Even Hollywood can’t rewrite the Bible

May be inspired by real-life events.
May be inspired by real-life events.
Image: Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
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Director Ridley Scott’s latest movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, is garnering heavy publicity before its December release. But not the kind the filmmaker should want.

Exodus is based on the Biblical epic about Moses, and features Christian Bale as the protagonist, Joel Edgerton as Ramses, and Aaron Paul as Joshua. If you’re upset by seeing white actors portray Egyptian characters, you’re not alone.

A Care2 petition titled “Tell Ridley Scott to Stop Racist Casting!” asks, “Did anyone in the ancient middle east look like Christian Bale?” It has received nearly 17,000 signatures so far. A Twitter campaign, #BoycottExodusMovie, gathered steam after the film’s trailer premiered in July, and was trending last week. This popular tweet by @marcohtx summarizes the casting’s biggest crimes.

On Aug. 27, Yahoo! Australia asked Scott how he approached the casting for the movie, and the filmmaker replied, “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.”

A look at Exodus’ IMDb page reveals that Scott is partly correct. For example, the film has some black actors, but embodying roles such as “Egyptian Thief,” “Egyptian Civilian Lower Class” and “Ramses Royal Servant.”

In a widely circulated essay published on Medium, David Dennis Jr. writes:

[To] make the main characters White and everyone else African is cinematic colonialism. It’s creating a piece of historical ‘art’ that carries on oppressive imagery that’s helped shackle entire countries and corners of the world.

Even the cast members don’t seem fully onboard. At the Melbourne International Film Festival, Australian broadcaster SBS asked Edgerton about the “whitewashing” in the casting. “It’s not my job to make those decisions,” the actor answered. “But I do say that I am sensitive to it and I do […] understand and empathise with that position.”

Earlier this year, another Biblical tale, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, encountered similar troubles because of its primarily white cast. Russell Crowe played Noah, with Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Sir Anthony Hopkins in supporting roles. Exodus is not the first Hollywood blockbuster to cast white actors in parts that—based on history or source material—were meant for different ethnicities, nor will it be the last.

It’s worrying that Hollywood is adapting age-old tales—regarded by millions around the world as gospel — while retrofitting them to propagate the already widespread image of a white saviour coming to the aid of all mankind. The generations introduced to these stories through these adaptations may walk away indoctrinated by this insidious form of imperialist hegemony.