CULTURAL DISTORTION: Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh Ramses II and Christian Bale (right) as Moses
THE RELEASE of a Hollywood Christmas blockbuster always attracts and excites film lovers, especially if it promises to follow the classic, biblical storyline.
However, this year’s epic Exodus Gods and Kings, directed by Gladiator filmmaker Ridley Scott, has attracted controversy as calls emerge for black communities to shun the film.
A protest launched on social media websites urging cinemagoers to boycott the movie is gathering pace.
The sticking point is the casting.
The move to have Australian actor Joel Edgerton play Pharaoh Ramses II and British actor Christian Bale as Moses has led to the film being branded racist, with the few selected black actors relegated to playing servants, thieves and lower-class civilians.
It seems the film follows a stereotypical Hollywood tradition of portraying biblical characters as white rather than their true ethnic identities.
But Scott has defended his decision for ‘whitewashing’ the film, declaring that “had white actors not filled most of the key roles, it would never have got off the ground financially”. This is despite his previous promise that he would represent “a confluence of cultures”.
“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,” retorted Scott. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
CRITICISM: Memes like this appeared on the Internet
He added that “there are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people” and said that he had “lots of discussions about how to best represent the culture” which ranges from “Iranians, Spaniards to Arabs.”
Co-founders of the organisation Black History Studies (BHS), Mark and Charmaine Simpson, told The Voice: “Throughout history Europeans have always tried to highjack the identity of ancient Egyptians, despite countless Egyptologists, scholars, historians, scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists – many of whom are Europeans themselves – have documented information that they were black.”
The founder of physical anthropology, Dr James Cowles Prichard, made the following statement on the racial identity of the ancient Egyptians in 1813: “It appears from the remark of [Greek historian] Herodotus that woolly hair like that of the Negroes prevailed among the Egyptians, and by comparing this fact with the other characteristics mentioned by [Ancient Greek satirist] Lucian [of Samasota], we are led to infer that this nation had the distinguishing marks of the African race.
“This conclusion is confirmed by the travellers, who have described some of the most ancient Egyptian monuments [i.e. Norden, De Volney, Sonnini and Denon] and particularly the Sphinx which stands amidst the pyramids, and is probably coeval [having the same date of origin] with those venerable fabricks. These figures have exactly the characteristic features of the Negro.”
Other scholars such as the distinguished English philosopher John Stuart Mill, also wrote an insightful and revealing essay entitled The Negro Question, stating: “It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilisation was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilisation. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a Negro race.”
HISTORICAL RECORD: An example of how Ancient Egyptians portrayed themselves
Responding to Scott’s excuses about why the film had to be overwhelmingly white, BHS told The Voice: “It has just been announced that Beyoncé is now the most Grammy-nominated woman of all-time, proving when it suits the mainstream media they can make or break whoever they want.”
On whether the film should be boycotted, historian Dr Horace Wright told The Voice that the community should “vote with their purse”.
“Films are more than just entertainment, but also a tool used to condition our minds and keep us in a slave mind mentality,” he said. “We need to make our children stop watching these types of propaganda. It is far more crucial for ‘us’ to learn about economics and the effects it has on our race and learn how we can keep the monies we earn within our community by spending it amongst ourselves, which in turn, will help to strengthen the black economy.”
Wright, who is also a pastor at the Holy Qubtic Church, continued: “We need to send out a message to all the corporation industries that we will not continue to support them in suppressing our race and hit them where it hurts.”
BHS said further: “Instead of using our energy to protest or boycott, this can be taken as an opportunity by our community to highlight the true history, which will then expose the film as a fraudulent representation of the history from that time.”
This is not the first time biblical characters have been misrepresented on screen. Hollywood has consistently portrayed ancient Egyptians and ancient Egyptian royalties as Europeans.
Classic films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) featured Charlton Heston as Moses and Anne Baxter as Nefertari.
WHITEWASH: Yul Brynner as Rameses and Anne Baxter as Egyptian Queen Nefertari
Explaining how the whitewashing of Ancient Egyptians in popular culture has changed the way the world views its history, Dr Wright said: “Our parents were raised in the church and were taught these biblical stories. These stories were fed to them by European ministers when we were colonised or by the slave masters themselves then later re-enforced by European ministers after our freedom. In fact, during the 60s and 70s most children were sent to their local church every Sunday for Sunday School, making sure the spell was not lifted.”
He continued: “One of the biggest spell endorsers was the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. After watching this movie, viewers would associate Moses with actor Charlton Heston, therefore placing in their minds that Jews were the chosen seed and everyone else were pagans.
“Another part of the spell is the misrepresentation that Egyptians were also of European descent, even though we were not taught that Egypt was a part of Africa. But whenever this became apparent we would remember that they were evil. And if by some miracle we got passed that spell and realised Egypt was in Africa and these Africans built great structures like The Pyramids, we would believe this was done by those Europeans seen in the movies.”
Advocating the importance of accurate accounts of black history and defending why true portrayal of colour and race matters, Dr Wright explained: “The black community have been conditioned to settle with the little they have and not to rock the boat. We have been made to feel guilty whenever we speak about our race and the exploitation of our ancestors. Yet every other race can tell their story of oppression.
“In order for our children to break out of this spiral declining self hating cycle, the truth most be told. We must seek out ‘our-story’ and give them back their ‘his-story’.”
Focusing on the future of Hollywood, BHS suggested: “If you want something done in a certain way then you should do it yourself. The honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey taught us to do for self. If he was alive today, he would probably be making epic films of our history. Therefore, if we want to see movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings with a black majority cast, we should be the directors as a balance to the status quo.
“There is nothing stopping us from doing it, there is enough of us to do it, if we get over the fear it can be done.”