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
Quarantine need not mean isolation. Isolation need not mean idleness. Recent days of solitude bring fresh thoughts to essays written a while ago. The films of yore bring smiles at dawn. And so, a rerun of a rerun twice written. (4/9/20)
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 full of Bible movies – “Jesus of Nazareth,” “King of Kings;” (featuring Jeffrey Hunter, the original Star Trek Captain Pike, in a grander life-saving role as the Messiah). The films are about Jesus whose-Resurrection-was-the-reason-for-Easter but not really compatible with Kentucky jelly beans. Viewing those movies was neither purposeful nor an event. They were just on. We may glimpse a scene or two.
In a way, those Bible films – like “The Greatest Story Ever Told” — seemed like “Ten Commandments” 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 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 Black
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, “Nubians, Grandfather!”
Colored Folk on TV
In that moment, we not only embraced unity and laughter, but ethnic pride. In the mid-1960s, “Nubians, Grandfather!” 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 validated us. We were in the Scriptures.
This brief, shining moment said to us that there were more black folks in the Bible than the sexually provocative Queen of Sheba who beguiled Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch who met the apostle Phillip after the Resurrection. This message was notable in the midst of the Malcolm X rhetoric taking root that Christianity was “the white man’s religion.” 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.