On Racism, Whitewashing & Cinematic Colonialism in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’
December 12, 2014 § 1 Comment
Although set during a specific period in ancient Egyptian history, the film Exodus: Gods and Kings features white American, European and Australian actors in the majority of the key roles playing ancient Egyptian characters. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film stars Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Ramses, and Aaron Paul as Joshua. John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver have supporting roles as Seti and Tuya, another king and queen of Egypt. This controversial casting decision sparked outrage online among film fans calling for a boycott of the movie under the hash tag #BoycottExodusMovie.
Hollywood – A Legacy of Historical Revisionism
This is not the first time that Hollywood has produced period films based on colonial fantasies of white domination, never mind that European “civilization” was not even in existence yet. Similarly in the classic epic The Ten Commandments, white actors were cast to play people of color. To fathom what the outrage is about, you would first need to understand that a black character played by a white actor is in no way equivalent to a white character played by a black actor.
Apologists for racist casting are always quick to defend it saying “it’s the interpretation of the artist” or its just fiction”. Then when we inquire about the glaring absence of black characters in fictitious productions of fantasy films, we are told it would be “inaccurate” for black people to play a role in films that feature flying dragons, wizards and ghosts. It would seem that, to Hollywood, including flying dragons, wizards and ghosts would produce a much more real and “accurate” portrayal of the world than including black characters.
And if “accuracy” is of such importance, how is it ok for Ridley Scott to cast black and white characters in a manner that is historically inaccurate? The answer is because there is a double standard that exists in Hollywood, with regards to casting. Remember when Donald Glover expressed an interest in playing Spiderman? There was a lot of controversy with people saying ‘But Spiderman can’t be black!’
But even then, disgruntled viewers would still have had the option of watching one of the many other Spiderman adaptations – with an all-white cast – that are already in existence. But that didn’t seem to matter as it would appear that color is only an issue when a black actor takes on a white role.
Because the ancient Egyptians are not fictional characters, but are situated firmly in history, to cast them as white is to erase an entire race of people from their own history. Not only are African people being disappeared by replacing them with the likes of Joel Edgerton, but it’s also virtually impossible to find a similar type of epic historical movie on ancient Egypt starring African actors in the lead roles.
That there aren’t many movies that don’t whitewash or horribly stereotype African characters is a fact that is hard to miss. There are countless films today that spew an abundance of stereotypes and misrepresentations about African people. And the fact that whiteness is being constantly touted as “normal” by the global film industry is just as hard not to notice.
Not only are all the main characters of gods and kings white, but the slaves, thieves and assassins are played by black people. To make the main characters white and the subservient ones African is plain racist and a clear manifestation of cinematic colonialism. Moreover, the actors of color who did get a role in this film are treated like props, wordlessly relegated to the background, with white actors in the foreground. Black people muted in a movie set in Africa.
This portrayal of the very same oppressive imagery that has helped perpetuate the unjust system of race-based hierarchical domination makes Exodus an artistic tool to promote the neo-colonization of black people. This is not “just a movie” – as Scott and his cast have tried to excuse; it’s a reinforcement of the existing racial structure of subjugation, oppression, devaluation and dehumanization of people of African descent.
Moreover, Scott’s portrayal of racial hierarchy in Exodus is in itself a gross inaccuracy, as there was no such division existing among humanity during the time of the ancient Egyptians. While there was classism among ancient humanity, even then, humans of all “races” could be king or servant, master or slave. The modern day racism denoted by skin color and characterized by white superiority did not exist during the time of the ancient Egyptians, but is in fact a late 17th century phenomenon invented by the slave plantation owners of America.
Ramses II, as portrayed by Edgerton, was alive between the years 1303 BC – 1213 BC, close to 3000 years before race and racism were invented. Therefore, for Scott to choose to portray the ancient Egyptians in accordance with a “white-master/black-servant” racial hierarchy that only emerged thousands of years after the reign of the ancient Egyptians is a revisionism and fabrication of the worst kind that must not be taken lightly.
Director and Cast Responses
In response to the backlash and mounting online criticism, director Ridley Scott and actor Joel Edgerton said the following:
“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,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Not quite. Ridley Scott got funding for American Gangstar that had a nearly all-black cast with Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding Jr. in lead roles. Even without casting a “Mohammad”, he could’ve found black actors with box office success to play Ramses. Neither, did Scott seem to have any problem featuring black actors in negative, subservient roles. Or is such casting easier to obtain funding for? Trying to use Hollywood’s tradition of whitewashing to excuse racism is just lame.
“It’s not my job to make those [casting] decisions… I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.”
In other words, it’s not my fault that I accepted payment to be racist.
The Power of Images
Even in our so-called “post-colonial” world, colonialism continues to play out and is kept alive through the systematic perpetuation of economic and cultural inequalities; a perpetuation that heavily relies on the power of images. Historically, popular culture such as film has been used to help create and sustain the racial hierarchies that colonial rule and the mission to “civilize” required. By depicting Africans as occupying the lowest rungs of humanity according to an imperial racial hierarchy, colonialism and imperialism could be justified. And the end result was that European dominance was projected while the world’s attitudes towards Africans became even more negative.
There is no excuse for the substantial harm done by the production of films like Exodus. This is because Hollywood, with its formidable influence in mainstream media, uses such productions to project a false image of “white-superior/ black inferior” normalcy that enables racism to prevail in the world today.
Why You Should #BoycottExodusMovie
We cannot simply wish away the political reality of skin color in our world today by saying that Exodus is “just a movie”. Racism is a reality founded on centuries of lived history and its continuing effects in creating the white dominated world we live in that devalues black people. To effectively change this reality, we must actively voice criticism, question, challenge and combat racist messages wherever they appear.
As for the commonly used “art ought to be above politics” argument – this is utter rubbish. Artists, including filmmakers and actors are humans who are expected to be more, not less, sensitive than others in rejecting racism. When they choose to promote racism for money, fame or other material gains at the expense of basic commitment to human rights, they end up selling their souls and declaring their utter ethical corruption.
The purpose of the #BoycottExodusMovie campaign is to make the statement that in 2014, there is really no excuse for this type of casting. The blunt and shameless westernization of ancient African royalty as displayed in Exodus must not and cannot be accepted nor tolerated. To boycott this film and fight this racist inclination to paint history one color is to fully commit to a future in which every black child can know who they are and what their history is. But this cannot be possible if the only face the world constantly sees is a white one.
We are also using #BoycottExodusMovie to send a message to actors like Joel Edgerton who accept racist roles due to the lure of money, ignorance of or unconcern over racism, that they must stop promoting racism, stop profiting from racist money and stop serving the propaganda purposes of racist segments within the film industry.
The boycott is aimed at sending a message to Hollywood and the global film industry that oppressive images, racist messages and the whitewashing of world history have no place in 21st century cinema. If Hollywood wants to tell our story, they must first learn to treat it with respect.
We therefore call upon all people of conscience to boycott Exodus as a contribution to the struggle to end the system of racism. To do this:
- Refrain from going to see the film;
- Advocate a comprehensive boycott of the film both online and offline;
- Actively condemn racism in Hollywood;
- Support films that portray black people in a positive way.
Some action to take:
- Sign this petition.
- Visit the film’s Facebook page here and leave a comment on their posts voicing your condemnation.
- Review the film on Rotten Tomatoes here by: clicking on “Not Interested”; giving it a half star rating; and then leaving a comment to voice your condemnation of the racist film.