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'Exodus' racial casting controversy is a familiar one

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" has generated heated debate and controversy because of its alleged "whitewashing" of Egyptian culture.

Before it even hits theaters, director Ridley Scott's Biblical epic "Exodus: Gods and Kings" has generated heated debate and controversy because of its alleged "whitewashing" of Egyptian culture.

The film stars white actors Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver as Egyptians, while critics point out that black members of the cast are largely relegated to playing servants, assassins and thieves. Edgerton, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Australian who plays the iconic Ramses, is made to appear more ethnic with the use of make-up and copious eyeliner.

The backlash on social media has been swift, with the hashtag #BoycottExodusMovie making the rounds prior to the film's Dec. 12 release date.

"To make the main characters white and everyone else African is cinematic colonialism," wrote David Dennis Jr. in post for Medium. "It’s creating a piece of historical 'art' that carries on oppressive imagery that’s helped shackle entire countries and corners of the world." 

Edgerton has said he "empathizes" with those who consider the movie culturally insensitive. "It's not my job to make those decisions ... I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job," he told Australian broadcaster SBS.

Yet, director Scott has been unmoved. In widely criticized comments on the issue, the 77-year-old filmmaker defended his casting choices as a matter of commerce. “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,” he told Variety.

“I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up,” he added.

Later, Scott made a more delicate defense of his film in an interview with Yahoo! Australia, arguing that Egypt has always been "a confluence of cultures."

"We cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs," Scott said. "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."

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox is releasing the film, also rushed to Scott's defense. On Nov. 28, in a series of tweets, Murdoch dismissed complaints about "Exodus".

"Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are," he tweeted. Later Murdoch said, "Of course Egyptians are Middle Eastern, but far from black. They treated blacks as slaves."

This debate over the racial make-up of ancient Egypt hasn't stopped Hollywood from making three biopics of the empire's most famous queen, Cleopatra, starring white actresses, with a fourth film rumored to star Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie possibly in the works. Jolie was previously the subject of "blackface" complaints following her performance as the mixed race Mariane Pearl in the film "A Mighty Heart". 

Ironically, as white producers and money men seek to suggest that people up-in-arms about "Exodus" are overreacting, audiences of color are contending with a brewing backlash about the appearance of black British actor John Boyega as a stormtrooper in the upcoming "Star Wars" sequel "The Force Awakens."

"Star Wars" purists claim Boyega is miscast because previous films established stormtroopers as non-black, but it was hard for some to miss the racist undertones in their gripes. Similar hackles were raised when black actor Idris Elba played the traditionally white role of Heimdall in the "Thor" movies and when an actress of color portrayed Rue in the first "Hunger Games" film, despite the fact that her character was described as "dark-skinned" in the original book.

The reason the "Exodus" controversy seems to have sparked a deeper sense of disgust among minorities is that in over 100 years of cinema, until the last few decades, performers of color have been either rendered invisible, forced onto the sidelines or used to reinforce negative stereotypes.

Minority film-goers of yesteryear accepted the likes of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in "The Ten Commandments," because the Hollywood studios simply didn't cultivate black and brown stars. Today, many of the most reliably bankable names at the box office belong to actors of color, and yet there is still resistance to casting ethnically authentic actors in major roles.

For audiences of color, the fight for more multiracial casting is a matter of representation, whether it be in historical films or fantasies like "Star Wars." According to this year's Hollywood Diversity Report, only 11% of films cast an ethnic minority actor in a lead role, while ethnic minority actors made up just 10% of the cast in most movies.

South Asian comedian Aziz Ansari joked about the white domination of most cinematic offerings in a 2010 stand-up special when he claimed a white interviewer once told him he must be "psyched about all this ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ stuff.”

"I was, like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Are white people just psyched all the time? It’s, like, 'Back to the Future’—that’s us! ‘The Godfather’—that’s us! ‘The Godfather Part II’—that’s us! ‘Departed’—that’s us! ‘Sunset Boulevard’—that’s us! ‘Citizen Kane’—that’s us! ‘Jaws’—that’s us! Every f--kin’ movie but ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Boyz n the Hood’ is us!” quipped Ansari.

And this doesn't even begin to address the lack or power behind the camera. For instance, the highly publicized hack of Sony Pictures, besides prematurely leaking some upcoming films, revealed that their highest salaries go almost exclusively to white men

Meanwhile, Boyega has been widely praised for telling his critics: "Get used to it." The same could be said to those who complain that political correctness has no place in the movies or that there's nothing wrong with almost exclusively casting white actors to play Egyptian parts. Yes, it's only a movie, but film lasts forever, particularly when it comes to a populace who is more familiar with reality TV stars than the vice president of the United States.

Sigal Samuel, writing for the Jewish Daily Forward, has said Scott and his fellow filmmakers have a "responsibility to buck that trend" of "whitewashing" movies.

"That responsibility is thrown into even greater relief at a time like this, when the Ferguson protesters are doing everything possible to emphasize that racism is a systemic problem, built into the basic machinery of our lives. That machinery, of course, includes Hollywood — and so Scott’s self-justification reads, right now, as particularly tone-deaf."