Does Race Matter in ‘The Bible’? Actor Lonyo Engele Weighs In

by | April 4, 2013 at 2:21 PM | The Walking Dead

Lonyo Engele (Photo: theGrio.com)

By Courtney Garcia, theGrio.com (Article originally published on theGrio.com.)

“The first surprise television hit of 2013 came in the form of God’s wrath, spectacle, and divine intervention, but not necessarily his cultural legacy.”

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s reenactment of “The Bible“ for the History Channel raised the spirits of 13.1 million viewers in its debut, and held onto that momentum throughout its 10-hour progression to rank as the top cable entertainment telecast year to date. It regularly beat out the popular AMC show “The Walking Dead,” with the exception of finale week, and for once, “bible” was trending on Twitter.

Generally, the miniseries was met by applause from all audiences, yet the cast proved a fairly stereotypical interpretation of the Christian faith in terms of racial diversity. The main characters of Jesus Christ, Abraham, Moses, and Noah were all portrayed as white men, while the most prominent black character was the supernatural figure of Samson. Critics also ignited a fiery debate as to whether Satan was made to look like President Obama.

Was “The Bible” TV series diverse enough?
Actor Lonyo Engele, who plays the Guardian Angel in the first episode, doesn’t take issue with the casting however. He believes the miniseries serves as a vision and renewal of faith, and that, regardless, it’s a story that transcends race.

“When I read the Bible, it isn’t in color, I’m reading the stories and trying to get knowledge out of it,” the 39-year-old actor from London tells theGrio. “I’ve seen some productions of the Bible stories where Judas is black, for example. Do I get angry, and go ‘Why does it have to be a black guy that portrays Judas, who betrays Jesus?’ I don’t get caught up in that… I might be living in an idealistic cocoon here, but no. I’m trying to get the source of the story without wondering about the race of the apostles.”

Religious scholars and devotees have often pondered racial diversity in the Bible given most of it takes place in the Middle East where neither white nor black skin is predominate.

While many characters in the miniseries fell into common mold, there were also unique composites sprinkled throughout the narrative. One of the three kings was black, as was Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry the cross. The interracial marriage of Samson and Delilah provided a different angle on the storyline, and the multiracial duo of angels, including Engele, who appeared to Abraham and assisted in the destruction of Sodom, allowed God’s most elite to be people of color.

There is room for interpretation in “The Bible”
As Engele suggests, there is room for interpretation, and countless derivatives of the tale.

“If you were telling the Bible story or I was telling the Bible story, and we had that budget we would make it the way we perceive it,” he says. “We might make Jesus [Asian] for example. There are people of color who are in it, or I should say different ethnic orientations… I think people have told the story through their own eyes. I think they’re allowed to see it through their own eyes. I’m not mad there are not more black characters or Asian characters.”

Furthermore, the actor suggests that many epic drama series on TV today may not display a diverse cast because they serve as a model of reality. Though he agrees depiction of the black experience has been limited, he also points out that shows should stay true to the environment in which they are placed.

“Ultimately you’ve got to make your television realistic to your audience,” Engele remarks. “In America, there are black judges, black lawyers, and black commissioners as well as other races. Over here in Britain, it’s not prominent. So therefore, it’s gonna be hard for a black actor to play the head of the police, for example. Your documentaries, your movies, your shows, they have to be relative to your real life. It might be unrealistic to put somebody in that wouldn’t usually be there.”

How Lonyo Engele got his role in “The Bible”
As far as “The Bible’s” casting goes, Engele initially auditioned for the role of Balthazar, one of the Three Kings, but was turned down and later offered the Guardian Angel. Quite ironically, Engele’s back is covered with tattoos of archangels, something he says the producers noticed his first day on the set.

“They were so sold on the idea it was meant to be,” he recalls. “I do believe in Heaven and I do believe in the idea of trying to do good. I just wanted to have angels on my side to protect me, if that makes me feel better and doesn’t offend anyone… Ultimately it helped that I believed in God to play the role. I believe the Guardian Angel is a messenger of God.”

Engele’s own foray into Hollywood comes across as quite miraculous. He happened into the game one day after soccer practice when he dropped his friend off at an audition. A casting director approached him while he waited in the car, and suggested he come inside and read for the role too. Incidentally, he nailed it with no experience whatsoever.

“I go into the audition and they say, ‘Give us some emotion and read us the lines,’” Engele remembers. “I’m thinking what can I think of that will evoke that much emotion straightaway, and the only thing I could think of was my football team losing. I’m a big Liverpool fan. So I start getting upset, tears start coming to my eyes.”

By chance, he was offered the starring role in the independent film “David is Dying,” and went onto to win a “Best Actor” Award at the 2011 American Black Film Festival, and the Screen Nation “Best Actor” Award in London his first go around. Now he’s got an agent, a publicist, and his eyes set on the States as he spends his time diligently studying the craft. He’s also waiting on his DVD of “The Bible” to come in the mail, as it hasn’t premiered yet in the U.K.

For all this and the spontaneity of chance, Engele describes his life as “blessed.”