Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s epic story of Moses, hit theaters nationwide Friday, and while some people are gearing up for what’s expected to be a biblical blockbuster, others are thinking “not again,” as once more, white actors snag the key roles—even though the story takes place in ancient Egypt—while actors of color stay in the background.
Christian Bale, known for his roles in American Psycho and most recently the Dark Knight Trilogy, captured the coveted role of Moses, and that has left some enthusiasts unimpressed.
“The casting kind of looks like a throwback to the era of the Charlton Heston films and, as such, is playing into this very misguided idea that the origins of Judaism and Christianity are in a community that looks like they’re from Minnesota or Sweden,” Lynn Hamilton, who created a petition on Care2 decrying the casting, told The Root. “If there was a Moses, then he would not have looked like Christian Bale. … If you’re going to create a story and tell a story that’s set in ancient Egypt, then I guess I think that the characters should look like they belong to ancient Egypt.”
Hamilton, who is Presbyterian of Scottish descent, has particular interest in this casting for various reasons. One of them rests in a childhood memory from years ago that all heroes in the Bible were presented as older, white men.
“I remember going to Sunday school class, and the teacher would pull these cardboard cutouts of Moses and Noah out of the box … and they were invariably old, white men in robes. They looked like my next-door neighbor, but in robes,” Hamilton, now 56, recalled. “Imagine as a child to have that inculcated in me that all of the heroes of Christianity are white. I do think that’s kind of wrong.”
But one of the things that bugged Hamilton the most was that not only were actors of colors not present in bigger roles, but the roles they were in were questionable at best: thieves and servants, etc.
“I think that the better situation here would be, [if] you got a film that’s set in ancient Egypt, just have everybody look like they could potentially be from ancient Egypt. And then, if the villains look like people of color, that would be OK because everyone in ancient Egypt was a person of color,” she explained. “That would have actually been historically accurate. But to have the good guys be white and the bad guys be black, that’s problematic; it really is.”
Of course, Hamilton isn’t the first (and will not be the last) person to address the problematic lack of diversity in Scott’s film. The general outcry had gotten so loud that Scott himself responded in a November interview with 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 Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott said by way of explanation. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Some are hesitant to buy that excuse.
“One of the reasons that I think Ridley Scott is a target is that he’s in a position of power, and so we know that the entertainment industry is incredibly powerful,” said Randy Paynter, the CEO of Care2, explaining why he thought people were drawn to this particular petition, which had 25,450 signatures as of Thursday evening. “It has an amazing influence over the perspectives of the population, and therefore it’s hard to break the cycle when you have the entertainment industry perpetuating all the stereotypes. That’s why we need people like Ridley Scott to stand up and do the right thing.”
Of course, that is not to say that either Paynter or Hamilton wants the expected blockbuster to fail (although that is obviously impossible at this point). They want Scott to consider his options the next time he decides to do a film about people of color.
“I’m not asking to stop the movie, and I’m not asking to boycott the movie, either. What it’s asking for is just more sensitivity. Basically it’s addressed to Ridley Scott and asks him to rethink his casting … and for him to be more sensitive to historical accuracy,” Hamilton said.
“Even if the movie is a financial success, at least this petition will kind of raise the level of awareness, and I can guarantee you Ridley Scott is going to think twice next time he casts a white person in a role that should be really played by a person of color,” Paynter said. “That might not be a huge win today, but over time it’s the small wins that add up, and that’s how we change society.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.