The Black Christ documentary film tells the story of a courageous Cape Town artist, Ronald Harrison. In 1962, at the age of 22, Harrison created an imposing 2.2 by 1.3 metre oil painting depicting Christ as a black man, using the likeness of ANC leader at the time, Chief Albert Luthuli. Harrison portrayed the two Roman centurions crucifying Christ with the features of apartheid Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd and his Minister of Police, B.J Vorster.
The painting was Harrison’s way of expressing his abhorrence of the apartheid regime and served as his key contribution to the political struggle for liberation and democracy. Harrison’s non-violent means of protest was most effective – it registered the political contestation in South Africa through religious metaphor, which invigorated the South African liberation struggle by highlighting the contradiction imbued in the notion of a racist Christian state to the rest of the world.
The painting brought international shame to the apartheid leaders and did more to further illegitimate oppressive apartheid policies. It was considered an affront primarily to the conservative white ruling class and the Afrikaner Christian community, and was declared blasphemous on religious grounds and subversive on political grounds. Yet the Black Christ painting forces us to acknowledge the political significance of appropriating art as a weapon of defiance and as a tool in the struggle against injustice.
The film was created to commemorate Ronald Harrison, but it also pays tribute to all South African artists of his time who used their talents and their impeccable sense of social justice to resist, subvert and undermine the racist and religious ideological premises of apartheid.