'Color of the Cross' is first film in Hollywood history to add race to crucifixion account

Nearly two years removed from full-time ministry at Los Angeles' First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray hasn't spent his retirement in idleness.

After 27 years of making headlines as the senior pastor of one of the most influential African American congregations in the country, Murray, who retired from the pulpit in September 2004, is certain to be earning a few more this fall with the release of "Color of the Cross," a film he's co-produced about the last 48 hours of Christ's life.

Its content is sure to raise eyebrows in Christian circles nationwide as the film becomes the first dramatic offering in Hollywood history ever to depict Christ as a black man. It goes even further by injecting race as a possible factor in the crucifixion of Christ. According to advance materials, the film "places racial issues front and center in this growing religious discourse that is sure to become an additional topic for debate."

"I think that people will welcome this as a fresh perspective, especially as well-researched as this story is," Murray, who contributed to the script's writing, said in a news release.

The production, which Murray called long overdue, is described as an independent, biblically charged religious biopic.

"When you see the black man on the cross, you are immediately reminiscent of the 1960s… Our film hopes to heal those wounds," said producer Kenneth Halsband.

The independently financed Nu-Life Entertainment film is scheduled for release this fall. It was written and directed by lead actor Jean Claude LaMarre, and stars Debbi Morgan ("Coach Carter," "Woman Thou Art Loosed") as Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In addition to Murray and Halsband, the production team also includes Jessie Levostre, Lila Aviv, Paul Noe, Marc Porterfield, Michele Gonda and Marcello Thedford.

During his tenure at FAME, Murray guided the congregation's growth to 18,000 members. The church and its leader also played a key role in helping to restore order to the community after the 1992 riots.