White man’s burden

17_black-jesusWhile browsing at a market on the weekend, I stopped at a stall selling classic film photo-books. These promotional collectibles were similar to lobby cards, but feature pictures of the movie stars, or fawning interviews with the director, organised by the studio.

The first one I found on top of the pile was of Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston. I opened it up and happened to land on a page with a press photo of Vincent Price as Baka, the Egyptian Master Builder.

The thought of Price, with his clipped Missouran accent and pale skin playing an Egyptian servant of Pharoah (here played by a Russian) struck me as ridiculous. It also brought home to me how films adapted from the Bible today, such as Noah, Son of God and most recently Exodus, are being critiqued for their representation of race. This reflects how standards in cinema have shifted. Social media and a globalised online media have effectively demolished the control enjoyed by studios in DeMille’s day.

This is also a sign of how Christianity itself is entering a post-colonial phase. Noticeably, Caucasian Bible prophets and messiahs on the big screen simply do not make the cut.

The centrality of Bible stories within Western culture was neatly reflected in that photo booklet I found. Here I saw a parade of white faces performing as Ancient Hebrews and Egyptians.

The expensive spectacles DeMille brought to the screen were validated by the Book of Exodus, which the film, a work of Hollywood entertainment, co-opted for its spiritual and cultural importance.

The director, after all, was a devout Christian. But he was also a businessman who knew how to make a buck.

Bible films are essentially commercial products. Church groups provide a reliable source of income in the US and in other countries with largely Christian populations. Simply put, the reason for the continuing policy of casting Australian, British and American actors as Hebrews and Egyptians is because the films are being sold to those markets.

Director Ridley Scott, the helmer of Exodus: God and Kings, kindly put this into words for Variety magazine:

“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.”

In a biting moment of irony, Exodus features a scene with Moses (Christian Bale) and Pharoah (Joel Edgerton) debating freeing the Hebrews: “From an economic standpoint alone, what you’re asking is problematic.”

Criticism of the film’s casting of white actors in the lead roles was spurred on by users on social media drawing attention to persons of colour principly playing slaves or background characters. One of the few actors of a modern Middle Eastern background featured in the film is Dar Salim, a Danish actor. He plays a military commander named Khyan who is sympathetic to Moses. But again, his character largely appears in the background of scenes with Bale and Edgerton.

The criticism is a fascinating comment on how American cinema genuinely is universal, even if the casts are not.  In a deluge of comments, online tweets and tumblr posts from Chicago to Cairo expressed strong feelings on the outdated racial politics of Exodus.

What is strange about this, dare we say, traditional Hollywood approach of Scott to the depiction of race, is how the film’s screenplay deliberately subverts the popular perception of the Moses story. Here Bale strides on screen as an experienced military leader, no babe in the reeds. The divine presence in the film is largely offscreen for the first half and then ambiguously introduced.

The Ten Commandments are defined as an exercise in nation building, not moral instruction.

Why is Exodus willing to take narrative risks with adapting the Bible (see also Darren Aronofsky’s visually ambitious Noah), but continues to act as if Ancient Egypt is a Hollywood backlot?

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