Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings opens this December, and the casting for the film has been controversial to say the least. Although Ancient Egypt was a racially diverse society, the lead cast — Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Ramses, Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, and Aaron Paul as Joshua — is as white as it gets. That's unfortunately standard for a Hollywood movie, but things took a turn when the above photo hit the Internet. As you might have noticed, the important people are white, the slaves and servants are black. People had a problem with that, especially when they found that black and non-white actors were mostly credited with roles like "Egyptian Thief" and "Egyptian Lower Class Civilian." Yikes.
Scott recently spoke to Yahoo Australia, and this is what he said about casting the film.
“Egypt was – as it is now – a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads geographically between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs. There are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people, and we had a lot of discussions about how to best represent the culture.”
No offense, Mr. Scott, but I don't think this was the best way to do it. Ancient Egypt was diverse, but skin color was not an indicator of social rank, as Scott's casting implies. It is difficult to determine the actual ethnic makeup of ancient Egypt, but contemporary artistiic depictions feature people with reddish, olive, or yellow skin tones. Not Welshman with a spray tan skin tones. And analysis of skeletal structures indicate that Egyptians had craniofacial structures like other northeastern African cultures and body proportions that were more like more southern Africans. Again, not white Australian wearing eyeliner.
Why does any of this matter? Because representation matters. Ancient Egypt was a marvel, and it is a source of pride and wonder to this day. Whitewashing that sends a subtle message that great civilizations are the domain of white people, and if you think that subtle messages in media are easily blocked, read the study showing that people who watch Grey's Anatomy have a negative view of organ donation.
In fairness to Scott, Moses' sister and Joshua's father are played by Indira Varma and Ben Kingsley, respectively, both of whom are mixed race, and there are actors of varying ethnicities in supporting roles. But that just puts him in the company of M. Night Shyamalan, whose The Last Airbender had white leads and people of color in background and villain roles. C'mon, Ridley, be better than M. Night Shyamalan.
I also don't want to to single out Scott, this is a pervasive problem in Hollywood. Joe Wright came under heavy criticism for casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in his reimagining of Peter Pan. He claimed that he was creating an international, multiracial cast, but again, the main cast is entirely white. There is also an upcoming movie called Gods of Egypt that will feature an almost entirely white set of Egyptian gods, which is a whole new level of problematic.
It is 2014. Why are we still dealing with this shit?