Forgetting for a second whether I’m personally offended as a person of color over the casting choices in Exodus: Gods and Kings; I find the casting of an almost entirely white cast to play Ancient Egyptians to be flatly absurd by any metric. Casting like this is historically, geographically, and demographically inaccurate, in addition to being quite simply boring. I can think of no better example of defaulting to whiteness than a casting decision such as this one: “we have a story and a setting that fall outside of our modern racial parameters so why not just cast a bunch of white people, right?” I won’t pretend to know exactly what ancient Egyptians or ancient Hebrews looked like and by what, if any, modern racial or ethnic classifications they would likely fall under, but I am confident in saying that they did not look like Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, or Sigourney Weaver.
The aforementioned individuals are fine actors, just as Ridley Scott is a solid filmmaker who was at the helm of a handful of my personal favorites. Although this film, which I have not seen but appears to have committed irresponsible and racist casting malfeasance, the ultimate and larger fault lays with the institution of Hollywood and the culture it is a part of. Indeed it speaks volumes about the norms of such an institution that serious filmmakers would see it as even sensible to cast an almost entirely white principal cast in a film such as this in this setting. The absurdity of these casting choices is accentuated by the casting of the half-Indian Ben Kingsley and Indira Varma, and Palestinian Hiam Abbass as relatives of the characters played by the white actors mentioned above. Even more disturbing are the reports evidenced in the promotional materials that actors of color do appear in the film–as servants and slaves. It would be one thing if the film were entirely whitewashed, but the presence of people of color among the white principals serves to highlight the absurdity, crassness, and racism of such a decision.
There exists a larger problem here, one endemic throughout Western culture. Now, despite the enormous amount of personal affection I have for it and the resonance it holds for me, I do not take the story of Moses and the Exodus for historical fact, nor do I connect to it on a religious level. Nevertheless, it is grounded in history and religious tradition. It was written by real people for real people, in a region we know for a fact to have been populated by peoples who, by today’s standards, classifications, and parlance were people of color.
So here we have a story taking place on the continent of Africa, driven visually by a Welshman and a white Australian. There is a perception prevalent in the West that so-called “white people” are the protagonists of history, regardless of facts and logic to the contrary in many cases. It is normative in our hemisphere that if someone is perceived to be important or heroic, that person is conceived of or perceived as white. Moses is the hero and driving force of this story, therefore he must be white: so goes the logic of Western norms and its cinematic purveyor, the American film industry.
There seem to me to be two possibilities for what happened with the casting of this film:
- it was felt that the racial makeup of the principals was of no importance, therefore they may as well be white (default position), or
- the principals must of course be white, because their characters drive the narrative.
I’m willing to bet that the prevalent mentality about the production was some combination of the two, whether conscious or not. Whether we refer to this as an oversight or a malicious and hurtful slight, at least three unfortunate side effects have occurred to mar the perception of this film in the run-up to its actual release. For starters, it creates a distraction and controversy where there need not be one. Additionally, it obscures the manifest talent of the filmmakers and performers. Finally, it casts a pallor over a film that otherwise appeals to me immensely, as I’m sure it does many others made uncomfortable or worse by the casting choices. I wish so much to enjoy this film, but regardless of how good it ends up being on its own merit, I may not be able to–not because I won’t allow myself to, but because my disbelief can only be suspended so much.