Seeing Red: Is Ridley Scott's 'Exodus' Racist or Groundbreaking?

Critics are slamming the director for casting black actors as slaves and servants, but 'Exodus' is set to break casting tradition in one important way.

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Even before it hits cinemas this December, Ridley Scott’s "Exodus: Gods and Kings" has been the source of controversy for its allegedly racist casting. Some critics complained that Scott’s leading players are played by white actors – such as Christian Bale, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver – while non-white actors depict the lower classes of slaves, servants and civilians.

As the #BoycottExodusMovie hashtag spread on Twitter this summer, Scott himself was forced to defend his casting choices. "Egypt was – as it is now – a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads geographically between Africa, the Middle East and Europe," he told Yahoo!. "We cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs. 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."

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" certainly looks set to break with casting tradition in one important regard. In the past it was typical to cast British actors in the role of the baddies (the Egyptians) and Americans in the role of the goodies (the Hebrews). This is certainly what Cecil B. DeMille did with his epic "The Ten Commandments" in 1956.

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" is set to break the mould, though, as this time the Welsh Bale and American Paul play Moses and Joshua, respectively. John Turturro is cast as Seti I, while Sir Ben Kingsley plays the Hebrew Nun. The choice of Kingsley draws upon his previous history of playing Jews such as The Rabbi in "Lucky Number Slevin," Itzhak Stern in "Schindler’s List" and Meyer Lansky in "Bugsy." The casting of Turturro, with his darkish Italian-American heritage, perhaps resembles that of the distinctly Eurasian-looking Yul Brynner as Ramses in DeMille's epic. (But of course, Turturro has also played Jews – most famously in the Coen brothers’ 1990s movies "Miller’s Crossing" and "Barton Fink.")

The casting of "Exodus: Gods and Kings" echoes another aspect of "The Ten Commandments." Scott’s use of non-Jewish actors as the leading Hebrew characters mirrors how DeMille de-Judaized and drained the Exodus of any specifically Jewish content.

DeMille made no attempt to understand Judaism’s formative moment. His Hebrews were cardboard characterizations and, where they did appear, did so more out of necessity than choice – for example, Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, with his distinctively gravelly American accent. And DeMille's casting of the non-Jewish Charlton Heston as Moses clearly intended to depict him as the all-American hero. The cumulative result was that the Jewish features so central to the biblical story were watered down and neutralized.

Will Scott do the same, or will his film invest more energy into understanding the specifically Jewish nature of the story? Scott himself is neither Jewish, nor has a particularly distinguished record of putting Jews on screen. But when he did, as in his drug drama "American Gangster" (2007), the result was far from stereotypical, with Russell Crowe starring as a tough, kick-ass, honest cop in a hostile and corrupt world.

'The birth of freedom'

Biblical epics such as "The Ten Commandments" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings" tend to say more about the period in which they are released than the one they purport to represent. So how will "Exodus" reflect our current age? The original "The Ten Commandments" (1923) – also directed by DeMille – used the Bible to legitimate a new form of entertainment; one that many feared was a force for corruption.

The 1956 version spoke to a Cold War audience. It was crafted to reflect the mood of the times, so it became a story of American-led freedom versus Soviet-style tyranny. The ancient Hebrews were proto-Americans, fighting against slavery and dictatorship. If the parallel wasn’t clear enough, DeMille himself inserted a prologue in which he spelled it out. He described the Exodus from Egypt as "the story of the birth of freedom." He then identified this freedom with the American struggle during the Cold War: "The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today."

Perhaps "Exodus: Gods and Kings" will speak to a current generation of viewers whose Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles are filled with stories of tyranny in the Middle East. We are seeing a trend toward more films reflecting on the complexities of the Middle East and American intervention, such as "The Hurt Locker" (the Iraq War) and "Argo" (set in post-Shah Iran). In this age of the ongoing Syrian conflict, as well as the depredations of Islamic State, the film might very well resound with contemporary audiences who see a parallel between Moses leading the Hebrews against the Egyptians, and today’s conflicts.

And since Americans have been cast in the key roles of Moses and Joshua (Bale may be Welsh, but most of his on-screen characters have been Americans), the film may well be interpreted as a call to arms for the United States to spearhead greater involvement in the Middle East. Ridley Scott, it may be seen, is pushing President Barack Obama to be more interventionist. In this respect, he has previous form with his earlier trilogy of epics – namely "Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down" and "Kingdom of Heaven" – potentially interpreted as highlighting America’s martial values and militarism at the turn of the millennium.

Epics always tend to come in cycles. The 1923 version was part of a wave of sword-and-sandal films, as was the 1956 remake. Likewise, "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is the latest product of the current cycle that began with Scott’s own "Gladiator" in 2000. These cycles are as much motivated by economics as they are by historical context. In 1956, DeMille produced a thrilling spectacle, showcasing the latest cinematic technologies at a time when Hollywood was feeling under threat from television. He emphasized those very aspects that TV did not possess: size and color. Likewise, as the trailer for "Exodus: Gods and Kings" shows, it appears to be utilizing the latest developments in CGI, producing an unparalleled live-action ancient Egypt.

And the exodus is always a bankable storyline. DeMille’s 1956 version was a huge success when it was first released, making an astonishing $43 million at the box office. It continues to be popular today, being one of the few religious epics annually broadcast on television at Passover and Easter. Perhaps Scott wants in: to create a new vision of "The Ten Commandments" that will dominate our screens for decades to come.

AP
AP