The new Ridley Scott film, "Exodus: Gods and Kings," hit theaters this week. The story is set in ancient Egypt and tells the story of the biblical figure Moses and his struggle to lead his people to freedom. If you're thinking, "Finally! An authentic film in set in Africa!," we're going to stop you right there.
Ramses, the Egyptian pharaoh who enslaved the Jews in the Old Testament, is played by a white actor. In fact, the entire lead cast of "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is white. Moses is white. Moses' mother is white. The Egyptian prince is white. The African queen is white, too.
There are some black actors in this movie set in Africa, to be sure. Supporting characters like "Egyptian Lower Class Citizen," "Assassin," "Egyptian Thief," and "Royal Servant" are all played by black actors. Writer David Dennis Jr. says that this casting pattern is racist and reflects a race-based hierarchy.
“I can’t believe we’re still whitewashing these characters in 2014,” Dennis say. “On top of that, the fact the people of color are slaves, assassins and thieves adds another layer to it. This film is up there in terms of being infuriating.”
Some argue that Scott picked the lead actors — Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul, just to name a few — because they draw box offices dollars. But that’s an argument Dennis doesn’t quite buy.
“The highest grossing actor of 2013 was a half-black, half-Samoan guy who used to wrestle named Dwayne Johnson,” he says. “There are people of color that are stars. Ridley Scott himself directed ‘American Gangster,’ which has a black ensemble cast with Idris Elba and Denzel Washington. It grossed $266 million. The idea that you can’t have a movie with people of color that can bring box office stardom, that just doesn’t fly anymore.”
Dennis doesn’t think the lead cast should be all black, but he doesn’t think it should be all white, either. And he isn’t the only one who feels this way — the Twitter hashtag #boycottexodus has received more than 10 million impressions in the last month.
“Somewhere along the line, someone should have said that these people don’t look like what we’ve been taught people in Egypt look like,” he says. “Somebody should’ve sat [Scott] down and said, ‘Maybe we should rethink this cast.’ Maybe that happened and he said, ‘I don’t care. I want to make the movie.’ I don’t know exactly where his mindset was, but there should’ve been some sort of discussion and rethinking about what was going on.”
This is a problem that has deep roots — as highlighted earlier this year in the annual Hollywood Diversity Report.