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

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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Largely a trade economy with a thriving seaport and (at varying points) international-expansions, it’s likely that Egypt’s “ancient” period (roughly 6000 BC to Alexander the Great’s conquest in 330 BC) was more ethnically diverse in makeup than other areas are thought to have been in the same period — and that’s even before one takes into account the number of times the area was conquered and/or usurped by foreign powers who opted to integrate into traditional Egyptian political and social structures rather than replace them outright. What colored/painted artistic representations of survive of the period seem depict a multitude of skin hues, but others argue that these are meant to be taken as symbolic/aesthetic uses of color (like the neon hair on ostensibly Japanese characters in anime) and not representations of actual pigment.

Long story short: We don’t definitively know what Ancient Egyptians looked like.

Oh, we can narrow it down a lot: It’s not likely that they resembled the peoples of China or Japan, for example, just on the basis of geography. It’s also not likely that the average Egyptian looked much like Christian Bale — though, technically, he’s not actually playing an Egyptian in Exodus. But otherwise, it seems as possible for the persons who originally settled the area (believed to have occurred in the Neolithic period) to have been dark-skinned peoples from further south in Africa as it does for them to have been Semitic-looking peoples hailing from what we’d now call the broader Mideast.

And we definitely don’t know what the ethnic makeup of the place would’ve been during the heavily traveled (by foreigners and locals) period depicted in Exodus. Which, incidentally, is almost entirely conjecture to begin with: What are today thought of as the canonical texts of early Judaism were consolidated mainly from oral tradition centuries after most of the events described are believed to have occurred (or said to have occurred) and while Egypt is known to have had Semitic peoples among their slave populations and it’s possible that an exiled or escaped group of the same could have been the ancestors of the people who emerged as the Israelites in Canaan many generations later… there is no archaeological evidence yet uncovered to say which period a historical Moses or even a historical Exodus would have existed in (the film is working from the best known 20th Century “guestimate” version, which posits Moses as the adopted brother of Ramses II).

(And before you ask, no, the question of whether or not there was a “historical Moses,” period, isn’t really germane to this particular view of the subject.)

So, then. Am I “offended” by a mostly European-looking cast in a film set in ancient Egypt? Not exactly, no. If it’s true, as some have alleged, that the film depicts a multi-ethnic Egypt where African-descended citizens are only depicted in servant roles, though? That’s another matter. But as it stands I’d put my reaction somewhere closer to disappointed: We’ve seen this vision of this particular ancient culture before, and since a more “diverse” Ancient Egypt is at least more likely, it might be nice for Richard Pryor to not still be the the only black Pharaoh.

On the other hand, what is troubling is that the film seems all too willing to use racial/ethnic “coding” to delineate the good guys from the bad guys even with a largely white cast: In the trailer, Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver (playing Egyptian royals) appear to be sporting tans, “exotic” eyeliner and more ostensibly Egyptian-looking attire; while Christian Bale’s Moses just looks like Bale always does when he grows a beard, and is seen in less exotic-looking “general old-time” armor and dress.

So, Good Guys = familiar = white, Bad Guys = other = “something else.” Or at least that’s what it looks like. If that extends to the whole of the film, that will be a real shame — and all the more reason to try something different next time.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.