Magazine | December 21, 2015, Issue

Apropos Appropriation

If there’s one thing American moviegoers want to see in their campy computer-generated Hollywood blockbusters, it’s ethnically authentic actors.

Or so I imagine. Because of an unhealthy obsession with the ancient world, I was genuinely excited about the prospect of a new schlocky film called “Gods of Egypt.” I was excited, before I learned that the director and producers of the movie had been forced to apologize to the public for casting mostly Caucasian actors in the roles of Egyptian deities.

The apology was offered after condemnations came from minority groups as well as some of the world’s foremost Egyptologists, such as the actress/singer Bette Midler, who was especially distraught about the inauthentic skin pigmentation of the actors pretending to be gods. “Egyptians, in history and today, have NEVER been white. BRING BACK GEOGRAPHY!! It’s Africa!” tweeted Midler, who knows a thing or two about stretching the limits of plausibility, having played both the Virgin Mary and a doctor.

Not that it really matters, but there has been a long-running debate among scholars about the skin color of ancient Egyptians. Some researchers have argued that the people of ancient northern Africa weren’t necessarily much browner than the Scottish star of Gods of Egypt, Gerard Butler. Modern Arabs have approximately as much to do with ancient Egyptians as the Germanic and African-American actors who star in this movie have to do with superheroes who never really existed.

Understanding this might require cracking open a history book, but preening about “cultural appropriation” is far more rewarding. In the fertile imagination of some, plutocrats are plotting to hijack antiquity by casting famous white actors as Ramses II in their poorly reviewed films. Thus “Hollywood whitewashing” is now a thing, and it’s popping up often.

Ridley Scott, who directed the film Exodus: Gods and Kings, refused to give in to similar criticisms last year, though director Cameron Crowe recently apologized for casting the white actress Emma Stone as a “part Asian” character in his movie Aloha.

Now, if Emma Stone was ever inclined to play a Jewess, I promise not to be offended. On the other hand, if Hollywood wishes not to present inauthentic cinema (it’s not like Stone’s ancestors had to schlep through the desert for 40 years), there is a whole slew of rules it could be following: For starters, why should gay actors play straight characters in movies, or vice versa? Why should fully abled actors play disabled roles — and then, on top of it, scoop up Oscars for doing it? Why do Mexicans get to play Middle Easterners? Why do Italians play Jews? Why do Jews play Christians? Why do Australians and English actors take American roles that could just as easily be given to people here in the United States?

These are all distortions of reality. And though no one loves an authentic-looking historical epic more than I do — the blue-eyed Christian Bale playing Moses in Exodus was somewhat distracting, but far less than the silly plot — let’s not knock cultural appropriation.

When hearing the grousing about Gods of Egypt, I was reminded of the student leaders at a university in Ottawa who recently banned yoga classes because they deemed those practicing the discipline insufficiently sensitive to its cultural roots. Yoga, they argued, was being hijacked by white “cultural genocide . . . due to colonialism and western supremacy.”

They said this like it was a bad thing. Yoga, an Indian concoction, has, indeed, been appropriated and completely reinvented and improved by Americans — much like pizza, Chinese food, and cricket. And it has proliferated. Other areas of appropriation by Westerners include: algebra, alphabets, astronomy, etc. If not for intercultural appropriation, the Beastie Boys would never have rapped, and Yo-Yo Ma would never have played the cello.

So one imagines that movie producers are less concerned about the racial and ethnic purity of their characters than they are about casting famous people or conjuring up new ways to tell a story.

Hamilton, a hit Broadway musical featuring actors with skin pigmentation that is surely a few tones darker than that of the pale-skinned Founding Father, has not been the target of widespread anger. The show, according to the tastemakers at The New Yorker, is rooted in hip-hop but also incorporates “R. & B., jazz, pop, Tin Pan Alley, and the choral strains of contemporary Broadway,” which sounds like a cultural smorgasbord of the United States. Latino, black, European, and Jewish cultural influences — all of them now American — help tell the story of a half–French Huguenot, half-Scottish man who helped codify the ideals of the Enlightenment.

But the perpetually aggrieved take grievance, and authenticity won’t stop them either. You might remember how upset some critics were with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ when it portrayed the chosen people with an uncomfortably high degree of physical authenticity. And critics weren’t exactly thrilled when the authentic Native American actors who were cast in Apocalypto engaged in activities that were a bit too authentically Mayan for modern tastes. And when the Persian armies of Xerxes were repelled by the brawny Spartans at Thermopylae in 300, the director was accused of perpetuating bigotry against Muslims (who would not exist for more than a thousand years after the battle) because the story romanticized the moral superiority of Western ideals.

Xerxes, incidentally, was played by a Brazilian actor whose ancestry is half Italian and half Portuguese and who will soon star as Jesus in the remake of Ben-Hur. I sure hope he has an acceptable complexion for the role, because I’d really like to see the remake.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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