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Whitewashed Hollywood

exodus-gods-and-kingsRidley Scott’s next time period epic is set to release this December. Exodus: Gods and Kings  will be following in Noah’s  footsteps, bringing another action packed, Biblical interpretation to the big screen. In this classic tale that chronicles a people’s journey from slavery, the Dark Knight himself, Christian Bale, will play the Israelite hero Moses; Alien badass Sigourney Weaver will play his adoptive mother Tuya; while Joel Edgerton, whom Star Wars fans may remember as a young Owen Lars, will play Ramesses II (or Rhamses).

Despite the the hype and anticipation, the film has stirred controversy with its choice of cast. The leading four characters, which also includes Jesse Pinkman– err– Aaron Paul as Joshua, are all white, a demograph that’s rather out of place in Nineteenth Dynasty Egypt. Meanwhile, extras such as slaves, thieves, and assassins are all played by people of colour, as if that were the case in ancient Africa. Since the Egyptians literally wrote and drew everything down, we know they  would have looked something like this:

And yet Hollywood has once again given us this:

Yeah... totally historically accurate.

Yeah… totally historically accurate.


Ridley’s Exodus is just the latest in a line of films that have actors who are white playing characters who historically aren’t, a tradition that dates back even further than the Ten Commandments, the most well-known example of history whitewashing. Blackface, the practice of white actors donning black makeup, was used extensively in film and theater from the 19th to mid-20th century. Initially a gross portrayal of black stereotypes at the time, it was at times applauded for at least depicting people of colour in mainstream film. Yellowface, a similar convention, saw actors like Warner Oland play Chinese or other East Asian characters, again using stereotypical mannerisms and exaggerated accents.

Since then, Hollywood has become a bit more racially sensitive, at least to a degree. However, roles that should go to actors who look the part based on colour or background are still typically passed on to white actors. Along with Charlton Heston’s Moses, Pharaoh Cleopatra was also given the onscreen white treatment by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, although historical studies would later suggest the actual  Egyptian queen would have looked more like Jada Pinkett Smith. More recently, 2008’s 21 followed a team of young nerds who, under the guidance of their professor, use their mathematical genius to rip off casinos through high-stakes games. In this movie, English actor Jim Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, who’s loosely based on MIT engineer Jeff Ma. Funny thing is, Ma and his MIT Blackjack Team were predominantly of Asian descent, where as in the the film they’re played by, as you would guess, mostly white actors.

Again in 2010, The Last Airbender, based on the popular Nickleodeon anime series, saw the main characters who were originally Asian-like or Inuit-like  played by white actors, while extras and villains were allowed to be played by actual Asians. That same year saw another big screen screen adaptation, this time with Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,  based on the classic video game series. Nerd-turned-super hunk Jake Gyllenhaal filled the lead role, despite being of Jewish-Swedish descent rather than an actual Persian.  This disappointed many fans since the Prince of Persia franchise was one of the few positive depictions of Muslims as heroes given to westerners. To be fair, Disney also produced Aladdin, another Islamic epic. However, there seems to be a pattern that the only time a major film can portray characters accurately is when it’s animated. The 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt was another retelling of the story of Moses, but the characters were designed with darker skin tones, reflecting how ancient Egyptians would have actually looked, a stark contrast to this year’s Exodus.

It begs the question of how some people would react to see a film like War of the Roses or King Arthur produced with all the lead roles going to blacks, Asians, or Muslims, while supporting and tertiary roles are given to white actors. I’m sure historians would have a fit and the idea immediately scrapped, calling it an insult to European heritage and a gross misrepresentation of facts. At the same time, whitewashing a time period film is also insulting to white people, as it assumes they won’t see a movie or relate to the characters unless the protagonists are white.

Despite Exodus mirroring this ongoing trend, it’s understandable that Hollywood would always go with the bankable star to fill as many seats in the cinema as possible; it’s just that most bankable stars happen to be white. Nevertheless,  since I’m guilty of being a Ridley Scott fan, I must admit I’ll probably be seeing  Exodus: Gods and Kings on opening night.


Categories: Culture, Movies
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