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Is Ridley Scott's Biblical Epic Exodus Whitewashing Ancient Egypt?

Bob Chipman | 1 Aug 2014 12:00
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Hopefully Exodus will be more than just racial stereotypes.

Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings is looking to be one of the big prestige movies of 2014, with an Oscar-friendly mid-December release date, a classy cast including Christian Bale, Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, and the automatic Classical Hollywood Pedigree that comes from being an Old Testament Biblical-adaptation -- in this case another retelling of the Moses story -- that's quite openly not aiming for either Passion of The Christ-style controversy or Noah's revisionism.

But if the filmmakers were aiming for the safety of mass appeal by hedging their bets between superficial historical realism (this is definitely more Gladiator than 300) and Biblical literalism (supernatural elements like the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea are evidently present) they're not getting it: This is the first (reputable) live-action version of this story to be filmed since a 1996 miniseries for TNT, and as such has landed before the eyes of a globally-connected culture (and a Millennial generation of moviegoers) whose popular entertainment and school history curriculums stressed the troubling history of racial representation in historical films to a greater degree than any before them. And presented with Exodus, they're asking what is no longer an unusual question:

Why is everyone in Ancient Egypt white?

It's a good question (frankly, it's a good question to ask of most films); but one whose simplicity is at odds with its answers. "Whitewashing" and "racebending" serve their purpose well as catchy buzzwords that crystalizing the net-negative of what they describe, but they simplify a complex web of issues relating to history, perception and the relatively modern invention of "race" as we discuss it today.

There's no debating, for example, that American movies have a fairly shameful history when it comes to the depiction of non-white characters in film. But the most noxious example, "Blackface," had a relatively small presence on film -- it was more prominent as a device of live-theater. More common (particularly in the days before color could be filmed) were white actors donning more "subtle" tanning makeups or stereotypical clothing items to play Latino, Asian, Indian or Native American characters. But depictions of the Middle East were an entirely different matter.

To put it mildly, the then-modern Middle East didn't have much visibility to Americans in the age when Hollywood's formula for ethnic portrayal was being standardized. The average American's actual view of the Arab world would've been limited to black and white photos or film footage, and their broader imagining likely more informed by the pop-cultural ubiquity of western translations of The Arabian Nights. Early Hollywood's "Arabian" films were effectively "Orientalized" fantasy epics with Caucasian actors pitched as "Arab" by beard styles, costuming and jewelry.

And Ancient Egypt? Well, it received much the same treatment -- just more so.

But while it's easy to scoff at lily-white Hollywood stars of yesteryear posing in front of pyramid backdrops, a proper "fix" has never really been worked out to any kind of broadly agreed-upon comfort. The modern fix for period representations of Asian or Arab cultures? Simple: Is your movie set in feudal Japan? Hire Japanese actors. Dynastic China? Chinese actors. The Middle East? Er... well, actually, the disparity of ethnicity within that region itself actually still gets used as cause to either whitewash or otherwise fudge the casting, but at least in theory one could simply cast actors of Iranian descent in a film about ancient Persia.

But Ancient Egypt has always presented a difficult case. Even setting aside the fact that we have very little actual concrete knowledge of how ethnicity and/or race were thought of in many ancient cultures, the traditional method of discerning a culture's population back through time (i.e. they probably looked like the area's native population of today) just doesn't work for ancient Egypt.

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