The Color of Gods & Kings

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Contrary to popular belief, we’re not far from the days of Blackface, Yellowface, Brownface and Redface in Hollywood. We’ve moved on though–in a different way. Moved away from the blatantly offensive practice of soaking white actors in makeup to portray offensive stereotypes, to the casting of white actors for roles that would be perfectly suited for people of color, or roles that certainly call for a person of color as a performer. Whitewashing is all the rage.

When box office darling and parental headache Frozen came as Disney’s newest hit in 2013, many expressed disappointment for the lack of racial diversity. “It’s a Danish fairytale!” seemed to be reasonable answer to the claim. A princess with ice magic freezing an entire kingdom, besides an excellent argument for climate change deniers, was good old fantasy. “Throwing in” a character of a different race or ethnicity, however, is seen as historically inaccurate and too far-fetched. But this is not about that. Let It Go.

In yet another interpretation of a biblical favorite, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a quick look at the cast is enough make a quick point on the topic of whitewashing. Joel Edgerton plays Rhamses, Sigourney Weaver plays Queen Tuya, Aaron Paul and Christian Bale play Joshua and Moses, respectively. All white actors. Only when you scroll down on the list (and on the characters’ importance), we get closer to the skin tones of the land of Kemet. We have the thieves and lower class civilians. It’s as if the fact that Black people were founders and rulers of one of the worlds’ earliest, greatest and most advanced civilizations in history is such an uncomfortable thought, that we need to give them a little pallor to appear real.

Regardless of our belief in the biblical tale, Ancient Egypt was, in its splendor, a Black African civilization. Which then begs the question, why do Hollywood Egyptians often seem in need of a spray tan? Are there really no prominent actors that could fulfill both the box office’s thirst and historical integrity? Is this more about delivering crowd-pleasing weekend movie night to the legions of those who would combust if they’re reminded that the men and women they shape their beliefs after looked nothing like them?

A different example can be found in a recent of the Star Trek franchise. Most things went well, casting-wise. John Cho played beloved Lt. Sulu, made famous by fan favorite George Takei, and Zoe Saldaña played Nyota Uhura, a role made both iconic in its nature and groundbreaking for its time by Nichelle Nichols. Then we have Benedict Cumerbatch as Khan. In its earlier appearances, Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán played khan, described as a Sikh Indian on script. There’s a something to be said about using a man of color to portray a character of a different ethnicity, but when the character was originally introduced in the 1960’s, Star Trek was already pushing racial boundaries and subverting censorship, and keeping a man of color for the role still had a level of defiance to it. Star Trek’s universe was a future with a hopeful and sane level of equity. Cumberbatch’s casting presented a step back into the comfortable, and a wasted opportunity to display the character as it could and should have been in the first place.

But it’s just all movies and television and the glamor of celluloid frivolity, I guess. Does it really matter? Do the faces you see in television, film or comic books have to look like you so you can feel part of the cultural expressions of your time? How much does representation in the media, specifically in works of fiction, matter? I’d answer with yes, yes and a lot. In the words of African American activist Marian Wright Edelman, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Representation in the media may seem secondary in the great fight against inequality, but it remains part of the fight. Representation removes the otherness that comes with marginalization. It’s not about becoming princesses or kings or spaceship commanders. It’s about seeing yourself by seeing people like you being all sorts of things. Being smart, being evil, being strong, being emotional, being a warrior, a politician, a crazy cat lady, being all and any of those things, while a minority, and it’s about everyone else seeing that too. Profiting from the stories of marginalized people while erasing their links and continuity to them is, in essence, is an act of theft.

By Jesus Velardo

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1 Comment

  1. I remember being *so annoyed* when I first heard about the cast of Exodus. ‘People be bugging,’ I thought. I wondered how the movie makers and cast felt about it all. Did they not see the lack of historical accuracy in the casting? Did they just think that they were the best for the job and that their casting was purely a meritocratic decision? (Thats probably what Christian Bale thought.)

    This white washing of history, and really of popular media in general is not just about actors and roles, it’s also about perspectives. It feels like so many of the narratives are coming from middle class, white, hetero perspectives, and so we’re getting mostly the same narrative framing. The collective white washing, and concomitant lack of exposure to other perspectives, is harmful not just because it excludes important and valuable perspectives, but also because we are not getting the entire truth. Truth, and accuracy, matter.

    As the author quoted, you can’t be what you can see. We were kings and Queens! Black and Brown folk built great, long living civilizations! Pyramids! I want my kid to know that.

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