Ridley Scott’s latest film Exodus: Gods and Kings is generating a great deal of controversy. And the controversy getting the most attention is the racial one. White actors and actresses are cast in all the major roles. But, this isn’t the full extent of the problem. Yale University Professor Joel Baden explains: “What makes it worse for many observers is that, on the flip side, virtually every black actor in the movie is playing a part called ‘Egyptian thief’ or ‘assassin’ or ‘royal servant’ or ‘Egyptian lower class civilian.’” For those of us wishing for a more biblically accurate and racially sensitive film, it’s sad that Scott’s movie misses the mark.
First, we live in a beautifully diverse world, and to the extent possible, Hollywood needs to reflect this racial and ethnic diversity in its films and television programs. I recognize that, in some cases, it’s not possible to do this. No reasonable person, for example, can criticize the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams for having a virtually all-white cast. The cast in the miniseries accurately reflected the racial demographics of the Colonial American lives the miniseries focused on. But where possible (such as in a film set in ancient North Africa), racial diversity should be reflected.
From a purely historical standpoint, it’s unlikely that Moses looked like Christian Bale (or, for that matter, Charlton Heston), though (being from a Hebrew family) we should acknowledge that his skin tone may have been lighter than many Egyptians. Does this mean it’s wrong to cast a white actor as Moses? No, but we must understand that casting American or European white actors as biblical characters from the Ancient Near East or Ancient Egypt is almost certainly a step away from historic authenticity. If we’re going to do that, then we must also be okay with the casting of black actors in some of those parts as was done with the role of Samson in the recent The Bible miniseries.
Most scholars agree that the Egyptian civilization attracted people from all over Africa and the Middle East. And the core of its population, while African, was made up of people from north and south of the Sahara. This would make Egypt a “melting pot” of sorts. From the standpoint of skin tone, you’d have a lot of variety in Ancient Egypt. And this variety, while reflected in the background (extras, small speaking parts, etc.) of Exodus: Gods and Kings, is not reflected with the major roles in Scott’s film, and that is the reason for the controversy.
For example, while Joel Edgerton does a fine job portraying Rhamses (or Ramses), he’s not exactly a big name actor. Thus, it’s difficult for me to see why Scott had to hire a white Australian to play an ancient Egyptian ruler as opposed to someone like Boris Kodjoe, Michael Ealy, or even Wentworth Miller. Edgerton gave a talented performance, so I mean no criticism of him personally. However, from a purely physical standpoint, the aforementioned three actors probably more closely resemble the actual Ramses of history more than Edgerton, regardless of his compelling performance in Exodus.
In spite of my disapproval of how Exodus: Gods and Kings handles race, hurling the “racist” label at Scott or the Exodus film is neither fair nor helpful. The fact is that it takes a lot of money to make a movie in Hollywood, especially one as grand as Exodus. That means raising money from investors, who look at casting purely with dollar signs in view. Investors care about one thing: getting a return on their investment. That means big name actors and directors. That means you not only wind up with Christian Bale as Moses, but you also get something of a momentum effect (all other cast choices are made with Bale in mind) as well as “tunnel vision” which ignores issues such as racial diversity or historical authenticity. That’s how Hollywood rolls. It’s sad, but it is what it is.
The solution to this problem isn’t name-calling (though I think the adjective “racially insensitive” certainly fits). The solution is:
- Increasing the market/investment value of more non-white actors,
- Tasking at least one person in the development process of each film or TV program to concentrate on racial diversity, perhaps not exclusively, but certainly as part of their overall responsibilities, and
- Getting the movie-going public to care more about history and authenticity than simply about entertainment or watching a familiar and/or pretty face on screen. And, yes, as I type these words, I realize that’s a tall order. Hopefully, controversies like this one will help things along in a positive way.
As for whether we should watch Exodus in spite of the casting controversy, that’s a decision each person will need to make for himself or herself. For my own part, having seen the film, racially insensitive casting isn’t the only problem with Exodus. Not by a long shot. And I’ll have more to say about those other problems in a future blog post. On balance, I would not recommend Exodus, simply because it is neither historically nor (most importantly) biblically accurate. But I also won’t condemn anyone who chooses to see it. To do so would make me a hypocrite since I myself forked out $10 to see the film.
To close out this article, I will simply say this. I hope future biblical films will put more emphasis on historical authenticity and biblical accuracy. And, whenever possible, I hope they will reflect the diversity God has blessed us with. It’s true that Cecil B. DeMille’s beloved Ten Commandments likewise doesn’t reflect an appropriate level of racial diversity, but we’ve come a long way in scholarship, civil rights, and racial sensitivity since Charlton Heston’s turn as Moses. It’s unfortunate that Scott’s film doesn’t reflect this progress.