(The Root) — On March 3 the History Channel is launching a 10-part miniseries filled with the drama, action, tragedy and triumph that make for compelling television. The characters are complex, the locales are exotic and vast and the time period is the distant past. Yet it's a narrative that has resonated with people for millennia.
The series is The Bible, an undertaking that was three and a half years in the making and spans from Genesis to Revelations. Husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have high hopes for the impact their program will have on viewers.
Burnett is no stranger to popular television. As the producer of reality hits like Survivor, The Voice and The Apprentice, he's helped changed the paradigm of prime-time viewing, in which costly scripted shows had been the norm. And Downey is no stranger to biblical television fare. She starred as the angel Monica on the long-running series Touched by an Angel.
She admits, though, that bringing the Bible to television was an ambitious plan. "Mark at first thought I was crazy, [but in time] it became clear to us that it was something we wanted to do together, to tell the story of love and the redemptive power of God." However, she stresses, don't expect the typical donkey-and-sandals movie of your grandmother's era. "We tell these stories from a human point of view, showing people from the past who were struggling with some of the same things that we struggle through [today]," Downey told The Root. "We tried to give insight into these characters in a way that the audience can relate to them."
That includes showing a greater degree of diversity than ever existed in Hollywood classics such as The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. She and Burnett tapped a global cast of actors, including black actors Lonyo Engele, who plays the Guardian Angel; Nonso Anozie, who plays Samson; Sharon Duncan Brewster, who plays Samson's mother; and Patrice Naiambana as Balthazar. Actor Keith David serves as the series narrator.
The more inclusive casting impressed the Rev. Charles Jenkins of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, who got an early glimpse of some clips from the series.
"I appreciated the diversity I saw. Some people could think it's too much, and some people could think it's not enough," he told The Root. "The good news is [the series creators] were mindful of it, and I have a great appreciation for that."
Another way Burnett and Downey made The Bible relevant for today's viewers was to employ the team of CGI artists responsible for the realism seen in the movie Gladiator. The team's interpretations of the burning bush, Moses parting the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho falling and Jesus walking on water look nothing short of, well, miraculous. "We're in a visual age, and CGI is a great tool. It brings the stories to life in a different way," said Downey, who plays the role of Jesus' mother, Mary, in the miniseries.
"I think it's so important to do something that's visual now. We're in such a quick-visual age," he told The Root. "Not many people read the Bible now, and there are so many great stories and parables that you can apply to your daily life. If we can get some of these into our immediate viewership, we can make a difference."
Downey and Burnett didn't focus solely on presenting a miniseries that looked good. To ensure that it accurately reflected the Bible, the couple consulted more than 40 biblical scholars and religious leaders to advise on the production, including Pastor Rick Warren, who is preaching the virtues of the miniseries to his flock. Others who have given their vocal support to the project include Maya Angelou, Downey's Touched by an Angel co-star Della Reese and Bishop T.D. Jakes.
"We haven't seen a mainstream TV depiction of this magnitude since Charlton Heston and The Ten Commandments — especially on TV with this quality level," Jakes told The Root. "I think programming should be a reflection of what influences us as a society — art, politics, everything. Faith has a place in the conversation."
Reese, who shares a strong spiritual connection with Downey, feels that the miniseries will have a major effect on both believers and nonbelievers alike.
"Those who don't believe will hate it because it's so real, it will be hard to argue about," Reese told The Root. "Believers will investigate and start seeing it as a reality. It will give them an understanding that will open the door to a relationship with God."
The Bible airs starting March 3 on the History Channel and will air each Sunday through Easter on March 31.
Julia Chance is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist and the author of Sisterfriends: Portraits of Sisterly Love. Genetta M. Adams is a contributing editor for The Root.
Genetta M. Adams is deputy editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.