This Boxing Day sees the release of two films that have stirred up issues to do with race. The first is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and the second is a remake of the 1982 musical Annie. Both of these films have been getting a lot of attention for their casting choices, and I’m not entirely sure why.
I’ll start with the one that’s been getting by far the most press (and criticism), which is Exodus. The reason Ridley Scott and co. have been getting so much attention is that this is a film set in biblical Egypt, but the cast is made up almost entirely of white actors. Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and John Turturro all have major roles, are all American or English, and are all playing North African / Arabic characters. Well, Ben Kingsley is half Indian, but half out of six isn’t a great hit rate.
It’s historically inaccurate, it’s denying less well known actors who are Arabic a chance at exposure. In the trailer alone there are a number of shots where it’s a distraction, and, above all, it’s a simple problem with an easy fix. So, why are people making such a big deal out of it? Let me clarify, the ‘it’ I’m referring to is this particular film. Exodus: Gods and Kings is a film based on a story from the bible, a text which many people believe is a work of fiction, and yet there have been many films in recent years based on real historical events, with casting choices just as inaccurate as the ones made for Exodus, and nobody seemed to care.
Earlier this year, the film Pompeii was released. A film, unsurprisingly set in Pompeii in 79 AD. I was lucky enough to see this film with somebody who has an MA in ancient history, and much to her amazement, and mine, Pompeii got almost everything right. Obviously a few things were changed to make it more ‘Hollywood’, but in general, almost every detail was historically accurate. What wasn’t accurate? A group of Romans with a mixture of American and English accents. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jared Harris, Kiefer Sutherland and Carrie-Anne Moss, but none of them looked Roman. Some people would argue that Mediterranean people are in fact ‘white’, and I’m no expert, but I will say there is a clear difference in how typical Mediterranean people look, to the way the average Scandinavian person looks, for example. Even if you do class both of those as being ‘white’ there is clearly a physical difference.
In fact, lots of films suffer from the exact same problem. 2000’s Gladiator (another Ridley Scott film), as much as it’s considered brilliant has ethnically incorrect casting. 2004’s Alexander went to the effort of having every Greek character speak with an Irish accent, to make sure they lined up with Colin Farrell. Clever, but it’s still a bunch of white people playing Mediterraneans. Did anybody think that Jake Gyllenhaal was a good choice to play the title character in 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sand of Time? Surely the clue is really in the title for that one… And how about Justin Chatwin playing Goku in 2009’s Dragonball: Evolution? Alright, I haven’t seen the Dragonball film or series, but I know he wasn’t the right choice. Yes, some of those are fictional, or set a long time ago. Surely 2012’s best picture winner at the Oscars, Argo, which is set in 1980 is above that? Thinking about it, did anybody else feel awkward during the end credits when they showed a picture of Ben Affleck next to the real life version of his character, Tony Mendez? I did.
So I again come back to the same question. Why are people making such a big fuss over Exodus: Gods and Kings, when they’ve let the same thing slide so many times before? Well, it could have something to do with some… ill advised comments made by Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of 21st Century Fox (the sister company of the film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox). But what about Annie? Surely people can’t have any issues with a work of fiction being updated for modern times, with no worry about historical accuracy?
Wrong! It may not be getting as much attention, but there has definitely been a backlash against recasting Annie, one of the most iconic ginger characters in film history, with a black actress. It doesn’t matter that Quvenzhané Wallis (that awesome name alone should give her a pass) is one of the youngest Oscar nominees ever, not even being ten years old at the time of her nomination. It doesn’t matter that in the setting of present day New York, a healthy mix of black and white actors would be an accurate representation of the city’s ethnic makeup. So basically what people are saying is, a black president is fine, but a black Annie? HOW DARE YOU!
There are, believe it or not, two sides to this argument. On the one hand, I know I would always rather see the best performance possible. ‘Colour blind’ casting goes both ways, and if that means casting Meryl Streep as Private Detective John Shaft, so be it (alright, there are some exceptions, but the point stands). On the other hand, should this rule not apply to films based on, or even inspired by true events? Christian Bale is a great actor, and I have no doubt that he’s going to do a great job playing Moses, but finding the line between an actor doing a role great service, and ethnically incorrect casting doing a role great disservice is almost impossible. The job of film makers is to make the best film possible, and nothing more. If a film has strange casting choices, or lapses in historical accuracy, in a way, it’s ok if it means the film is better for it. The problem is, in this day and age, and with the money and resources available to them, I’m not sure there’s really any excuse.
What do you think about the casting in Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Annie? Which is worse? Do either of them really matter if the films are good? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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