The thing wrong with Exodus: Gods and Kings is…well, just about everything to do with Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s really bad. But if we want to get specific here, Ridley Scott’s latest has caught a lot of Old Testament-style hellfire for its whitewashing of a story set in ancient Egypt. Even The Ten Commandments didn’t try to pull any white Rameses bullshit, and it was made in the 1950s!
It fits in with the worldview of the average moviegoer that whitewashing wouldn’t be a new phenomenon—Mickey Rooney playing the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is atrocious, but it also makes sense in a weird way, because that movie was made over 50 years ago, and (we tell ourselves) olden times were racist as fuck. We’re in the 21st century now. We’ve evolved.
Except, as this year has been an exercise in displaying, we really haven’t, as least not as much as some people might like to think. And so, in this enlightened age, whitewashing continues to be a thing. Exodus whitewashed African characters Moses and Rameses by casting white actors Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. (With some uncomfortable eau de brownface on Edgerton. “But it’s sunny out, and he’s tan!” No. Cut that shit out.) Pan whitewashed Tiger Lily by making the character white and casting actress Rooney Mara. Star Trek Into Darkness whitewashed Khan. The Last Airbender whitewashed the good guys and let the bad guys be. The Lone Ranger. 21. The Prince of Persia. It just. Keeps. Happening.
There’s this weird disconnect, where the people responsible for these movies don’t seem to get that casting a white actor as a character of color, in a world where non-white actors, characters, people in general are constantly shoved aside, is a thing you Should Not Do. To help those people, because no one ever said I was not sweet and kind and everything benevolent about the universe (seriously, no one ever said that), here are Common Defenses of Whitewashing and Why They Are Bullshit:
“We didn’t take race into consideration—we just cast the best person for the role.”
Perpetrators: M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender: “When we were casting, I was like, ‘I don’t care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I’m going to figure it out like a chessgame.’”
Starting off with a biggie—the Hollywood equivalent of “I don’t see color.” Which is great for you, really. How nice to live in that world where a person’s race is unimportant. The rest of us do not live in that world. The rest of us live in a world where the movie industry has been run since its inception by a bunch of white guys—white guys who valued whiteness—a result of which is that the diversity of the real world is not represented in film. The fact that you don’t see race as having an effect on how people are treated in the industry doesn’t mean the effect is not there.
But hey, I get it. Headshots cross your desk, you audition some people, you cast the best ones. But to assume that the reason the majority of actors up for any given role are white is just a coincidence—that it has nothing to do with a fundamental equality problem in Hollywood—is disingenuous and complicit with the larger problem. What you’re essentially saying when you just accept that “well, most of the good actors are white” is that white people are better actors than people of other races. And it sounds stupid when you put it like that, huh? There are good actors of color out there, doing good work and making a living, and there would be more if studios would put a smidge more effort into finding talented actors of color who are being passed over in favor white actors with a little bit of name recognition. Hollywood, you have a diversity problem, and nobody’s going to fix it but you.
“But most of the bankable actors are white! It sucks, but filmmaking is a business, and I have to do what makes financial sense.”
Perpetrators: Ridley Scott, director, Exodus: Gods and Kings: “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.”
21 producer Dana Brunetti: “Believe me, I would have LOVED to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted… If I had known how upset the Asian-American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.”
First off, shut the fuck up, Ridley. Joel Edgerton, excellent actor though he is, is not a box office draw. His name does not sell movies.
And secondly—there is a point to be made about how Hollywood is an inherently racist institution, and that sucks, and sometimes you have to make compromises for your movie to be considered marketable. I guess. But I’m sorry—I just don’t have much sympathy here, maybe because most of the movies that have whitewashed in recent years were just kind of… bleh, or worse than bleh. Just tell a good story. Stop playing along with the Hollywood status quo of “Audiences only about care white actors
because we mostly only show them white actors in the first place.”
“But I really respect [INSERT GROUP THAT YOU ARE NOT A PART OF HERE.]
Perpetrator: Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger: “I like the character… also I like the idea of having the opportunity to make fun of the idea of the Indian as a sidekick — which has always been [the case] throughout the history of Hollywood, the Native American has always been a second-class, third-class, fourth-class citizen, and I don’t see Tonto that way at all. So it’s an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.”
How about you “salute Native Americans” by letting them play themselves in movies, assbagel?
“There’s no reason the character couldn’t be white.”
Perpetrator: Jerry Bruckheimer, producer, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: “Persians were very light skinned… The Turks kind of changed everything. But back in the 6th century, a lot of them were blond and blue-eyed.”
Via The Wrap, on Joe Wright’s Pan: “Wright is planning to create a world that very international and multi-racial, effectively challenging audiences’ preconceived notions of Neverland and reimagining the environment.”
M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender: “The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous.’”
Next you gonna tell me that Jesus was white? Get outta here.
“It’s just a movie, stop freaking out over it.”
Perpetrators: Jake Gyllenhaal, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: “To me, it’s not something I gave a lot of thought because all of it such a fantasy. It’s based on a video game, not something out of history. There’s nothing real about this. It’s just an adventure and it’s fun and it’s strange in a way to hold one part of it and say, ‘That’s not real or right.’ “
Jake Gyllenhaal Ostrich Racing: The Movie could have been the best, most fun, most amazing movie since Flubber, and that would still in no way mean you shouldn’t point out ways in which it is fucked up. You can like things even if they’re problematic, and you can point out problematic elements in things you like. Let’s all try not to pull the ostrich feathers over our eyes.
“Look, there are black people! They’re right over there! Behind the pillar! See?”
Perpetrators: M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender: “I have hopes of what I want them to be, my hope was that the movie would be incredibly diverse. That when we look back on all three movies that it is one of the most diverse movies of all times. And that is the case when you watch the movies.”
Ridley Scott, Exodus: “Egypt was - as it is now - a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads geographically between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs. There are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people, and we had a lot of discussions about how to best represent the culture.”
White people as the leads, POC as the antagonists (for Airbender) and goddamned window dressing (Exodus). If you don’t see how that’s fucked up, I don’t know what to tell you.
“So you can cast a black guy as a white character but not a white guy as a black character?”
Perpetrators: Endless Internet commenters when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four reboot.
One word: YUP.
And finally, whatever the fuck this is.
Perpetrator: Christian Bale, Exodus: “It would absolutely be a wonderful day of celebration if, within a few decades, we have another Moses and he’s a North African or Middle Eastern actor — what a wonderful thing…I think that people, rather than pointing fingers, should ask themselves, are they being supportive of North African and Middle Eastern filmmakers and actors? … The change will come from independent filmmaking, but audiences have to be there. Because once that happens, financiers of bigger and bigger budget films will say, ‘We can actually do business here.’ “
“Yeah, more diversity would be great! We should totally do that! And by ‘we’ I mean all you layabout assholes who aren’t seeing enough Middle Eastern independent film, not the directors actually in charge of casting decisions. You schmucks. I’M BATMAN.”