Ridley Scott’s epic retelling of the biblical story of Exodus is out today, and with it, the controversy attached to the film is getting even more attention. Chief among the criticisms of Exodus: Gods and Kings (other than that it is just plain bad) has been the unfortunate decision by the 20th Century Fox to cast white actors in all the lead roles, despite the non-white characters they play.
The film stars British actor Christian Bale as Moses. Australian Joel Edgerton plays Ramses. Straight down the cast list comes one familiar white actor after another: John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Ewen Bremner, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendohlson.
This is called whitewashing, and it’s a problem. At Medium, David Dennis Jr., explains why:
“Ridley Scott is one of those guys who’s apparently hellbent on historical accuracy but doesn’t care enough to cast a person of color as Moses or a goddamn African queen while simultaneously filling out the rest of the movie with Black servants and thieves…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.”
The image of Christian Bale as Moses will last, whether the film succeeds or not. And with it will come continued associations of the Old Testament story about white saviors of African Slaves. Fox, it seems, had no trouble finding non-white actors to fill the roles of slaves. But their rulers, and emancipators? That’s a job for white actors.
This problem is not unique to Exodus: Gods and Kings. Hollywood as an industry has a long tradition of casting white actors to play non-white roles. In the past, actors wore blackface (see Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer) and adopted offensive caricatured performances (see Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). More recently, character ethnicity is simply changed or ignored entirely (Jennifer Connelly, for example, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Alicia Nash, the Salvadorean wife of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind).
Hollywood has long maintained that whitewashing happens because Hollywood is a business, movies are expensive, and stars sell tickets. Casting an unknown African actor, this argument follows, in any of the major roles is not going to pay off for Fox. The budget on Exodus was $140 Million, and according to Scott, non-white, non-stars simply would not get financing for a movie this size. For Ridley Scott, this is so obvious that “the question doesn’t even come up,” he recently 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.”
The argument that Ridley Scott is making (and Christian Bale and others have made the same) is essentially this: underlying the Hollywood financing system is a racial preference for white actors. This isn’t shocking news, but rarely is it stated so plainly.
The sci-fi author Saladin Ahmed sums up the response this statement deserves:
No matter how awful Scott makes it sound, he’s probably right. Finding a studio to give you $140 Million to make a CGI-rich biblical adaptation starring “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” is probably not going to happen.
But maybe this is the wrong question to ask. Rather than continue a tradition of whitewashing in Hollywood, maybe a director of Ridley Scott’s stature should be trying to find new actors who can give new life to an old story. Scott has without question left his mark on what it means to make Hollywood films. Love or hate his movies, he has influenced what it means to make movies in Hollywood.
Surely Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down, could have chosen to make a film with an actor of color in one of the five leading roles. And doing so could actually have an impact on the racism that remains in Hollywood’s financing decisions. If that meant Exodus: Gods and Kings only had $100 Million to work with, well, when it comes to Ridley Scott films, less is usually better.
If Scott cannot imagine what this looks like, he need only reflect on the success Paul Greengrass had in last year’s Captain Phillips. Though a much smaller film (Phillips had a budget of $55 Million), Greengrass’ dedication to finding African actor Barkhad Abdi to star in the film opposite Tom Hanks (one of Hollywood’s whitest and most recognizable leading men) paid off. Greengrass could have cast an African American star in the role, but he instead found a Somali-born first-timer to play the role of the modern pirate. This was not just a political decision; Abdi was a marvel in the role, and key to the success of the film. Abdi’s casting was not without it’s own controversy, but his ability as an actor was recognized and showcased, and as a result Greengrass introduced the world to a talented young actor who now has two more films in production.
Ridley Scott and Fox could have been in the same position, if they had asked the right questions from the start. Instead the creative failure of Exodus: Gods and Kings is only worsened by a stubborn commitment to an outdated Hollywood financial system.