Ridley Scott’s Exodus is hardly alone. And it’s long past time for change.
Ridley Scott’s Exodus has almost every ingredient necessary to make a holiday blockbuster: a timeless tale, killer cast, massive budget, pre-release media buzz, stunning special effects, and an impressive director. But if moviegoers look deeper, they’ll notice one ingredient is painfully missing: melanin.
Scott’s big-budget film takes place in North Africa thousands of years ago. In real life, everyone would have had dark skin. But the movie is populated by an almost completely Caucasian cast. Welsh-born Christian Bale stars as the Hebrew liberator, Moses. Australian Joel Edgerton plays Pharaoh, and American Sigourney Weaver was almost laughably cast as an African queen.
Vanity Fair notes that most of the actors of color who have been cast were relegated to nameless roles. (Exceptions may include smaller roles for Ben Kingsley, a Brit with an Indian father, and John Turturro, an Italian-American.) The Independent adds that black and ethnic minorities do appear in the cast as “Ramses servant,” “Egyptian thief,” and “Egyptian Lower Class Civilian.”
We can’t claim that Scott’s casting decisions were pernicious. They are, however, historically inaccurate and, frankly, inexcusable for a film in 2014.
Sadly, Ridley Scott is hardly alone. Whitewashing Bible films is something of a Hollywood tradition spanning decades, and it won’t change until audiences demand better.
The last time a live-action Moses appeared on the silver screen was in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.” It starred a fake-baked Charlton Heston. But okay, that was 1956. Surely Hollywood’s sensitivity to ethnicity has changed in the last half-century, right?
— King of Kings (1961) cast American Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and Irish actress Siobhan McKenna as Mary.
— The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) cast the Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Jesus, American Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary, and American Charlton Heston as John the Baptist.
— King David (1985) cast American Richard Gere as the famed Hebrew monarch.
— The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) cast American Willem Dafoe as Jesus, American Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, and American Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene.
— The Passion of the Christ (2004) cast American Jim Caviezel as Jesus. Romanian Maia Morgenstern was cast as Mary.
— The Nativity Story (2006) cast Australian-born New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary.
— Noah cast Australian Russell Crowe as Noah, American Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife, Welshman Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s father, American Logan Lerman and British Douglas Booth as Noah’s sons, and Briton Emma Watson as Noah’s daughter-in-law.
— Son of God (2014) cast the Portuguese Diogo Morgado as Jesus and the Irish Roma Downey as Mary. The film was taken, in part, from footage from History Channel’s The Bible series, which featured a mostly Caucasian cast, except for the role of Samson, a raging brute with a weakness for pretty white girls.
Why is progressive Hollywood so allergic to casting people of color in Bible films? Noah’s screenwriter explained his all-white cast by saying that the movie was “mythical.” Apparently, every fantasy land is inhabited by Caucasians with pristine, high-caste British accents.
Here’s the real answer to that question: Hollywood does not believe people of color are lucrative enough.
Scott told Variety that he never considered the matter of race because he simply could not have financed the film if he had cast “Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such” in it. Really.
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