Exodus whitewashing

Ridley Scott is one of the most powerful directors working in Hollywood. (If he can get The Counselor made, he can do anything.) Following The Counselor, Scott turned to the story of Exodus, and cast a predominantly white cast for the film Exodus: Gods and Kings. Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II is played by Joel Egerton, who among the least-Egyptian actor working right now. An outcry resulted in part because the “gods and kings” of the title are all white, while the slaves in the film are black. We’re evidently not quite to the point where this won’t happen, but we’re definitely in a place where more audiences realize that the Exodus whitewashing is ridiculous.

Ridley Scott and the film’s stars have mostly avoided or been sheltered from questions about the whitewashed casting. But now Scott has addressed the topic in a brusque manner that doesn’t do anything to help the situation.

First up, let’s just get to Ridley Scott’s quote. In the same Variety piece that gave us news of Scott not directing Blade Runner 2, the director vaguely addressed the complaints levied against the film’s rather white cast:

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.

OK, there’s a lot there.

First, this is the only part of this exchange that is represented in the Variety article. Perhaps Scott had more to say that wasn’t included in the piece. Scott knows a lot more about getting a big budget film made than most of us will ever approach understanding, so perhaps this cold statement is the tip of what, for him, is a more nuanced understanding of the situation.

The article itself shrugs off the idea that this is a topic worth being upset about by pointing to other similar films that were whitewashed with no problem, such as Noah (which in fact did receive criticism) and The Ten Commandments, a film made in the pre-Civil Rights ’50s, when this topic wouldn’t even have been discussed.

(It’s worth noting, too, that the opening of the paragraph following the Scott quote above says “the director stopped reading his critics long ago,” as if to suggest that further discussion of the topic is pointless.)

Beyond that, how does the question not even come up?

Does this industry still exist in such a blinkered state that no one on the above-the-line level suggested during pre-production that there might be an actor worthy of the role who isn’t a white dude? Does it mean that Scott didn’t consider the idea of going with a smaller budget and a cast that is more appropriate to the story? (He could not have made The Counselor for $100m, even with the power he has.)

Ridley Scott is a powerful 70-something director who may not have to weather assaults on his assumptions very often, so it’s possible that the question did come up, but not directly to him.

Change might not happen quickly, but a guy in a position of power such as the one Scott enjoys is a lot more likely to be able to effect that change. Scott was making genre films with female leads when few other people were —  Alien, Thelma & Louise, and even G.I. Jane can be seen as mold-bending achievements.

Even an admittance from Scott that he tried to cast more appropriately, but was unable to, would be better than this quote. The quote implies that making the film at its current budget level requires the trade-off of whitewashed casting, but there’s no suggestion that Scott even sees the trade-off as ugly, much less unacceptable.

I’d like to think that Scott could have started to make a new change happen here. The Variety article says that in the film, God speaks to Moses through the vision of a young boy. The actor playing that boy is a white British kid. Could even that role have gone to someone of color, just as black actors were evidently suitable for lower class and slave characters? This Biblical film could have been the first major studio film in which the story is cast appropriately, even in part. Instead, it’s just another chapter in a whitewashed vision of the ancient world.

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