You’ve probably heard of the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings, which comes out on Friday.
I will not be reviewing this movie. I will not be watching this movie. I don’t need to do either of those things because the promotional photos and casting announcements tell me everything I need to know: The way the movie was made is fundamentally racist and erases both POC and Jews (and specifically Jews of color).
Image Description: A small figure stands in front of a giant wave. “From the director of Gladiator/Exodus/Gods and Kings” is written across the top in all caps. “December 12” is written at the bottom, much smaller, also in all caps. Image from IMDB.com
If you aren’t familiar with the casting, here are the bare bones: Moses is played by Christian Bale, Ramses is played by Joel Edgerton, and Tuya (Ramses’ mother) by Sigourney Weaver. Miriam is played by Tara Fitzgerald, and Aaron by Andrew Tarbet. (Incidentally, Miriam barely makes IMDB’s first billed list, and Aaron doesn’t at all.) You may have begun to notice a pattern here: all of these people are white.
There are a few people in the first-billed cast list who appear to be non-white, although they are pretty pale. There may also be a few Jews or at least people of Jewish ancestry in the cast—it’s incredibly difficult to find that kind of information on the internet, since most websites will do anything but actually say that an actor is Jewish–but they don’t play main characters, or even necessarily Hebrews. Interestingly, the farther down the cast list you get (most of them are uncredited), the darker actors’ skin tends to get. Just to make sure that we understand that yes, brown and black people exist–they’re just not as good as white people. For instance, there are a few black men in the cast, but none of them play named characters. Instead, their characters are called things like “Young Priest”, “Egyptian Servant”, and “Egyptian Thief“.
It’s quite impressive: this movie just keeps getting more racist the more time I spend looking at it.
The story of the Exodus takes place in Africa. Specifically Egypt, or at least that is where most of what the movie will presumably cover takes place. So why, exactly, are none of the main characters played by Egyptians? Why is Ramses not played by an Egyptian? The story of Exodus is one of the most important ones to the Jewish people, and Moses is our most important prophet. So why, exactly, is Moses not being played by a Mizrahi Jew? Why is Miriam, one of our greatest matriarchs, who is both a hero and a symbol to many feminist Jews, being played by a white woman who barely makes the first page of actors in the movie? Why? Why would you make this movie in this way?
Well, “because you’re incredibly racist” seems the obvious answer.
And, funnily enough, that’s remarkably similar to Ridley Scott’s answer–which was “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. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question didn’t even come up.” (The Guardian)
Let’s go over what’s wrong with that statement, shall we?
One: There are successful non-white actors. They exist. Finding successful Egyptian actors in Hollywood would be pretty difficult, but I am fairly certain he could have done better then Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale.
Two: “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such”. I’m not even going to get into how dismissive this phrase is. Just…just read the phrase again. “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such”.
Three: “The question didn’t even come up”. So, it wasn’t that he thought about it and decided that in order to get the budget you wanted, you needed well known white actors in the main roles. He never thought about it at all. He never even considered making the movie correctly, with more appropriate casting.
Four: If you are not going to make a movie like this correctly, a movie which tells a story which is so important to so many people, a story which is important to so many marginalized and oppressed people, do not make it at all.
And one more thing: If you’re going to make a movie about the Exodus, one of the Jewish people’s most important stories, and cast it so offensively, you could at least have the good grace not to release it less than a week before Chanukah.
Please, don’t go see this movie. Don’t give them money for erasing people. Don’t even go to their website, which might generate ad revenue. If you want to watch a movie about the Exodus, go watch Prince of Egypt–it’s by no means perfect, but the characters are at least drawn correctly, and it’s a beautiful film that cared about the story it was telling and what that story meant to people. And also, there is singing.