This Friday is going to be one of the biggest social justice weekends for movies. Why? Because, as the Universe would have it, Hollywood is ironically playing host to the best and worst of Hollywood’s tendencies when it comes to minorities in films.
On the one hand we have the Chris Rock directed-and-starring film, Top Five. This film, which includes a bevy of black comedians from Leslie Jones, Cedric the Entertainer, JB Smoove, Tracey Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Che, Jay Pharoah and others, is a film that Rock arguably couldn’t have made back in the ’90s, when he was a big name on Saturday Night Live. Now that he’s basically got his own capital, he can write and produce the kinds of movies Hollywood wouldn’t have allowed him to make simply because they thought there wouldn’t be a market for it.
As he said in his open letter to Hollywood:
The best ones are made outside of the studio system because they’re not made with that many white people — maybe one or two, but not a whole system of white people. I couldn’t have made Top Five at a studio. First of all, no one’s going to make a movie with a premise so little and artsy: a star putting out a movie and getting interviewed by a woman from The New York Times. I would have had to have three two-hour meetings explaining that black people also read The New York Times. A studio would’ve made it like Malibu’s Most Wanted. And never in a million years would they have allowed a scene where the rich guy comes back to the projects and actually gets along with everybody. No way. In most black movies — and in most black TV shows and even in most black plays — anyone with money or an education is evil, even movies made by black directors. They have to be saved by the poor people. This goes back to Good Times and What’s Happening!!
On the other hand, we have Exodus: Gods and Kings, which was directed by one of the biggest names in Hollywood, Ridley Scott. With that kind of name power, Scott could have sold this movie solely by his self-made prestige. The conceit that he’d need big names to sell his film is, in a word, ridiculous. Scott could have easily made the same big-budget film if he wanted to actually discover talent that would represent the ethnicities of the characters and region of the story of Moses.
You can reference my other article about the ethnicities of Moses, Rameses, and other characters, but even without looking up whether Egyptians are African or not (hint: they are), you can tell something’s not smelling right when Scott says something as prejudicial as this to Variety and think its okay:
“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 doesn’t even come up.”
There would have been a time when I would have said, “What he said and how he said it is unfortunate, but he’s right about the funding issue.” Thankfully, I’m wiser now and today I say that what he said and how he said it is unfortunate and that he’s wrong that he could have raised the funding.
Look, if he was really about making the film the way that would honor the culture of the story, he would have done what was right, which is hire some actors that represent that culture that do exist in Hollywood. There’s a plethora of Middle-Eastern and Egyptian actors out there that we’ve all seen before in fare like 24 and Homeland, but unfortunately, those actors, who can do so much more than play terrorists or other key players in the War on Terror, only get to play terrorists or other key War on Terror players. That’s highly unfair. Even if Hollywood wouldn’t have given him the money he needed, Scott’s got enough of his own capital to fund the movie. If he didn’t have everything he needed, I’m sure he’s got backers who’d be willing to put up half. He could have even partnered with other countries’ film studios that would accept his film. He could have literally done anything else than cast the film the way he did.
It would have been a tougher road to make a correct Exodus film, but in the long run, it would have been worth it–just take a look at the B.S. George Lucas had to go through to get Hollywood to take notice of his passion project, Red Tails, the story about the Tuskegee Airmen, a part of the Air Force that helped us defeat our WWII enemies and represented a watershed moment in the armed forces’ stance on civil rights. This is a movie about American heroes, and Hollywood execs still didn’t want to touch it because they felt like audiences didn’t want to see films about black people. In the end, Lucas had to fund the film himself. He could have given up, but he toughed it out and made the film and, despite what reviews might say, black Hollywood and Hollywood as a whole is better for it.
Of course, Exodus: Gods and Kings wouldn’t look the way it does if Scott and the people around him actually did realize that Egyptians’ image in Hollywood has been whitewashed since the 1930s, and in scientific circles, it’s been whitewashed since the 1800s. This idea that Egyptians are somehow the exception in Africa and therefore can’t be African (i.e. black) is rooted in racist ideology. This idea has also been so entrenched in our society that it leads to problematic Twitter statements from Fox exec Rupert Murdoch stating that Egyptians are white and interview statements from Christian Bale (who I believe proclaims himself to be a humanitarian), who said this to Entertainment Tonight:
Ridley’s point, which I think is a good one, is what does an Egyptian look like? Especially at that time when this was the empire, so it would be a crossroads of Europe and the Middle East and Africa, and he cast accordingly. 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.
I point out Bale’s humanitarianism since I don’t think he’s literally a racist. I don’t think anyone in this movie would label themselves “racist”–actually, you don’t have to be a racist to have some troubling views simply due to societal osmosis, as many studies have shown. Everyone, including black people, have implicit biases ingrained in them, despite what they consciously think about things when it comes to race and representation. But, when it comes to certain things, like who gets cast as whom in movies, this is when those implicit biases come out, and those biases really represent the phrase “The devil’s in the details.”
To Bale’s small credit, he did say in an interview with The Guardian that he’d like for the day to come when movies are represented in a diverse fashion (despite the fact that him playing Moses is part of the problem). But, apparently, Scott has said that those critical about the casting choices should “get a life.” What does this statement mean, exactly? That you don’t want to listen to factual arguments from those who take umbrage to the whitewashing of an African and Middle Eastern story? If that’s true, then a lot of us won’t bet getting lives soon.
So, while I never like taking money out of working folks’ mouths, I’d say that if you decide to go to the movies this weekend, make sure to buy a ticket for Top Five and support black filmmaking. I’m going to be boycotting Exodus: Gods and Kings to take a stand, and I’d love for others who read this to join me. But if you do buy a ticket, make sure you think about what you’re seeing displayed to you on the screen. How do you think it will make you feel? If you feel uncomfortable as you watch, remember that feeling, since it will allow you to open your mind to the real tragedy of Hollywood–the persistent whitewashing of roles and the limited roles for minority actors and actresses.