first initial is the same letter, our destiny was set.) Must-see Anne Baxter TV
Commandments: The Next Generation
The film has also played a significant role in the development of my own family, merging my wife’s nomadic army-brat North Carolinian roots with my Indiana seed to create our own baby in the wilderness. When our daughter was a new-bein’, freely walking in diapers, wearing a onesy t-shirt, just learning to speak, and easily malleable – when she would do anything I said because I’m Dad, instead of doing nothing I say for the same reason – she would occasionally get her head caught in the onesy when removing it. When she did, the shirt covered all of her head except her ears which protruded a little like Dumbo, but more like Pharoah. I could not resist the impulse to for a Yul Brynner English lesson.
“Camille,” said I in my best 33 1/3 accent, “say, ‘Go from me, Moses.’ “
Her voice deepened. “Go from me, Moseth.”
“Now, put your hand right here,” I said, placing one fist on a hip. “Do your finger like this. Now say, ‘So let it be written…’ “
Somewhere along the line my wife caught me, reprimanded me. “She is not a toy,” I was told. Not a toy, but a mimic was born.
Not long ago, recounting to Vikki some of the above familial revelations, she excitedly revealed one of those after-all-these-years little known family secrets that prove that no matter how long you’re married, a wife always has some surprise that puts a whole lot of behavior in perspective.
“I love ‘The Ten Commandments’,” she said. “It was the one night a year we got to stay up late on a school night. It wasn’t a school night, but it was because we had to go to school the next day, but we always got to stay up ‘til it went off after midnight (11 Central).”
We haven’t seen “The Ten Commandments” as an event in years, and I haven’t checked the schedule to see if it’s on Easter weekend. I may pull out the DVD to watch with my Nubian princesses, though I think the impact may be lost on my daughter and her cousins. Such is the fate of overcoming.
I have a different appreciation and reason for watching Biblical films these days, and there’s a double feature I’ll pull out Easter weekend to keep the life of Christ in perspective – “The Nativity” and “The Passion of the Christ.” And even though I realize “The Ten Commandments” isn’t about Easter per se, but the Passover, I can’t help but be thankful to the folks who decided years ago to put it on the annual Sunday night schedule because “The Ten Commandments” unified my family and helped me discover myself.
So let this be written. So let this be done.
(Originally published April 7, 2009)
New Commandments I Leave You…
Not long ago, Vikki, Camille and I had got a college break vacation getaway. Yes, #TheChildPerson has fast-forwarded to 20, developed her own unique fashion-sense which has, for some reason, eschewed the Yul Brynner Do-Rag; but still enjoys family outings.
This one took us to Washington, D.C., where one of the stops was the new Museum of Bible History. Occasionally we wound up in separate exhibits. As museums go, it’s a fairly quiet place and, as you can imagine, it has plenty of reflective artifacts. Sacred artifacts. The kind that cause you to whisper. Maybe shhhush! people.
Wise curators also recognize the attention span of Generation Digital and therefore include a swath of contemporary media for young visitors. We got separated, and wanted to set a rendezvous point. #TheChildPerson texted she and Mom were at the music exhibit: a listening and video room featuring popular songs based on Scripture. I meandered toward them from the Science and the Bible exhibit, but froze in my tracks hearing a familiar voice from an exhibit across the hall. It was the sound of a film clip from the Bible in the Movies exhibit. Choose, Michael: Curtain No. 1, or Curtain No. 2.
I headed for Curtain No. 1, stunned that in the Museum of Bible History I would encounter the voice of Mel Brooks. Yet, going behind the curtain, there was Mel Brooks — in the Bible museum — offering in his full homage to “Charleston” Heston. Click on the pic:
#SDG #Shalom #AndAmen (3/3/2018)