Politics & Policy

Exodus and Its White Stars

Christian Bale as Moses (left) and Joel Edgerton as Ramses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings
The usual suspects are up in arms, but what, really, are the issues here?

Ridley Scott’s new blockbuster, Exodus: Gods and Kings, depicting the story of Moses, is a $140 million production being released in U.S. theaters this month.

The cast features Christian Bale as Moses, Aaron Paul as Joshua, Joel Edgerton as Ramses II, and Sigourney Weaver as Tuya.

One Welshman, one Australian, and two Americans — all of whom are white.

You probably already know where this is going.

Controversy began brewing this summer, with critics attacking the film’s alleged “whitewashing” of “African” history. Tariq Nasheed, who produced the documentary series Hidden Colors, accused the film of redefining history, noting: “The storyline takes place in ancient Africa, but all the African Kings and Gods are portrayed by white actors and all the slaves, thieves and ‘lower class’ Egyptians are played by Black actors. When I saw they have Sigourney Weaver playing an African queen, I was done.” Some on Twitter encouraged a boycott of the film, under the hashtag #BoycottExodusMovie. The controversy kicked into high gear again during Thanksgiving weekend, when Rupert Murdoch posted tweets defending the casting (Exodus was produced by Fox).

There is no denying that, for a film depicting ancient Egyptians and Hebrews, Exodus features a very white — and even “WASP” — main cast. Heck, you could plop those actors straight into a film on the Battle of Hastings — on Harold’s side, no less. No argument here.

But . . . so what?

To be clear, I am certainly sensitive to concerns over the racial makeup of casts. When the filmmakers behind the upcoming Pan promised an international, multiracial version — and then instead cast an array of blue-eyed white Americans and Brits, including Rooney Mara as the Native American Tiger Lily — I sternly criticized the change in course. As such, I do not defend the Exodus casting lightly. And, sure, the all-white cast of The Ten Commandments is irrelevant, as racial politics in Hollywood have (thankfully) largely changed from what they were in 1956.

But does the Exodus controversy have any rational basis, or is this just the politically correct outrage of the Bored and the Trivial run amok yet again? A three-prong test I employ on political correctness may be of use here.

First prong: Does the outrage have any basis in actual fact?

Does Exodus actually whitewash history? 

Let’s skip the regurgitation of countless research papers and cut to the chase: No one knows for sure what “race” ancient Egyptians were (much less with the arbitrary racial categories we employ today). It is a topic of immense, ongoing controversy. Even fascinating National Geographic recreations of King Tut’s face lead to competing accusations of “They made his features too Anglo!” or “They made his skin too dark!”

The ancient Egyptians might have been Caucasian, black, Asian, or even a mix of all of these.

Some African-Americans have certainly staked a claim to the ancient Egyptians, a move largely originating in the Afrocentric movement. Who among us hasn’t heard Al Sharpton’s infamous “White folks was in caves while we was building empires! . . . We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it!” And who among us hasn’t scratched his or her head in bewilderment, muttering: “Hm, not sure ancient Egyptians and West Africans of the 18th and 19th centuries were the same people, Al . . . .”

Similarly, when Angelina Jolie was considered for the role of Cleopatra, some in the black community blasted the idea, with one Essence writer protesting: “Another White Actress to Play Cleopatra? Honestly, I don’t care how full Angelina Jolie’s lips are, how many African children she adopts, or how bronzed her skin will become for the film, I firmly believe this role should have gone to a Black woman.” In fact, whatever ancient Egyptians looked like, Liz Taylor — or Jolie — playing the role would not be as historically inaccurate as this writer assumes: Cleopatra was not Egyptian but Greek.

At least one anthropologist has weighed in directly on the controversy this week, however. A commenter on Deadline.com, identifying herself as Helene Hagan, posted this:

I am a North African anthropologist and have researched the origins of ancient Egyptian civilization (published book in 2000 “The Shining Ones: Etymological Essay on the Amazigh Roots of Ancient Egyptian Civilization”). Since 2000, two remarkable scholars have come up with similar findings: Early Egypt was peopled by a white North African Amazigh (Berber) population. . . . All the Afrocentrist writings that have tried to revise the history of that region and attributed the ancient Egyptian civilization to black-skinned people are fantasies, not based on accurate facts. Therefore, to accurately portray people at the time of Exodus, you cannot resort to Arab actors (Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula invaded Egypt in the 7th century AD, centuries after the time of Exodus), even though they are white, and you cannot portray the bulk of the Egyptian population as black-skinned. There were a few black people mainly in the armed forces, and as servants, brought back from conquest of regions like Nubia, in the south of Egypt. Nothing wrong with the casting of this movie.

