3 lessons you can learn from Ridley Scott about what not to do when you’re called out for racism

It’s going to be a white Christmas this year. 

Helping to make sure this comes true is director Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (easily among the worst movie titles of the year), which comes out on Friday. Telling the famous Bible story of Moses’ epic battle with adopted brother Ramses II and struggle to get his people out of bondage and out of Egypt, the film has already been heavily critiqued for casting white actors in its lead roles, even sparking a minor riot on Twitter. And to make matters worse, press photos reveal that the only black actors who are in the film appear to be playing servants.

Scott previously defended his casting decisions by maintaining, “Egypt was—as it is now—a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads geographically between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. We cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs. There are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people, and we had a lot of discussions about how to best represent the culture.”

However, it seems that Scott has now had enough of being questioned about his Exodus cast and would rather everyone just shut up. As opposed to his reductive but level-headed initial response, he grumbled this week that those who disagree with his choices should “get a life.”

Needless to say, the director’s callous nature here is doubly offensive in conjunction with everything that’s been going on in this country lately in terms of race. Obviously, he’s free to cast whoever he wants. But if he’s going to get tired of being criticized, he would be wise to switch up his casting methods for later projects, or at least develop a thicker skin.

With that in mind, here are a few other tips for the Hollywood elite, when it comes to responding to accusations of racism. Remember, you don’t have to agree, but you don’t have to act like a jerk either. And feel free to use Scott as an example of what not to do on this one.  

1) Don’t assume that “white” is the default setting.

This applies to all genres, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s start with “sword and sandal movies.” Though this term initially referred to Italian films which attempted to emulate biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments, it has since become a kind of catch-all term for everything from Gladiator and 300 to The Ten Commandments itself. Besides similar geographic regions and elaborate battle sequences, the main hallmark of these films has always been their casting of white actors in roles which usually warrant a different ethnicity and skin color.  

Biblical epics specifically, such as Exodus, tend to be among the most egregious in the sword and sandal pantheon, because they take stories that the source material and historical context fairly clearly indicate revolves around non-white people and turn those stories into definitively white tales of faith, redemption, and persecution. This ostensibly sends the message that for any of those themes to matter, white people have to be the ones communicating them.

Consider that long before the casting controversy of Exodus, Charlton Heston played Moses in The Ten Commandments. However, rather than improving in this area, the problem has just gotten worse. Take Jim Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ or Diogo Morgado in Son of God, for instance. The issue is not that Morgado is a bad actor; it’s that his soft, modelesque features only reinforce the image of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that Western artwork as pounded into people’s brain, rather than what Jesus would’ve really looked like, which is probably somewhere closer to Palestinian. In short, this demonstrates that while we’ve come a long way from segregated Oscar ceremonies, we’ve still got a long way to go before Hollywood  knows how to adequately cast for race.

For further illustration, examine Noah screenwriter Ari Handel’s take on the film’s all white cast. Discussing the Darren Aronofsky epic from earlier this year, Handel claimed that:

From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise. You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, ‘Let’s make that not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman.’ Looking at this story through that kind of lens is the same as saying, ‘Would the ark float and is it big enough to get all the species in there?’ That’s irrelevant to the questions because the questions are operating on a different plane than that; they’re operating on the mythical plane.

It’s nice that Handel says the filmmakers were “concerned” about race, but sadly, the rest of his comments kind of invalidate that concern. Mythical story or not, the idea that white people automatically represent the “everyman” is troubling. Why Aronofsky and Handel didn’t go the “let’s put everything in there route” is somewhat unclear, but what is evident is that, according to Noah, white people are the “stand-ins for all people.” Yet it’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t mostly because the film wanted to cast white stars. Moreover, can you imagine the reaction if Noah had been cast with all black actors? Probably the same thing that always happens when black actors occupy space they would not normally occupy on screen—people would’ve gotten really racist.

An all-white cast doesn’t have to be inherently problematic. But when it’s 2014, and your source material is more fitting for non-white actors, and—worst of all—you use white actors as a stand in for every type of person on the planet, then chances are you’re making a mistake.

2) Don’t confuse tokenism for diversity.

The history of Native American representation in cinema is notoriously rocky. So when it was announced that Rooney Mara would play Tiger Lily in Warner Brothers’ upcoming Pan, people were understandably upset. The Internet responded in no time, and soon a petition was going around denouncing the decision. It also didn’t help that Disney received similar criticism last year when when they cast Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger. Director Joe Wright’s camp, meanwhile, attempted to ease tensions on the subject: “In an effort to appeal to international audiences, Wright plans to create a diverse Neverland and challenge audiences’ preconceived notions of the magical world first depicted in J.M. Barrie’s classic tale.”

In fairness to Wright and the other Pan filmmakers, actor Adeel Akhtar was cast as Smee at the same time Mara came onboard, bringing at least some initial hope of variety among the primarily white main cast. But since then, Pan has hardly lived up to its promise to put together an “international,” “diverse” ensemble. In addition to cringeworthy new promotional material depicting Mara in full Native American garb, other information indicates that that the only non-white actors in the movie have been relegated to side characters.

