The controversy surrounding Ridley Scott’s casting in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (it opens on December 12th) has reached a pinnacle of absurdity. As if the discussion had not become ridiculous enough, Rupert Murdoch’s decision to chime in with comments that were equal parts erroneous, hilarious and depressing, nudged the entire affair to a new level. But first here’s the trailer:
After months of criticism for frankly predictable whitewashed casting, the famed director decided to respond with a few choice words in an interview with film publication 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” Said Scott, “I’m just not going to get it financed.”
Scott Foundas, who wrote the Variety profile, lauded Scott for not making “any compromises” while making a film “in the most plausible historical terms possible.”
In his biting critique of the film for Medium, the writer and editor David Dennis Jr. calls “Exodus” lazy. This may be a fair assessment, but Scott’s argument about funding points to deeply rooted issues of bigotry and racism in Hollywood that are much larger than a single director; just ask Jack Shaheen. What is extraordinarily lazy is how Scott has chosen to address the backlash aimed at him.
Murdoch’s comments are certainly not helping Scott’s case. On November 29 he tweeted: “Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.” The expected Twitter explosion ensued, as did Murdoch’s successful bids at digging himself a deeper hole.
Scott’s argument that “Egypt was – as it is now – a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads geographically between Africa, the Middle East and Europe” is not technically inaccurate. However if we’re talking about ancient Egypt at the time of Moses, well then the validity of his statement becomes a little murkier.
Many moons ago, Egyptologist H.W. Fairman wrote about the often-ignored interconnectedness between Egyptology and African Studies, calling for increased collaboration between the two disciplines. In his words: “Ancient Egypt was a part of Africa. The earliest communities that we can trace in Egypt were African communities, of African origin, and it was early African social customs and religious beliefs that were the root and foundation of the Egyptian way of life…in the course of the millennia they changed…but in spite of time and all external influences, fundamentally and essentially Egyptian culture was African, and those African foundations endured.”
The external influences he’s talking about are Asian, initially from Sumerian Mesopotamia, followed by Semites from the same region, large swathes of what is now the Levant and Arabian Gulf. As more than one of my well-humored history professors used to put it: “At this time, most Europeans were still running around in the forest.” The exception were the Minoans, indigenous to Crete but originally from Anatolia (much of modern day Turkey and parts of the Middle East) who thrived during the Bronze Age and engaged in regional trade, and later the Greek Mycenaeans, who engaged in trade, but also warfare with their neighbors to the south.
As has been pointed out over the course of this very public controversy, there is debate around the origins of Ancient Egyptians, but Scott’s casting does not in any way reflect this debate. In fact, one major criticism in the study of Ancient Egyptian civilization has been the tendency for contemporary scholars to look at race and race relations through our modern conceptions of color, as evidence suggests social hierarchies were determined by different measures. An argument that supports Dennis’ observation that Scott’s casting is inherently racist, or as he puts it “cinematic colonialism.”
In defense of Scott, Foundas points out that the same case could be made for many other biblically themed films, including “Exodus” predecessor “The Ten Commandments”, the 1956 film that far surpassed it’s present-day counterpart for whitewashing. The film, to be fair, was made ten years before discourse like this nugget from Fairman was considered acceptable for publication in the peer-reviewed journal African Affairs:
Egyptian civilization as we know it, dynastic, historic Egypt, Egypt of the Pharaohs, was not the logical, automatic development of predynastic Egypt; it was the result of the intrusion…of people of superior cranial capacity and brain power…
Fairman’s eugenics invoking prose and his observations about the research gap enabled by the limited intellectual interaction between those scholars of “African Studies” and those of “Egyptology” shed light on an enduring divide between Egypt and the rest of the (particularly sub-Saharan) continent. This too is history distorted by contemporary notions of what it means to be Egyptian, Arab, and African – and what these identities mean to a British academic of yesteryear.
As for the casting, we can perhaps make the case to forgive “The Ten Commandments” as it was released prior to the great mainstream success of Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”. But what’s the excuse today? There are several Arab and African actors who have been working on big budget Hollywood films in recent years. Egyptian Amr Waked famously played the lead opposite Scarlett Johansson in this year’s “Lucy”. The film cost a mere 40 million USD when compared to the exorbitant 140 million spent on “Exodus”. That last 100 million, it seems, was contingent on inaccurately representing historical figures.