Artists through the ages have depicted Jesus in different ways, according to their culture and audience.  The new film, 'Color of the Cross,' shows Jesus as black. African-American filmmaker Jean-Claude La Marre offers a new way of viewing the Christian story.

With the success of the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood discovered an enthusiastic audience for religious films.  The latest is a life a Christ that shows Jesus and some of the people around him portrayed by African-American actors.  The rest of the cast is Caucasian or Middle Eastern.

ANNOUNCER:  "This fall, one film will ask, What color is faith?"

Director and actor Jean-Claude La Marre says the film has no political message.

"When you mention Black Jesus to anyone, the first thing that pops to mind, I guess, is something radical and a lightning rod for controversy," he said.  "And so we knew we weren't going to get any real warm reception at the studio, on the studio level.  But you know, there are a lot of people out there who support the notion."

Some of that support came from a prominent black minister in Los Angeles, the Reverend Cecil Murray.  He has credit as a producer on the film, which was independently made without studio backing.

La Marre says he is trying to do what artists have always done, present his subject to viewers in a way they can understand it.

"I think da Vinci in the 1400s did something that I found very commendable, and that is that he took a revered figure and made that figure accessible to the people that lived around him," he added.  "And that is what we chose to do."

La Marre began his career in Hollywood as an actor.  He had a supporting role in the 1992 feature Malcolm X, the story of an African-American activist of the 1950s and 1960s.

Then he turned his hand to writing and directing.  Among his recent projects was last year's Brothers in Arms, a film starring David Carradine.

In his current film, the accomplished actress Debbi Morgan portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus.  La Marre plays the title role, a circumstance that came about by accident.  He says he lost his leading actor just before the filming started.

"We sent an emergency casting call out and we had a couple of takers, but no one we felt really strongly about," he recalled.  "And then I thought about it.   You know, I lived with this movie in my mind and my soul for four years, and I'm an actor.   And the guy I was looking to cast looked like me.  Jump into it.  And that's what I did."

The film was made for just $2.5 million, which is minuscule by the standards of Hollywood.  The director says he is confident, however, that it will find an audience, especially among evangelical Christians.

"I think evangelicals are going to seek this film out, if only out of curiosity," he noted.  "I think black people are just a natural target audience for this, and will naturally gravitate towards this picture."

He says despite the racial theme of Jesus as a black man, the film focuses on the message of brotherhood.  He says Color of the Cross is a film about unity, not division.