Let’s get this out of the way: I have not yet seen Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s big-budget retelling of the Moses story, and God willing, I won’t have to. For starters, it looks like a yet another dirge-like epic on the order of his earlier Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and (yes, I’ll say it) Gladiator, a dull slog through the past from a director who works best in the present and the future. But the setting and story aren’t the only elements of Exodus that are tied firmly to the past, as considerable controversy has brewed around Scott’s old-Hollywood decision to cast this story of Egyptian pharaohs and prophets with a cast roughly as diverse as the industry seats at an Eagles concert. And now, facing a backlash from commentators and social media, the people responsible for the movie are in spin mode, prompting a spectacle surely more entertaining than anything Sir Ridley put on screen.
It started, of course, as a meme. Last summer, Twitter users began pointing out something more than a little incongruent about Exodus’ Egyptian story and the ethnicity of its front-line cast (Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, John Turturro). This is the first one I saw — and it remains the most powerful:
A #BoycottEcodusMovie hashtag was born, and the controversy quickly became the most interesting thing about the movie — it was certainly generating more talk in social media circles than, say, the snooze-worthy trailer. So, as the PR strategy goes, the movie’s team had to “get in front” of the story. Scott trotted out the old “no, we cast actors of all ethnicities!” line to Yahoo (neglecting to mention that no actors of color were placed in the leading roles), while telling The Guardian, of the controversy, “I do say that I am sensitive to it and I do, I do understand and empathize with that position.”
But that was the summer, and the controversy has had a few more months to brew, so Scott sounds a good deal less empathetic in Variety’s big cover story on the movie:
Much of the outcry online stemmed from his decision to cast white American, European and Australian actors in most of the key roles, no matter that the same could be said of “The Passion of the Christ,” “Noah,” “The Ten Commandments” and virtually any other big-budget Bible movies. “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,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
The mealy-mouthed excuse-making of Variety’s Scott Foundas aside (hey, this is the way it’s always been done, so no need to fix it now!), Scott comes off as more than a little tone-deaf to the legitimate criticism that in 2014, we might maybe wanna think about casting people of color in a movie about, y’know, people of color. But in all fairness, I do not find it hard to believe that “the question doesn’t even come up” in the mind of someone for whom dark-skinned actors fall under the classification of “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
Somehow, this wasn’t enough to placate the film’s critics, so the only thing left to do was for Rupert Murdoch — whose 20th Century Fox is distributing the film — to step into the fray, dispensing exactly the kind of wisdom and common sense you’d expect from the mastermind of Fox News:
After that round of racial sensitivity from the billionaire right-wing Australian media mogul, you’d think perhaps someone remotely connected to the PR team might’ve distributed a memo along the lines of, “Hey, this isn’t going so hot, maybe let’s try changing the subject when it comes up.” Perhaps that memo was even written! Either way, star certainly Christian Bale did not get the memo:
I don’t know that just 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 for playing the role.”
Let’s all bow our heads, pour out a little liquor, and share a moment of silence for the endless suffering international movie star Christian Bale has endured thanks to his pale skin.
There is an argument to be made (albeit a tougher one to make in the current media landscape) for facing a mistake, realizing it’s a mistake, perhaps apologizing for making the mistake, and shutting the fuck up about it. At this point, on the eve of Exodus’ release, that would certainly seem a wiser choice than these comically endless rounds of the foot-in-mouth game. But the problem is that if you’re dumb (or, at the very least, insensitive) enough to cast a movie this way and/or go along with that casting, you’re probably also dumb enough to think that you can white-splain your way out of it.