Diversity in Film: The problem at the top
On Friday Rupert Murdoch, elderly white man, took to Twitter to address the whitewashing casting controversy that has surrounded the upcoming movie Exodus: Gods & Guyliner. Christian Bale plays Moses, a Hebrew, Joel Edgerton is the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses, and Sigourney Weaver is their mother, Tuya, also Egyptian. In fact, all of the principal roles are played by white people—Aaron Paul stars Joshua, and John Turturro as the old pharaoh Seti. This, in a twenty-first century movie about Hebrews and Egyptians. Murdoch, owner of News Corp, which owns 21st Century Fox, which is releasing Exodus in a couple weeks, is either a clueless old fart, or else he is the single greatest troll the internet has ever known. Here’s his tweet:
Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) November 29, 2014
So the question is, does he really believe that, or is he just stirring sh*t and getting some free publicity for a Fox movie while he’s at it? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—either way he’s a (wrinkly, old) dickhead. What does matter is that a major Hollywood film whitewashed what should have been a prominently diverse cast. Murdoch would have you believe it doesn’t matter because just so long as it’s not black people, amirite? (Apparently he’s never heard of the Nubians.) But he’s not alone. Recently, Ridley Scott, director of Exodus, said he couldn’t have gotten the film financed if he cast “Mohammad So-and-so”.
This is not a new attitude. Every time I’ve written about diversity in movies, someone inevitably emails me to explain, in varying patronizing degrees of sincerity, that it’s hard for audiences to relate with non-white characters because, ever since the inception of cinema, we’ve been conditioned to see white men as the heroes/protagonists. Like that’s a good thing? Like that’s a status quo we should accept? I’m not being a Pollyanna—the world is wall to wall sh*t and people are the worst—but diversity is a commitment and just because something has been one way for a while is no reason not to make that commitment.
That’s also an increasingly obsolete attitude. Scott says he couldn’t get Exodus financed without his famous white cast, but JJ Abrams had no problem bankrolling New New Star Wars, fronted by a virtually unknown black guy (John Boyega) and a wholly unknown woman (Daisy Ridley). Likewise, Josh Trank cast Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four—also a Fox property—and no one in the accounting department blinked. Scott reinvigorated the sword-and-sandal epic with Gladiator—are you seriously saying that he couldn’t sell a Biblical epic without white guys as his stars? I doubt it. Fox went for a black Johnny Storm, don’t tell me they wouldn’t also go for ethnically-appropriate casting for a spectacle epic from Ridley Scott. Movie stars are dead—it’s all about story and character now. Tell a good story featuring interesting characters and people don’t care who they’re watching on screen.
But this is the attitude at the top. The people in power, who are almost unanimously white men, think that expensive movies can only be made if they star white men. Diverse casting still feels novel, when it shouldn’t feel like anything other than an accurate reflection of the diverse world in which we live. Exodus opens on December 12th. Fifty-three weeks later, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens. Both are large-scale, big-budget epics from famous spectacle directors, based on beloved and familiar stories. The only difference between them, really, is the approach to casting. It will be interesting to see which one audiences reward more, the one that plays into the status quo or the one that bucks it. If I’ve learned anything from Star Wars, it’s always bet on the rebels.