Unbearable whiteness of Exodus: Race is still a blind spot for Hollywood

Exodus: Gods and Kings shows us that Hollywood is uncomfortable with issues of race and ethnicity.

Sandip Roy December 06, 2014 13:42:30 IST
Unbearable whiteness of Exodus: Race is still a blind spot for Hollywood

It’s unlikely Indians will care particularly that Moses and Rhamses are played by two very white actors in Ridley Scott’s Exodus. We have no time for that kind of debate about authenticity. The hashtag #BoycottExodusMovie will likely gain little traction in a country where Priyanka Chopra wins gushing kudos for playing Manipuri boxer Mary Kom. “I don’t look like Mary. I don’t have features like her,” said Chopra. “But I have given blood and soul for this film to make sure I represent Mary’s spirit.” Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton should have channeled Chopra when trying to defend their white-skinned Moses and Rhamses.

Instead Bale came up with the most convoluted explanation for the unbearable whiteness of his Hebrew Moses.

I don’t know the fact that I was born in Wales and suffer with this skin that can’t deal with the sun should dictate that Ridley should say, ‘In that case, he’s not the right man to play the role.’ I did the best that I can. I’m certainly not going to pass it up. It’s a hell of a role.

Bailing Bale out in the strange explanations department was studio mogul Rupert Murdoch who defiantly defended the almost all-white Exodus by saying, “Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.”

Of course the real reason for the white-washed Exodus was given by the film’s director Ridley Scott and it’s as old as Hollywood itself.
“I can’t mount a film on this budget ( $140 million ) where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Muhammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he told Variety. “I’m just not going to get it financed.”

Unbearable whiteness of Exodus Race is still a blind spot for Hollywood

Courtesy: Facebook

And therein you have the Catch-22. A big-budget film needs a big-name star. And there is no big-name-enough Middle Eastern/ South Asian/ (fill in your ethnicity) star to match the budget. On the other hand it will be hard to ever have such a star because no studio wants to take that chance in the first place. Omar Sharifs are created by studios, not by immaculate conception.

So we will always have the likes of Bale and Edgerton channeling the “spirit” of Moses and Rhamses. The spirit is willing but the studio is weak.

Except of course, that’s also a cop-out. The 1956 Ten Commandments was hardly a poster film of diversity. But it did co-star Yul Brynner who was about as “ethnic” as Hollywood was in those days. In that sense, Exodus is actually a regression. Newsweek quotes the Hollywood Diversity Report as saying only 11% of films have an ethnic minority actor playing a lead role while ethnic minority actors made up just 10% of the cast in a majority of films. And if you eliminated Denzel Washington and Will Smith, those numbers would probably plunge into single digits.

Actually, British films and television have been much more comfortable with colour. Perhaps it’s colonial guilt or colonial nostalgia. Either way, it has meant that a Richard Attenborough took a chance on an unknown Krishna Bhanji for the lead role of Gandhi. Alec Guinness might have put on brown face for A Passage to India but David Lean did give the plum role of Dr Aziz to Victor Banerjee. Jewel in the Crown made Art Malik a star. Slumdog Millionaire might have made opened the Hollywood doors for Freida Pinto but it was essentially a British film.

Hollywood only now is hesitantly taking a chance on a Kal Penn and a Pinto decades after monkey-brain chomping Amrish Puri whose role might have done more damage than good to desi roles in Hollywood films anyway. Sarita Choudhury did break ground with Mississippi Masala in 1991 but after The Perez Family and House of Spirits, her career meandered. It’s only now that the television series Homeland has given her a new lease of life as Mira Berenson.

But the career graph of Choudhury also throws up some intriguing questions about authenticity. In between Mississippi Masala and Homeland, she’s not necessarily stuck to her ethnicity. She is Cuban in The Perez Family and Chilean in The House of Spirits and part Native American in Fresh Kill. In short, she gets to play brown but is that that much more “authentic” when it comes to casting? While Exodus is lambasted for “cinematic colonialism” by making the main characters white and the slaves and side characters African, what about the two most prominent people of colour in the cast? Ben Kingsley plays an Israelite named Nun and Indira Varma (of Kamasutra fame) plays a high priestess. Does their melanin make up for its blinding omission in the rest of the cast even though they are hardly Egyptian?

The authenticity debate is a bit of a rabbit hole forcing us to burrow every deeper if we get too stuck in it. Should New Zealander Russell Crowe be a Roman gladiator? Homeland certainly deserves a rap on its knuckles for the stilted Urdu its characters speak in the current season supposedly set in Pakistan. The actors are apparently mostly South African and their Urdu sounds like the ‘sab theek hai jaldi jaldi” sahibs in old Hindi films. But while devious ISI operatives might not exactly be dream roles, Pakistanis could also grumble that the big roles have gone to Indians like Nimrat Kaur and Suraj Sharma or Brits like Raza Jaffrey and Art Malik (though he at least is Pakistani born).

While the authenticity debate, left unchecked, can suffocate life out of a film by making casting all about the correct genetic makeup, it does not let Exodus off the hook. Exodus is an epic story with a large cast which actually allows it more wiggle room when it comes to diversity a la Star Trek. Cleopatra in 1963 could get away with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton because the film was really an Egyptian fancy dress over-the-top backdrop for its main draw – the tumultuous off-screen romance between its two flamboyant stars. Ridley Scott on the other hand has actually spent millions on getting the historical accuracy of Exodus just right from the costumes to the props. The epic tragedy of Exodus is that zeal extended to everything but its cast. The casting is not colour-blind just blindingly monochrome.

Memo to Scott: Eyeliner, however fabulous, does not an Egyptian make.

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