Hollywood 're-whites' history again with 'Exodus' film

Pity Ridley Scott. The celebrated director at the helm of Exodus: Gods and Kings has, by dint of semi-glowing early reviews, created a magisterial swords and sandals epic based on the biblical story of the great prophet Moses, who helps deliver the Hebrews from the Egyptian pharaoh’s clutches.

In the event you haven’t already heard, and as one might already suspect, the cast is almost all Anglo-American. That development has all but overshadowed the merits of the $140 million vehicle, a decision which Scott himself has defended by telling his critics (and this is a direct quote), to “get a life.”

The director isn’t alone. None other than the boss of 21st Century Fox himself and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson –using some rather colorful language in the process – took pains to dismiss the controversy. Of course Rupert Murdoch does what you’d expect a mogul would do in this instance — namely, defending a potentially lucrative movie. However, in some respects, 50 Cent’s broadside to an Instagram follower is more surprising. Does he have a point?

Yes — and no. As Variety recently underscored in a review, Gods and Kings is a continuation of Hollywood’s “dubious tradition” of using Caucasian actors in movies that take place in North Africa and the Middle East. In that regard, as one of the other books in The Old Testament would say, there’s nothing new under the sun. Depending on how seriously you take historical accuracy, moviegoers like Fitty are eminently free to vote with their wallets.

Still, Hollywood is rarely if ever shy about putting their brand of politics on display. Tinseltown loves to play up its coolness in the service of causes near and dear to the hearts of its denizens.

Except, of course, when filmmakers and actors pointedly refuse to make a statement when it really matters. For that reason, Exodus at least partly deserves the borderline savage reception that has preceded its December 12 opening.

The entertainment industry never misses an opportunity to revel in how hip it is, wallow in its political correctness, and accost those they believe aren’t as highly evolved as they are.

The casting of Exodus encapsulates this perfectly: director Ridley Scott shamelessly punted on the chance to cast characters directly correlated to a book’s source material. In this case, the book in question just happens to be The Bible.

Historically accurate casting wouldn’t be that hard to do, and it really isn’t that much to ask. Then again, perhaps it is, given that the new trend in movies is to use black actors as token replacements for well-established characters. In this way, movies bypass the time and effort required to develop an impressive stable of black characters that already exist in comics and books.

On one hand, the decision to give actors like Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver top billing is entirely understandable. They are both the best of their respective generations, and excellent actors to boot. Despite Hollywood’s penchant for sentimentality and promoting causes, making a movie is a business decision.

Movies cost money, and a holiday epic costs even more money. Having marquee names attached to a project is no guarantee of a return on investment, but it exponentially enhances the movie’s odds to succeed.

An all-white cast in the The Ten Commandments certainly was no barrier to the 1956 movie becoming an immortal classic for people of all ethnicities. It’s hard to imagine anyone, even the inimitable Bale, filling Charlton Heston’s big shoes. People of all ages and races can recite the Cecil B. DeMille vehicle by heart — despite the fact there was barely a black or brown face in that production.

That said, every Merrill Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio was once an unknown and was given their big break based on a combination of talent, luck and looks. It may have taken the movie’s producers a bit longer – and certainly would have been a big risk – but Exodus’ producers could have gone on a talent hunt for the right cast of Egyptian/Middle Eastern actors.

The casting hypocrisy at the heart of Exodus is thrown into stark relief when viewed through the lens of Hollywood’s new habit of magically making white characters black, based largely on shock value. For the sake of social engineering, they alienate ardent fan bases while diminishing the talent of actors they claim to want to promote.

Hollywood likes to make a big show of embracing hot-button issues of the moment, and the industry likes to send social messages with casting decisions. So why chicken out when its time for the industry to put its money where its mouth is?

Simple — because it’s the easy way out when there’s nothing really at stake. Given the chance to take a worthwhile gamble, Tinseltown shows its true colors.

Exodus may yet become a box office smash. Nonetheless, viewers would be forgiven for skipping it altogether. The film industry appears intent on spitting in the face of a segment of the population it ostensibly wishes to court: Noah is a perfect example of how the industry likes to make movies largely divorced from its canonical origins.

Unlike many of the pseudo-controversies that gain headlines nowadays, the perceived slight over Exodus is in fact a legitimate one. The bleaching of what should be a Middle Eastern cast is all the more hypocritical when considering how ostentatiously Hollywood figures parade their beliefs of tolerance and diversity — even when the situation doesn’t call for it. It also suggests that these same people are insincere at best, and utterly disingenuous at worst, when they claim to champion racial progress.

Hollywood is fooling no one — except perhaps themselves. If they won’t actually put your money where your mouth is, what’s the point of pretending they actually care about racial harmony?

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