We Need to Talk About Casting
This week, Ridley Scott responded to criticism over the casting of white actors to represent ancient Egyptians in his latest film, Exodus: gods and kings. Scott told Variety, “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”.
Consequently, Exodus is led by Hollywood actors including Academy Award winning actor, Christian Bale, who plays Moses, with Academy Award nominated actress, Sigourney Weaver, as his adoptive mother, Tuya. They act alongside the lesser known, but just as talented, Joel Edgerton who plays Rhamses.
Scott’s wording (Mohammad so-so from such-and-such) is crude, but his attempt to explain, what has been called the whitewashing, sounds familiar. Despite the global successes of films with diverse casts, Hollywood continues to perpetuate the myth that films led by minority actors do not sell. Admittedly, there is no certainty about the racial appearances of the ancient Egyptians but, instead of casting Egyptian, Arabic or African Hollywood actors (yes, they do exist), Exodus instead substitutes them with spray tan and eyeliner, whilst the actors from actual ethnic minorities make up the background noise, they are, to put it crudely, the invisibles.
Similarly, when asked about the absence of racial diversity in the cast of Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky) writer, Ari Handel answered, “From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people…we’re dealing with everyman”’ (via The High Calling).
Handel’s rather flippant answer (“they’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people”; “the story (functions) at the level of myth”) raises two important issues. Firstly, that he undermines the beliefs of millions, (whose sacred book he exploits) through his use of the term, myth. Secondly, that, whether mythical or historical, when you choose white actors to represent ‘the everyman’ not only do you deny the histories of the people from whom these figures originated (essentially delegitimization) you also inevitably reinforce the idea of white as the model or, in other words, as white as right.
In his book Black Indians: A hidden heritage, William Katz quotes a Black native American student at a conference in 1968. The student states, “If you know I have history, you will respect me”. Katz explains that ‘those who assume that a people have no history worth mentioning, are likely to believe they have no humanity worth defending. An historical legacy strengthens a country and its people. Denying a people’s heritage questions their legitimacy’. Likewise, when you ‘whitewash’ a people’s heritage, not only are you questioning their legitimacy, but you are undermining their esteem as a race.
My favorite interpretation of the story of Moses will always be DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt. Whilst the movie has its own controversies, I am always enamored by the representation of figures (who I had grown up believing were white) as ethnic minorities and, (perhaps most significant for me) Moses’ black wife, Zipporah (in Exodus played by Spanish actress, María Valverde). No doubt that she will be on my mind when watching Exodus: gods and kings.
– Hannah Campbell