Usually when a film depicting a story from the Bible is made, the main danger for a studio is angering religious groups who feel that the film is attacking their beliefs or strays too far from accepted (or at least favored) interpretations. Ridley Scott's Moses epic Exodus: Gods and Kings has earned the unusual distinction of angering many liberals who object to the fact that nearly all of the film's speaking roles are played by white actors, despite the fact that they are supposed to be portraying ancient Egyptians and Hebrews. This practice of casting white actors to play non-white roles is known as "whitewashing" or "racebending", and Exodus is rife with it, with non-white actors largely relegated to playing slaves, thieves, and other non-speaking roles. But does this whitewashing make it difficult to enjoy one of the Bible's most stirring tales? And is Exodus: Gods and Kings an improvement on The Prince of Egypt, the excellent animated musical version of the Moses story where the races of the characters are historically accurate? Watch my ReThink Review of Exodus: Gods and Kings below (transcript following).
Most of the news around Ridley Scott's Moses epic Exodus: Gods and Kings has centered around the fact that all of the film's main characters, who are supposed to portray Egyptians and Hebrews, are played by white people while non-white actors are relegated to playing servants, thieves, and non-speaking roles. While I care about whitewashing, I was more interested in seeing whether Exodus could surpass The Prince of Egypt, the fantastic 1998 animated retelling of the Moses story that, despite my being an atheist, moves me to tears every time and is in my top three animated films ever. But as I watched Exodus, I found myself not thinking so much about animation or institutional racism, but how balls-out bizarre Exodus really is.
To quickly summarize, the Exodus story involves Moses, a member of Egypt's royal family, learning that he's actually the son of Hebrew slaves. Moses eventually flees Egypt and starts a family in another land. But after an encounter with God in the form of a burning bush, Moses, backed by God's powers, returns to Egypt to free the Hebrews from slavery, putting him on a collision course with Ramses, Moses' former stepbrother and best friend who has become Egypt's king.
Suspension of disbelief is vital in movies, and there isn't much that people won't get used to, forgive, or ignore if a movie is any good. That said, it's hard to get past Exodus' all-white casting since the movie keeps slapping you in the face with it. We have Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses, who seems to have been cast mostly because his muscles look good in Ramses' many shirtless outfits. Then, BANG! There's Italian John Turturro as the Pharoah! WHAP! Six-foot-tall Sigourney Weaver is queen of Egypt! POW! Aaron Paul -- that's meth-addict Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad -- is Moses' disciple Joshua! And to add insult to injury, BOFF! There's Ewan Bremner -- that's Spud from Trainspotting -- as one of Ramses' advisors.
It's one thing for Ridley Scott to say, maybe even correctly, that he couldn't have secured Exodus' $140 million budget without well-known (meaning white) actors as leads. But if you're getting weird-looking Scottish actors to play Egyptians, you're going way out of your way to avoid casting brown people, and that stinks. Scott telling critics of his whitewashing to "get a life" certainly doesn't help -- nor did Rupert Murdoch, whose studio made Exodus, by saying this whitewashing fuss was silly since all the Egyptians HE knows are "white", which is probably true of everyone Rupert Murdoch cares to know.
But this whitewashing isn't just insensitive. It also highlights and constantly reminds you of the skewed priorities, the baffling choices, and the odd omissions that make Exodus so goddamn weird.
For starters, instead of Moses being a sympathetic, reluctant, conflicted hero, Exodus has him as an angry, glowering, hardass military leader who kills dozens of people, wages an armed insurgency, doesn't seem to care much about Hebrews or their freedom, and never once says, "Let my people go!" What if instead of showing the dramatic, heart-wrenching scene of Moses' mother abandoning her baby in a river to save his life, we just have Ben Kingsley quickly describe it? What if when the Hebrews are finally freed after 400 years of slavery, none of them seem happy about it? What if the parting of the Red Sea isn't a miracle, but a freak tidal event? And what if God, instead of being a mindblowing force of glory, fear, and wonder, is embodied by a mean, vindictive little British boy? (A white one, of course.)
Even if you're a Christian ignorant enough not to mind Exodus' whitewashing, you still won't be happy since Moses isn't portrayed as a divinely-inspired leader, but as a potential lunatic. So people looking for historic realism will hate the whitewashing, and people looking for faithfulness with religious texts will hate that Moses is depicted as a violent, crazy jerk in a film that hedges on whether God exists at all. So take that as you will, but if you want a Moses fix or just a stellar movie to watch, The Prince of Egypt is currently on Netflix streaming and is roughly 9,000 times better than whatever Exodus is while being 50 minutes shorter and a hojillion times browner.