When Less Says More: Gods of Egypt’s whitewashing problem

 

If you have what it takes to sit through the Gods of Egypt trailer, you’ll probably find the awful CGI (seemingly designed to burn viewer’s eyes out of their sockets) to be just annoying, not a source of genuine indignation. No, that would be the overwhelming amount of white people in a movie they should definitely not be so prominent in.

Re-alerted to what the Washington Post dubs the “Exodus fiasco”, the social justice warriors of the internet have once again flocked to re-tread the critique dealt to last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and echo Roxane Gay’s sentiment in her essay ‘When Less Is More’ that “time and time again, people of colour are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table” and are still expected to have to deal with, well, this.

Besides not following the Egyptian canon plot-wise, the whitewashed majority of the cast aren’t even trying to look Egyptian in the slightest, to the point where the extras are actually spray-tanned. Not a single non-white person features predominantly in the trailer except Chadwick Boseman – for about two seconds – and even he’s been criticized as embodying the trope of the all-knowing ‘magical negro’. Plus, you don’t have to be an ethnographer to see that even Boseman is of the wrong ethnicity for the film’s setting, which means even this poor attempt at injecting a smidgeon of diversity backfires laughably. So with the widely-criticised whitewashing of Stonewall still fresh in our media-consuming minds, and the erasure of the crucial roles played by real-life trans women of colour in 1969 being a bit more culturally relevant today, it borders on ridiculous that the Mummy and Night at the Museum franchises have better track records with this sort of thing than films from the past year.

It doesn’t take deep digging (I can’t resist referring to the “follow the money” trope here) to realise the underlying problem is actually the studio process. With Exodus: Gods and Kings, for which Ridley Scott continues to receive flak, the director defends himself by claiming that pitching films with budgets of this bulk to studios with unknown but ethnically correct actors – whom he problematically refers to as Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such’ – would have gotten him nowhere with production companies. This money-snatching morality and political incorrectness aside, can we really blame him? Maybe mortal men like Alex Proyas and Ridley Scott are just players in a much more systematically problematic game, one we can’t hope to change if we don’t take more definitive stands than hashtagging our poignant ridicule. And maybe, paradoxically, how ridiculous we actually find these cases of unabashed whitewashing makes us complacent viewers because we figure this can’t be acceptable – people won’t stand for it, it’s 2015, for crying out loud and wait for social progress to be engineered without overexerting ourselves.

It’s an offensive generalization to say that the success of actors of colour and the projects they star in seems rooted in the struggle narrative, but it seems like unless Tyler Perry’s name is attached to the project or the actor is trapped in the role of token minority sidekick, there are few exceptions that still don’t come close to passing the Racial Bechdel test: that the film has more than one character of colour, at least two of the characters of colour having a conversation, and that conversation is about something other than a white person.

The patterns we see in casting in major studio films give the impression that POC presence has to be justified, not given without question, like the presence of a white character would be. It’s more understandable that filmmakers find it easier to portray generalized, categorized societies where the only social outliers are the Protagonist and Friends, though it goes without saying that they’re probably all white. This habit of ignoring the existence of minorities to keep things neat and simple is brilliantly commented on in the 2013 Psych musical episode, where they’re doing a show set in London in 1888 and the play’s fictional director uses the year and location as an explanation for the lack of POCs, earning the retort of “So what are you saying? Black people weren’t invented yet?”.

The point is, we can continue to express our outrage through manufacturing memes and satirizing Hollywood’s continually exclusive (and exclusively inaccurate) products, and blacklist and boycott those guilty of every social justice infraction journalists accuse them of, but then what? And what does it say about our voice as consumers in these creative processes that continue to bring us these results – where a film released in 1999 about a mummy coming to life at an archaeological dig has more accurate ethnic casting than a blockbuster debuting in 2016 – despite the unfriendly fire studios find themselves under by the media for these very breaches of equality? It’s nothing too encouraging.

[Natasha Baldassare]

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