The biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt is a classic story of freedom from bondage, of the raising of the downtrodden, of God avenging the weak and punishing the mighty. It also raises some unpleasant questions. According to the Talmud, the angels wanted to sing praises when the Egyptians were killed, only to be rebuked by God: “The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” Yet he drowned them all nonetheless.
To its credit, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the new biblical extravaganza from director Ridley Scott, doesn’t avoid hard questions about God’s justice, or the chosenness of the Hebrews. If you come to the movie from a religious perspective, you may leave with some problems. Less to its credit, the movie raises a different set of uncomfortable issues. Like, why is the lead cast entirely made up of white actors, when the mythology it portrays is set in the ancient Near East?
The whiteness of the casting — plus the fact that the roles of servants, slaves and criminals seem to have been reserved for actors of color — have led writers like David Dennis, Jr. and others to level charges of racism at “Exodus,” and to call for a boycott of the movie. And there is obviously racism present.
But it’s worth trying to parse what racism means in this context. In his response to the charges, Ridley told 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 Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such.” In other words, not only does he claim that the film wouldn’t be financed with an obscure actor in the lead — which is probably fair — but that the lead actor also couldn’t be non-white (and certainly not named Mohammed). He’s not denying the racism here — he’s passing the buck.
But does a racist Hollywood system, and racist casting, make the content of the movie also racist? And if so, how?
It seems ridiculous to insist that the casting of “Exodus” reflect historical or geographical reality. The question of “race” when it comes to the ancient Egyptians is a subject thoroughly colonized by cranks and hacks (many of them racists themselves), while the scholarly consensus is that contemporary notions of “race” are not applicable to the ancient world. I have no problem, for example, with the ethnically ambiguous John Turturro playing the pharaoh Seti, in what is the movie’s sole bit of inspired casting. And even if Moses probably didn’t look like Christian Bale, he certainly didn’t speak English. Clearly, this is a fantasy and a fiction, not a historical recreation.
But therein lies the real problem. The story of the Exodus, which has never been confirmed by archaeological evidence, is a myth. And though it’s a myth about slavery and freedom, it’s not about anyone’s slavery, or everyone’s freedom. It’s about the slavery of the Hebrews, and about their deliverance by God. (Consider that not so long after recounting the Exodus, the Bible goes on to delineate the laws of keeping slaves.) It’s not a universal myth but a national myth, about one people who are chosen for redemption. And when we tell this myth about ourselves, we reveal who we truly believe to be “us.”
The question of national identity is also why, despite the epic nature of the 10 plagues, the Exodus is a terrible story for Hollywood. At the beginning of the last major Exodus film, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The 10 Commandments” — whose Anglo-Saxon complexion was truly ridiculous — the director comes out to explain how the story is about whether men are “property of the state” or “free souls under God.” According to this reading, the Hebrews were righteous patriots, while the Egyptians were the Red Menace. It was a stretch, but a necessary stretch. Like the Haggadah says, to appreciate the story we need to feel as though it had been us, personally, who had gone out of Egypt.
“Exodus,” in contrast, has no sense of identity, and the movie flops around without ever managing to cohere. There are still some interesting parts — like “Noah,” the other biblical epic from this year, the story suggests that God may not be a kindly grandpa in the sky but the evil demiurge proposed by the Gnostics. Terrorist tactics by an oppressed people seem to be condoned, to a point. And the multimillion-dollar 3D special effects, which Ridley was so desperate to get funding for, really are astonishing.
Yet the movie is lacking not only because the characters are weak — Moses’ transformation from conscientious prince to lonely man of faith isn’t particularly convincing — but also because the Exodus isn’t about John Stuart Mill and enlightenment ideals of liberty. When the story has been adopted by individual groups — including, significantly, African Americans — it has always taken on particularistic qualities. Even if this is a myth that can belong to anyone, it can’t belong to everyone all at once. What galls here is the assertion that the only Exodus myth we can accept is one that comes with a white face.
The night of the press screening I attended was the same night that a New York grand jury announced that it would not press charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who had choked to death Eric Garner, a black man. While film critics clubbed about in the theater, protesters took to the streets outside. The incongruity between the events was apparent. Claims of racism against “Exodus” are, at bottom, claims about the marginalization of non-white people in a white-dominated culture. It’s about the myths we tell ourselves being white myths, even when it makes most sense for them to be otherwise. And there is no greater form of marginalization than to be killed with impunity by the state.
Should you therefore boycott “Exodus”? I’m not sure that staying home instead of seeing some overwrought holiday blockbuster is the most meaningful form of political protest. But it couldn’t hurt, either. And in any case, you won’t be missing much. Thanks to Ridley Scott, white America is simply getting the “Exodus” that it deserves.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.