In 1956, Cecille B Demille’s classic The Ten Commandments featured an all white cast despite depicting Hebrew and Ancient Egyptian characters. We may have hoped that, in a space of nearly 60 years, Hollywood’s attitude towards non-Caucasian casting may have matured somewhat. If Ridley Scott’s new biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings is anything to go by however, this hope has been in vain. Perhaps we can take some solace from the amount of controversy the casting decisions have managed to generate. Sadly this doesn’t seem to have damaged its revenues too much. Exodus went straight to the top spot in the American box-office, knocking Hunger Games out of the way—and we all know how powerful an audience the teenage girls are to beat—and followed suit in 13 countries worldwide. It is in no way bombing in the UK due to its Boxing Day release, but thankfully has not bagged the top spot, losing out to The Hobbit and The Theory of Everything, among others.
For those who don’t know, Exodus tells the story of the enslavement and consequent exodus of the Hebrews from Ancient Egypt. Christian Bale plays Moses, the once-upon-a-time Egyptian royal and general, who is cast into exile by Pharaoh Ramesses, after a Hebrew slave reveals that he is actually the child of Hebrew parents. Years later, Moses returns with a warning from God that Egypt will suffer ten deadly plagues if they do not free the Hebrew slaves.
As Scott Mendelson has pointed out, “Even if we accept the argument that Moses had to be played by a world-renowned movie star and that in all likelihood that meant a white actor, I do not accept the idea that the rest of the main cast needed to be filled out with Caucasian actors of varying recognisability,” the main cast being made up by the likes of Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya, Joel Edgerton as Ramesses II and Aaron Paul as Joshua; it seems that, even more preposterous than an ethnically accurate cast list for Hollywood, would be an ethnically diverse one, wherein a beloved white star appears alongside other races. All or nothing, is it Ridley?
The main concern, though, for some Christians seems not to be the whitewashing —as far as I’m aware, much Christian art and literature does a pretty good job of this already, given the nonsensical depictions of most of the classical figures as white men with long, flowing, white-man beards. There has instead been concern over potential Biblical inaccuracies following comments Scott has made about interpreting the plagues as natural disasters, and Bale’s assessment of Moses as a barbaric schizophrenic. In my book this would lend an interesting three-dimensionality and perhaps allow more comfortable access for non-Christians; in a way I’d be impressed by such a ballsy move, given that they risk deterring people who may otherwise have been the most willing consumers of biblical material.
I remembered reading a feature in Empire’s September issue written by Adam Smith on location from the production of Exodus in Almeria, Spain. Returning to it now I find absolutely no mention of the casting controversy, Smith instead focusing on the vastness, immensity and ambition of the scale of the production. Obviously we all know Ridley Scott is the kind of director who loves to get stuck into projects of this scale—anyone whose seen Gladiator could tell you that—and I’m sure aesthetically it will be a thing to behold. My point is, however, how is it possible that this critic managed to sit on that huge, epic set, surrounded by thousands of extras, most of whom undoubtedly fit the racial profile of the period and region far more accurately, and never once think to raise the issue of race? In fairness, the ‘On Location’ pieces tend to be more focused on production values, but it’s certain small details that really get to me, for instance when he praises the “historical verisimilitude” represented by a dog doubling as an Ancient Egyptian jackal, which “squats and curls off a finely detailed turd.” Really? What about the lack of historical verisimilitude screaming from Sigourney Weaver’s white-as-can-be face on the opposite side of the page, with all darker faces shunted into the background?
Maybe this kind of lack of recognition of the importance of racial matters is something more dangerous. Personally, I think I might be more concerned if these kind of decisions where made totally unthinkingly. It might be easier to dismantle a system whereby directors and producers consciously choose to cast white actors in non-white roles in the face of controversy that may arise, than one wherein the same people genuinely don’t even consider such decisions to be controversial or important. Scott has now put the state of Exodus down to budgeting needs; it would be impossible to find finance, apparently, if the lead-actor was “Muhammad so-and-so from such-and-such”. Nice. At least, though, we stand a chance of showing them that the money lies in accurate portrayals of historical periods by refusing to patronise films with the kind of irresponsible attitude to race demonstrated in Exodus, and I would urge all readers to make this stance. Please, for the love of Moses, see something else.