Charlton Heston as Moses. Johnny Depp as Tonto. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi. Laurence Olivier as Othello. Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. All white actors who have played non-white characters on the big screen.
And now Christian Bale has joined their ranks, playing Moses in Ridley Scott’s upcoming biblical blockbuster, “Exodus.” The film, which tells the story of the Jews’ struggle to escape slavery in Egypt, also features Australian actor Joel Edgerton as Ramses, Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad” fame as Joshua and Sigourney Weaver as Pharaoh’s wife, Tuya.
But don’t worry, there are some non-white actors in this movie — which is, after all, set in Egypt (part of Africa, last I checked). They have the honor of playing such roles as “Egyptian Lower-Class Civilian,” “Assassin,” “Thief” and “Servant.”
If you’re thinking, charitably, that perhaps Scott just never got the memo about how people in ancient Egypt weren’t exactly alabaster-skinned, think again. He’s fully aware that he whitewashed his movie — and he’s not even sorry about it. Not one bit.
Here’s what he told Variety in a November 25 interview: “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. 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 & 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 easy to fall prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Directors assume people will be thrown off by a movie with black actors in lead roles, and so those actors don’t get cast, and so the cycle continues. That’s probably why so many people have spoken out in favor of Scott’s casting. Some have expressed reasonable arguments; others, like media magnate Rupert Murdoch, took to Twitter with gems like: “Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.”
Scott Foundas, chief film critic at Variety, stuck up for the director, mentioning that people are already up in arms about the 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. Scott’s comments to Variety were published only a day after the Ferguson grand jury announced its decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown, sparking a national outcry over race relations in this country. The many protests since then have largely emphasized that racism is a systemic problem, built into the basic machinery of our society. That machinery, of course, includes Hollywood — and so Scott’s self-justification reads, right now, as particularly tone-deaf.
Considerations of race matter even more when doing a movie based on the Bible, the book humanity has long looked to for cues about how to shape society. Historically, the argument for taking the Bible literally has often been used to suppress people — think of gay and lesbian folks, for example. That makes it all the more striking when we’re faced with a case where being faithful to the historical record can actually be uplifting and revolutionary. What would it have meant to the black community if, say, Chiwetel Ejiofor — who won an Oscar for his lead role as Solomon Northrup in “12 Years a Slave” — had been cast as Moses in “Exodus”? We’ll never know, because instead of taking a built-in opportunity to correct Hollywood’s representation gap, Scott has gone out of his way to ignore it.
The resulting disappointment has been major. There’s a whole #BoycottExodusMovie movement spreading on social media. Tweets range from indignant — “How’s fake tanned white actors pretending to be Middle Easterners any different than white actors painting faces black?” — to playful: “Hollywood makeup tutorial for ‘Egyptian Character’: 1. Find a white person. 2. Apply eyeliner. The end.”
So, 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 an epic film in which Moses is played by Christian Bale? Hollywood can do better — and so can we.
Sigal Samuel is deputy digital media editor at the Forward.
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.