“The Chief in Pan is played by Jack Charles, a famous Australian Aboriginal actor,” notes the staff at Indian Country. “The choice to cast Charles as the Chief supports the worst-case scenario theories about this whole mess. Charles clearly signifies that the tribe in the film (originally the ‘Pickaninny Tribe’ in J.M. Barrie’s play and book, let’s not forget) is non-European in nature. How or why does he have this white, Irish-looking daughter? It’s hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that the filmmakers feel people of color are good for supporting roles, but a lead actress must be white.”

Indian Country also covers their bases by adding, “We’re braced for the ‘revelation’ of the plot twist that Mara’s Tiger Lily came to Neverland from England before Peter did, and was adopted by the Chief. We can see that one coming a mile away. That doesn’t negate the cynical nature of Mara’s casting, [which] just shows the filmmakers felt they had write an explanation into the storyline.”

U.S. News & World Report’s Tierney Sneed also brings up the strange description of the Lost Boys. Sneed writes, “Not helping Wright’s case [for diversity] is that before the Mara casting news, the plot was described as having Peter become ‘the savior of the natives’—a theme reminiscent of the romanticized white hero trope that’s present even in Dances With Wolves, which often is praised for its sympathetic depiction of Native Americans.”

In light of these developments, it’s hard not to agree with Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins initial reaction to the reassurance that the cast would be “diverse”—that it was all just, “code for “please don’t yell at us for casting a non-Native American actress as Tiger Lily.””

Ultimately, Wright and company can talk about “diversity” as much as they want, but there’s a difference between diversity and tokenism. So far, it looks like Pan is going for the latter, haphazardly throwing in a few non-white actors to meet the extremely low bar that’s been set for them. Bottom line: Don’t promise something you can’t deliver, especially where race is involved.

3) Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Perhaps the biggest issue of all with Exodus is that it doesn’t appear there were any Egyptian or Jewish actors even in contention for the bigger roles in in the film. At the very least, several Middle Eastern actors of various backgrounds could’ve been considered. But instead we got two white leads, in a mostly white cast, taking part in a distinctly non-white story.

In defense of Scott, Christian Bale, who plays Moses, told the press that, “He’s been incredibly honest in getting a large, big-budget film like this made.” Which basically translates to: “This movie cost too much money ($140 million worth) not to cast big stars.” Bale continued, “I don’t think fingers should be pointed, but we should all look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we supporting wonderful actors in films by North African and Middle Eastern filmmakers and actors, because there are some fantastic actors out there… If people start supporting those films more and more, then financiers in the market will follow… To me that would be a day of celebration… For the actors it would be wonderful. It would be a wonderful day for humanity, but also for films and for storytelling in general.”

It’s great that Bale is supportive of North African and Middle Eastern cinema and all, and he’s correct that moviegoers should support independent releases from all corners of the world. However, his analysis also misses the real problem, which he stumbles across while clumsily sticking up for Scott: There are no Middle Eastern movie stars in Hollywood.

To clarify, there definitely are Jewish moviestars out there, but the point here is that there isn’t anyone working in Hollywood, right now, who also looks like what the people from this region would’ve actually looked like and who’s also a big name. That’s not to say there aren’t Hollywood actors with some Middle Eastern heritage out there. But, according to Bale, there aren’t any whom Hollywood believes possess enough star power to anchor a major movie.

The sad thing is he’s right. This year, UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report found that between 2007 and 2013, just over 25 percent of speaking roles in all Hollywood films were given to non-white actors. What’s more, the same type of disproportion applies to nearly every aspect of filmmaking. The Hollywood elite remains so lily-white, the studio would’ve had to hand off the movie to virtual unknowns if they had wanted to create some semblance of diversity. Of course, they would never do that, because a movie with this big of a budget supposedly can’t afford to cast unknowns, and the movie stars that were cast would’ve never been Middle Eastern, because there aren’t any Middle Eastern movie stars in Hollywood, making the whole thing one, big self-fulfilling prophecy of crappiness.

So when Bale says that it’s up to all of us to make sure more actors who come from Middle Eastern/North African heritage end up in Hollywood films, he’s inadvertently letting Hollywood off the hook. Because it’s 2014, and the fact that Hollywood doesn’t have enough non-white stars to sell this movie on is pretty sad, and they should be held accountable for it.

At the moment, it’s unclear whether Exodus: Gods & Kings will be a “good” movie or a “bad” movie. But there’s an open question as to whether it can be a successful movie either way, with such narrow, close-minded casting. And as for Ridley Scott, perhaps if he can’t take the criticism being thrown his way, he should “get a life.” Or at least get used to being called out on his racist casting tendencies. 

Photo via Exodus: Gods and Kings/Trailer

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.