Director and creepy alien enthusiast Ridley Scott has a new Moses epic coming out later this year: Exodus: Gods and Kings. The trailer for the upcoming film, which stars Christian Bale, hints that the movie has all the hallmarks of a truly enjoyable Scott flick: action, drama, and impossibly giant walls of water.
The debate over Hollywood’s tendency to cast white actors for biblical roles has emerged several times over the past few years, what with the History Channel’s lily-white Jesus in their The Bible series and Darren Aronofsky’s painfully-white (and inexplicably Australian) Noah. With each new example of Hollywood “whitewashing” the Bible, critics are quick articulate the multitude of reasons why white biblical figures are inherently ridiculous: given the region and time period in which biblical stories are set, figures such as Jesus, Noah, and Moses were almost assuredly not white; the Bible says little about the appearance of most of these biblical figures, except that Jesus was probably not much to look at, so forcing them to be white shows clear bias; by endorsing all-white depictions of the Bible, Christians are cheapening the power and reach of the biblical narrative; and really, at this point, even white people are just generally tired of seeing white people in movies (including this white male).
Despite this litany of arguments, film critics have offered two largely economic explanations — sometimes posited as justifications — for tinsel town’s preference for Caucasian/British/Australian actors in biblical films. One is that everything revolves around the racial dynamics of star power. The other is that that the whiteness of biblical movies is simply a reflection of the whiteness of America.
On the first point, the theory goes that film executives want to make money on biblical movies, and so usually opt for the “most recognizable” (read: lucrative and white) actors to play leading roles. Noah co-writer Ari Handel, who said he “nearly abandoned” the film over the issues of race, made a similar argument when confronted with the question about why his movie was almost entirely white. Handel explained that the team didn’t want to make it look like some people from different races were being left off the Ark, so he and director Darren Aronofsky set the goal of making everyone in the film the same race of the protagonist. Thus, when the (predictably white) box-office behemoth Russell Crowe signed on as the star, everyone else in the film had to be white as well. Or something.
But the racial economics of Hollywood are changing, and Handel, Scott, and others are no longer “required” to pick white actors to make money. Yes, the register of top-grossing actors is mostly white (and male), but Will Smith and Denzel Washington are also consistently listed among the top moneymakers in Hollywood, and the top-grossing actor of 2013 was actually Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, according to Forbes. It’s an open question as to whether or not someone like The Rock would make a “good” Moses (although Denzel certainly would), but it’s worth noting that director Brett Ratner apparently thought Johnson lucrative enough to cast him as another traditionally-white character in an equally big-budget film: Hercules. There are dozens of other non-white actors who could portray a stunning Moses and turn a profit, and while conventional wisdom tells us that “race-themed” movies (e.g., films with predominantly non-white casts) don’t perform as well, last year the mostly-black ensemble of The Best Man Holiday nearly beat out Thor at the holiday box office. And lest we forget, Dreamworks’ stunning 1998 epic The Prince of Egypt— which grossed more then $200 million — starred a non-white Moses, albeit an animated version voiced by a white man.
Here we run into another supposed truism orbiting around this subject — that the whiteness of biblical movies is simply a reflection of the whiteness of America. Depictions of Jesus often resemble the local population, such as the more eastern-looking “Chinese Jesus” in China or the dark-skinned “Black Christ” in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean. The prevailing logic then becomes the following: since (1) directors like Ridley Scott are making biblical films for a largely American audience, and (2) the United States is a majority-white nation (for now), biblical movies produced in America will naturally feature white stars so they can appeal to as wide of a domestic audience as possible. Hence Mel Brooks in History of the World Part I and Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. The “American Moses,” it would seem, is doomed to be white.
But this conclusion ignores the complex role Moses has played in American history and culture. As any student of American religious activism can attest, when it comes to public discourse in the United States, the title of “American Moses” is not owned by white people. Comparisons between military leaders and the savior of the Jewish people were popular during the American Revolution (George Washington) and the Civil War (Robert E. Lee), but Exodus was just as passionately invoked by abolitionists who fought to free American slaves in the early 1800s. Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who risked her life to save dozens of others, was even dubbed “Moses” by her fellow activists. Fast-forward a century to the 1960s during the African American Civil Rights Movement, where protestors walked arm-in-arm as they sang Moses-themed variants of hymns such as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” (they replaced the line “Jesus Christ Is Born” with the phrase “Set my people free!“). Moses metaphors were also a constant among the sermons of Civil Rights pastors, and Martin Luther King Jr’s last public speech before he died — commonly called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” — closed with a powerful allusion to the prophet:
“I’ve seen the Promised Land,” King said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
The Exodus narrative extends to other champions of racial equality in America as well, such as Cesar Chavez, head of the United Farm Workers of America, who was called a “Moses figure” by the likes of President Bill Clinton. In short, while numerous groups have made claim to Moses in American history, the “race” of the “American Moses” is far from settled, and the Exodus narrative remains deeply important to many people of color.
Obviously no one racial group gets a monopoly on Moses, and Ridley Scott, as an artist, isn’t “obligated” to cast non-white actors. But Scott is a groundbreaking filmmaker who has busted stereotypes before, such as casting Sigourney Weaver and other strong female actors to headline iconic science fiction films — a traditionally male-dominated genre. As such, it is surprising and disappointing that, when given the profound opportunity to do justice to Moses’ prominent position as the spiritual leader of America’s oppressed — and make money doing it — Scott has opted to settle for the norm and take the easy way out. Moses, I imagine, would not be pleased.