On Race and Exodus: Gods and Kings
A few days ago, Variety ran an interview with Ridley Scott, about his new film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott seems like a decent enough guy and a good artist – after all, he did direct sci-fi classics Blade Runner and Alien.
His new film is basically The Prince of Egypt, but with less singing and less Val Kilmer, and more explosions and dark, broody white guys. Exodus didn’t really hit my radar – I don’t particularly care for dark, gritty epics (you can blame all of the dark, gritty epic blockbusters of the last few years) – until I saw the casting information, the Variety profile, and then the trailer before The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. (Which was great by the way.)
But when I did, I was not impressed. There are a few reasons, that all hinge on the issue of Hollywood and race.
Firstly, the lead actors in this film are intensely white. We’ve got Jesse Pinkman, Bruce Wayne, Ellen Ripley and Luke Skywalker’s uncle (which would be a pretty interesting crossover) as Joshua, Moses, Tuya and Ramesses.
Secondly (and worse), not only are the lead actors white, but they actually did deign to include non-white actors. As bad guys and servants.
There is no racial coding here! What do you mean, Hollywood perpetuates a white saviour ideology and frames ethnic minorities as lower class?
NB: A very quick note on Egyptians and ethnicity. Firstly, while the ethnicities of ancient Egyptians is a hotly debated topic, there is no question that Egypt is in Africa, and thus there would have been well, African people living in Egypt.
Secondly, Egypt was also a melting pot. As a hugely successful empire as well as a very convenient location for North Africans, Europeans and Middle Eastern people, it’s not surprising that there were a lot of people of different races in the Egyptian empire. Egypt was home to Nubians, Canaanites, the Hyksos (a Middle Eastern people) and Libyans.
Thirdly, plenty of ancient Egyptian art portrays their own people as black and brown. You can find some great sources here at Medieval POC, an art history blog with a focus on people of colour in medieval art. They also thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans as very pale, which shows that the majority of the peoples there were quite dark.
And finally, the concept of race is a fairly recent one, and one propagated by racist science to elevate white people as inherently superior from the rest of the human race, and justify various racist structures. The ancient Egyptians would have been relatively unencumbered by racial stereotypes associated with blackness in the Anglosphere today.
But hey, let’s just call Exodus a film about fictional events that doesn’t need to worry about any kind of racial issues. Let’s pretend that race doesn’t actually matter, and that this film exists in a vacuum devoid of any kind of racial implications.
Back to the interview with Variety. They talk about a lot of things, but here’s a choice quote, with bolding for emphasis.
Like most high-profile religious pictures since Martin Scorsese’s 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Exodus” became the subject of intense media scrutiny before Scott had ever exposed a frame of (digital) film on stages at London’s Pinewood Studios and on location in Spain. Much of the outcry online stemmed from his decision to cast white American, European and Australian actors in most of the key roles, no matter that the same could be said of “The Passion of the Christ,” “Noah,” “The Ten Commandments” and virtually any other big-budget Bible movies. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Firstly: rude. And patronising. Yeah, Mohammad is a pretty common name, but I don’t say stuff like, “Yeah, Prometheus was directed by some white director, probably John McWhitey so-and-so,” because I’m civilised. It’s hugely reductive to reduce an entire race (more than one, really) to “Mohammad so-and-so”.
Secondly, don’t tell Ridley Scott about Morgan Freeman, Jesse Williams, Will Smith, Idris Elba, Giancarlo Esposito, Jamie Foxx, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, Terry Crews, Don Cheadle, Denzel Washington, Isaiah Mustafa (the Old Spice guy!), Chiwetel Ejiofor or Lenny Kravitz.
Not to mention Salma Hayek, Jerry Seinfeld (really), Alia Shawkat, Tony Shalhoub or Paula Abdul.
No one cares about you, Idris so-and-so, Denzel so-and-so or Tony so-and-so. Go back to doing your blockbuster movies or dumb TV shows or whatever you do when you’re not getting cast in Ridley Scott’s films.
His reasoning is not only downright offensive, but you know, not very good. And really, if you feel as if you’re incapable of directing a film with non-white actors as leads…maybe you shouldn’t be directing a film set in, uh, Africa.
What’s almost as offensive is that Variety apparently didn’t bat an eyelid at Scott burbling on about Mohammed so-and-so, but do take the time to deflect criticism from Scott, noting: well, other movies white-wash Biblical figures, why don’t you have a go at them instead? Because of course, there was no reaction to Noah‘s pretty white cast.
The problem is that it’s not just that moviegoers will be seeing Christian Bale in yet another film, but that this film will be yet another in which black and brown actors are purposely overlooked in favour of their white counterparts. The problem is that this film purposely erases the histories and contributions of people of colour and contributes to ignorance: the type where people honestly think that Egypt is not part of Africa, or that white people are the only people that actually existed before American slavery, or that white people are the only people capable of contributing to history and science.
I’ll just leave you here with the wise words of Rupert Murdoch. Because apparently when it suits you, Middle Eastern people are white, but when you need to demonise them, they’re terrorists.
Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) November 29, 2014
Everybody-attacks last tweet. Of course Egyptians are Middle Eastern, but far from black. They treated blacks as slaves. — Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) November 29, 2014
Note: I’m neither black nor Egyptian, so I defer judgement to excellent writers such as David Dennis, Jr.