Christian Bale defended his taking the role on similar grounds, telling Entertainment Tonight: “[W]hat does an Egyptian look like? Especially at that time when this was the empire, so it would be a crossroads of Europe and the Middle East and Africa, and he [Ridley Scott] cast accordingly.”

#page#Moses and Ramses are not alone in this racial tug-of-war. Depictions of Christ are also the subject of such arguments, perhaps best memorialized in the classic “Black Jesus” episode of Good Times.

Meanwhile, the controversy seems to neglect one big consideration: the economics of filmmaking. Scott, for his part, has explained that he could not have cast unknowns in such a large production: “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. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

Can anyone argue against this? What Scott is saying is, “Sure, ethnically diverse leads would probably be nice — but I need big names for a picture this size.” Those big names tend to be, predominantly, white actors, largely because Hollywood is based in an English-speaking nation whose thespian imports tend to hail from the U.K., Australia, or Canada; and, even more important, because the U.S., which is roughly 70 percent white, is still the key movie audience. Moviegoers vote with their ticket purchases — and they have chosen to make stars of many white actors.

And in fact, aside from the leads, the other characters in Exodus form an impressive array of colors and nationalities, including Turks, Israelis, Spaniards, Italians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Indians, and Iranians. Critics have charged that this only underscores the film’s insensitivity (the rulers are white while lower-tiered individuals are dark), but why such a cynical interpretation? While Scott’s hands were tied by the need to cast known, bankable stars in the leads, at least the remainder of the cast reflects an impressive level of diversity.

Second prong: Should race even be an issue? 

Should the race of the actor bear any significance? In recent years, the idea of color-blind casting has made significant headway. A black Hamlet? Sounds good! Jennifer Lopez in a non-Latina role? Done! The idea that the actor — who is merely interpreting material — should have to physically resemble the character is almost juvenile. Ironically, however, when color-blind casting results in casting four known stars, and those stars happen to be white, some of the same people who make the race-is-irrelevant-in-acting assertion are quick to make race relevant.

Commenting on the controversy, Bale also questioned whether skin tone should preclude him from a role: I don’t know the fact that I was born in Wales and suffer with this skin that can’t deal with the sun should dictate that Ridley should say, ‘In that case, he’s not the right man to play the role.’ I did the best that I can. I’m certainly not going to pass it up. It’s a hell of a role.” Should Bale have been passed over for Moses because his skin did not match the appropriate Cover Girl–foundation shade?

Third, deliberate attempts at racially accurate casting are always a bit of a hit or miss — more often a ridiculous miss. When filming Scarface, director Brian De Palma reportedly had layers of dark makeup applied to Al Pacino’s face for the role of Cuban refugee Tony Montana — this, despite the fact that many Latinos are as fair-skinned as Pacino, and often fairer. Similarly, in Anne of the Thousand Days, Catherine of Aragon (who, in real life, had pale skin, red hair, and blue eyes) was played by a Mediterranean brunette, while Anne Boleyn (who had olive skin, black hair, and dark eyes) was played by a fair-skinned Canadian.

Some attempts are successful and applauded, though — Mel Gibson’s sensitivity and efforts at historical accuracy in The Passion of the Christ led to his casting a Romanian Jewish actress as Mary, and even digitally darkening Jim Caviezel’s blue eyes.

Worth noting, the same studio behind Exodus, Fox, cast the terrific up-and-comer Michael B. Jordan, who is black, to play the role of Torch in its upcoming Fantastic Four, even though Torch is Caucasian in the comic books. Those seeking to lead a boycott of Exodus would only hurt the same studio that has taken the trouble to insert diversity into an upcoming hit.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the story of Moses and Ramses is a Biblical tale with resonance for Jews and Christians worldwide. Should painstaking measures be taken to reflect the politically correct understanding of ancient Egyptians’ physical appearance, or was Scott right to try to convey this immensely emotional story with the best thespians available to him, who, as it turns out this time around, are white?

Third prong: Is there a double standard at play?

Yes. For all the outrage over the film’s alleged whitewashing, nary a word is spoken by the same crowd over the whitewashing — indeed, the outright erasing — of Latinos.

Can you name a black historical or literary figure who has been changed into a white person come film time? Probably not. But it has happened to Latinos on countless occasions: e.g., A Beautiful Mind, where Jennifer Connelly was cast as John Nash’s Salvadoran wife, and not a single mention of her Latina ethnicity is included; or Drive, where Irene — the main love interest — was a Latina in the novel, but Carey Mulligan was cast in the film and the character’s ethnicity was brushed under the rug. For additional examples of Hollywood erasing Latinos, see here.

In the wake of Ferguson, Americans have greater racial issues at hand than whether a film set in ancient Egypt has enough black or other ethnic actors. And, considering that the film’s theme is one of unimaginable struggle against oppression, the irony inherent in complaining about such trivial nonsense should be as clear as black and white.

— A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.

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