by Benjamin Sawyer

Who would have imagined a series on the life of Jesus Christ, watched via a free app, would have a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes? Well, The Chosen now has that perfect rating and is being touted by secular and religious critics for its portrayal of the life of Jesus – as seen mostly through the eyes of his disciples and other characters mentioned in the New Testament Bible. Even those who dislike religion are conceding that the series features high-quality production, good acting and directing, a smartly-planned plotline and narrative arc, as well as well-done costumes and backdrops.

For capitalists, The Chosen is also a kind of miracle. This pro-Christian “Bible TV showis the greatest story ever told in crowd-funding, after raising over US$13 million through what the show creators called, “equity crowdfunding.” The idea proposed was an offer of one share per dollar invested…with an end goal of issuing 13.9 million shares. Anyone buying a share is restricted from selling it but becomes partial owners of the show “in perpetuity.” The Chosen is distributed by ‘Angel Studios’ an entertainment company you may have heard of as it allows those with “family values” issues to seamlessly skip “inappropriate” scenes in shows available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Roku, and others.

The production team also promised that they would be paid only if and when stockholders made a minimum of 120 percent on their investments. This all sounds like a difficult sales pitch, but it evidently was not. At least US$13 million was raised and the show is now available – for free – as an app. Producers and crowdfunding investors of The Chosen are hoping for (or perhaps “praying for” is a better term) eventual profits through the sale of broadcast and streaming licenses as well as via VOD and DVD sales. It’s probably too early to say with confidence that there will be profits, but it’s probably fair to say that the investors who went into this did so without serious expectations of making riches on earth. Most are likely Christians who watched the trailers and samples provided and decided to contribute to a worthy project that’s in line with their beliefs; with the possibility of profits a secondary concern. 

As most people are aware, Christians make up a significant number of the population of many countries around the planet. What exactly each self-professed Christian believes and how devotedly they believe it is, of course, impossible to know, but the sheer number of Christians means there is a market. Unfortunately, a good chunk of recent Christian movies (and too much Christian music, for that matter) has been, to put it bluntly, less than inspirational. Back in Hollywood’s golden age, we were treated to epic productions such as Cecil D. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or The Robe (1953) starring Richard Burton. Then in the seventies, there was Franco Zeffirelli’s extremely well-done miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. All of those mentioned are considered masterpieces by many. But from the 1990s on into the early 2000s, most Christian offerings were too cheesy for all but the most strait-laced or suffered from low production values.

It appears that as of 2019, however, both Hollywood and Christian filmmakers have finally come around to understanding that quality programming about the Christian faith or Christian figures is possible, and can be a good investment. If you missed the 2020 American historical drama miniseries The Good Lord Bird, based on a 2013 novel of the same name by James McBride, you really missed something. Ethan Hawke stars in and helped produce this incredible series that ran in October 2020 on Showtime. The Good Lord Bird is the tale of abolitionist John Brown, a fire-and-brimstone committed Christian – or religious nut job depending on your perspective – who took the idea of the Wrath of God quite literally.

John Brown believed slavery was an atrocity, and he took it upon himself to end it. His approach was violent. He and his army of the Lord killed slave owners and eventually participated in a famous 1859 raid on an Army depot in West Virginia. Known in history books as the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Brown believed that if he could demonstrate that it was possible to revolt, slaves everywhere would join his militia, which would then rid America of the curse of human bondage. Ethan Hawke as John Brown is an incredible thing to watch. He does not tamper down Brown’s zealot-like religiosity, but neither does he turn Brown into a stereotype or a messiah. We get a portrayal of an earnest, flawed human; who, unlike most in that age, was willing to sacrifice himself and his family for his truth.   

It’s not giving away the ending to note that John Brown was unsuccessful. He was hanged shortly after the failed raid. But Brown died at the age of 59 on December 2nd, 1859. Just five years later, of course, the Civil War arrived, which eventually ended the institution of slavery across the United States. John Brown’s prediction that America could not cleanse the sin of centuries of slavery without bloodshed proved more than accurate, with the Civil War becoming the bloodiest conflict in American history.

The seven episodes of The Good Lord Brown – which earned a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes – were produced by secular individuals but both believers and non-believers can watch the series and derive entertainment, historical knowledge, and new perspectives. The acting is superb, the costumes and set pieces are flawless. Everything from the accents to the uniforms is perfectly rendered, a credit to the producers and cast. The Chosen, while being produced by evidently devout individuals, has chosen to take a similar route. There is no skimping on costumes or set pieces and the dialogue doesn’t stray into cliches or sermons.

With the right teams and mentalities in place, perhaps the next decade will see many more historical-style religious-based or themed movies or miniseries.  Perhaps other faiths will try their hand at the genre as well. A well-produced epic about Siddhattha Gotama – better known as the Buddha – for example, or perhaps the story Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion? The Chosen has blazed a pathway and it’ll be interesting to see what follows. 


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