Christian Bale plays Moses in “Exodus.” What’s wrong with this picture?
On November 25 — one day after the Ferguson grand jury decision sparked a national outcry over race relations in this country — “Variety” ran an interview with Ridley Scott, justifying the director’s decision to cast white actors in the key roles of his new movie, “Exodus.”
If you’re thinking, charitably, that perhaps Scott just never got the memo about how people in ancient Egypt (which is, you know, part of Africa) weren’t exactly alabaster-skinned, think again. He’s fully aware that he whitewashed his movie — oh, except for the servants and thieves, for which roles he did see fit to pick black actors — and he’s not even sorry about it. Not even one bit:
“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,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
I don’t buy this for a second, and neither should you.
Scott is not exactly making his directorial debut here. Between “Gladiator” and “G.I. Jane” and “Thelma and Louise” and “Alien,” he’s been around the block a few times. I’m pretty sure that just stating his own name at this point would be enough to get a movie financed — handsomely.
Of course, there is racism ingrained in Hollywood (and everywhere else), and so it’s often tempting to fall prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy: directors assume people will be thrown off by a movie with black actors in starring roles, and so those actors don’t get cast, and so the cycle continues. That’s probably why “Variety” defended Scott, mentioning that people are already up in arms about his movie’s whitewashed casting “no matter that the same could be said of “The Passion of the Christ,” “Noah,” “The Ten Commandments” and virtually any other big-budget Bible movies.”
But the fact that whitewashing is so prevalent in Hollywood is not a justification for whitewashing. If anything, it’s the reason why a director like Scott — an established voice, not a novice still desperate to burnish credentials — has the responsibility to buck that trend.
That responsibility is thrown into even greater relief at a time like this, when the Ferguson protesters are doing everything possible to emphasize that racism is a systemic problem, built into the basic machinery of our lives. That machinery, of course, includes Hollywood — and so Scott’s self-justification reads, right now, as particularly tone-deaf.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. There’s a whole #BoycottExodusMovie movement spreading on social media.
for the ignorant people tweeting me about the #exodusmovie#BoycottExodusMovie@JohnnySauce25pic.twitter.com/VGsM17P0hz— Juliet Duncan (@slammduncc) November 3, 2014
How's fake tanned white actors pretending to be Middle Easterners any different than white actors painting faces black? #BoycottExodusMovie— ارررررسلان årsªlán (@Arsalanism) November 28, 2014
Hollywood Make-up Tutorial For: “Egyptian Character” 1.Find a White Person 2.Apply Eyeliner The end. #BoycottExodusMovie— Patrick (@PatEqualsBest) November 29, 2014
I guess Ridley Scott has never heard of crowdfunding. #BoycottExodusMovie— Andima (@AndimaUmoren) November 26, 2014
Here's a movie made with racist casting decisions. I say #BoycottExodusMovie God never said Moses was a white dude pic.twitter.com/79gckbaVgw— Mr. Hassan (@finddatsolution) August 26, 2014
Bottom line: As much as I love a good Bible movie, I’m going to go ahead and boycott this one. And I invite my fellow Jews to join me. I mean, do we really want to watch a movie in which Moses is played by Christian Bale? Hollywood can do better — and so can we.
Sigal Samuel is the Opinion Editor at the Forward. When she’s not tackling race or identity politics, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s Kabbalistic secret society. Her novel THE MYSTICS OF MILE END tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed. Contact Sigal at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out her author website, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.