Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Racism in 'Exodus' Casting

The new Ridley Scott movie, Exodus, is attracting criticism because of the racial background of its stars. Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver are white people playing ancient Egyptians (and/or Hebrews) in the film, which is an interpretation of the second book of the Bible, and a lot of people are upset about this. They say that ancient Egyptians weren't white, which is true.

The first point to be made is that ancient Egypt seems to have been reasonably diverse in ancient times, as you might expect of a river valley, a delta, and several large oases situated in the middle of an inhospitable desert. Lots of groups would have made their mark on the population. I'm not too interested in debating the genetics of ancient Egypt; it is sufficient to note that, in their own depictions, some ancient Egyptian people have fair-ish complexions and some have dark complexions (although there are good reasons not to trust such depictions implicitly, based as they were on longstanding artistic convention as much as reality).

Christian Bale would probably have looked out of place in the time of Ramesses II, and so, probably, would Chiwetel Ejiofor (although perhaps less out of place than Bale). We shouldn't impose modern American racial dichotomies on the radically different situation of Bronze Age Egypt. There's a pop-breakdown of academics' views on race in ancient Egypt on Slate, if you're interested (it's actually a less interesting topic than it seems).

The second point is that Exodus (the book of the Bible) is a work of fiction. The film may be set in ancient Egypt, and that's enough justification to question the casting of northern Europeans in the central roles, but there's little reason to believe that anything in Exodus actually happened. Moses isn't attested outside of the Bible and there's no archaeological evidence of any great Hebrew march through the desert. As there's no independent evidence of Moses's existence, the idea that Christian Bale doesn't match the 'reality' of Moses seems odd. This whole fuss is about a Ridley Scott interpretation of an ancient work of fiction and fantasy, and it appears ridiculous on the surface that there are complaints about its historical veracity.

And it would indeed be ridiculous, if race and racial discrimination weren't prominent aspects of American culture and society. Whitening Egyptians to make them match modern Europeans and Euro-Americans is an established tradition, presumably based on the notion that dark-skinned people couldn't possibly have produced innovations ancestral to our fundamental technologies (like writing). It's good that there's been a response to this whitewashing and to the attempts at defending it, and it's unfortunate - shameful? - that the studios don't trust the cinema-going public enough to let a dark-complexioned actor carry an epic film like Exodus.

Hopefully, the backlash we're seeing is a sign of the times.

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