There is a significant social media uproar happening over the soon-to-be-released Ridley Scott epic Exodus: Gods and Kings movie. #BoycottExodus calls for viewers to vote against the film by withholding their dollars. Why the uproar? The whitewashing of the main roles is the primary reason. In a Biblical epic set in Egypt, Moses is played by Christian Bale, Rhamses by Joel Edgerton, Joshua by Aaron Paul, Tuya by Sigourney Weaver, and Seti by John Turturro.
Ridley Scott and his stars have been bombarded by questions about the whitewashing and Scott's answer in particular (in a Variety piece) is terribly tone-deaf: “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.”
A fantastic opinion piece on the whitewashing in Exodus can be read here and an equally strident piece in response to the above quote from Ridley Scott can be read here. I encourage you to read both because what has been so vehemently well-said there need not be re-worded here.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is hardly the first big Hollywood movie to whitewash its main players. The Ten Commandments did the same story with whitewashing long before Scott did it. And Noah, The Passion of the Christ, The Lone Ranger, and so on and so on all bear equal shares of guilt. But though it isn't the first film to whitewash the cast, isn't it about time for it to be the last?
Louis CK, in his sitcom Louie, notably made a point of casting the actress he thought best suited the role of his ex-wife. The actress, Susan Kelechi Watson, is African-American while Louis and the two girls playing his daughters are very fair and blonde. But he didn't cast for or against race, he cast for acting ability. This article explores the subject rather well and it brings up an interesting point, one that is also touched on in the piece about Exodus. Namely, if the cast of a film is truly assembled from the very best actors and actresses for the roles, they wouldn't all be white. The best person for the job is the best person for the job, regardless of their appearance. And that would hold true for race, for size, and for gender. Roles that typically default to "white male" in Hollywood would then more frequently feature women, people of color, those considered plus-sized in the industry... and so it would go. Saying a studio won't finance a film if "Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such" is the lead is not only dismissive and racist, it's stupid. Scott's own American Gangster starred Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor and made a total worldwide gross of $266,465,037 on a budget of $100 million.
Either the best actor for the job should be hired which means color blindness instead of whitewashing, or historical accuracy should take a front seat and stories about people of color should be told accurately - by people who resemble them. I'm spoiled, you see. And so are many of you. I'm a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl from Canada. I have never known what it's like not to have heroes, characters, and celebrities to identify with. I have never lacked for a Disney princess who looked like me or a Cabbage Patch Kid who mirrored me or a hundred little blonde girls getting sucked into fantasy adventures like Alice into Wonderland. I struggle to imagine what that would be like. I'm spoiled by that privilege. And that's a horrible thing to realize - that a huge swath of North Americans struggle to see themselves properly represented onscreen in big budget blockbusters and in TV jobs and gracing runways and on magazine covers. Even in their own stories, people of color may never see themselves.
So does it matter? Yes. In the year 2014 we have advanced no further onscreen than 1956's The Ten Commandments. How can so little progress be made? How, when there are brilliant actors of every ethnicity, gender and size all around us? How can films like Exodus: Gods and Kings still be so blatantly irresponsible with their casting choices and have nobody in the entire film-making process stop to say "this isn't right..."?
You have a say. You have a voice, albeit a small one. But it is a voice nonetheless. Speak up. Vote with your wallet. Give your money to films that show stories and actors you want to see more of and withhold your money from those that don't. If enough of us vote this way, the financial language that Hollywood speaks will resonate with our opinions.
- Corinne Simpson