“Gods Of Egypt” opens this week, a mid-budget CGI-heavy, half-blockbuster of the type that serves until Hollywood ramps up for the actual hits in the spring. A shiny, silly-looking tale of a war between ancient Egyptian gods Set, Horus, Osiris, and the like, the film also arrives in theaters riding a wave of negative publicity, complete with a pair of public apologies from Lionsgate and director Alex Proyas (“The Crow,” I, Robot”). It’s an unprecedented move, intended to save box office grosses that pleased pretty much no one. So, what’s the issue, exactly?
Well, Horus is played by Danish “Game Of Thrones” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The character Set is professional Scottish stubble model Gerard Butler. And, apart from Chadwick Boseman’s Thoth (who at least claims roots to somewhere in the African region), the rest of the all-Egyptian characters are filled out by white Australians named Geoffrey, Bryan, Brenton and Courtney, and a Brit called Rufus.
Naturally, an injection of race into any story about pop culture brings out the worst in some people, namely those who sneer about the “P.C. police,” scoff that “it’s only a movie,” and scold that this is always how Hollywood’s done things. Well, they’ve got the last part right, anyway.
Movie history is spotted with examples of white actors playing other ethnicities, either as grotesquely stereotyped comic reflief (Mickey Rooney’s infamous Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”), or equally insulting villany (Chinese master criminal Fu Manchu’s been played by the likes of Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff). Even when a non-white character has been intended as a sympathetic figure, studio conceptions of makeup and speech have turned the “kindly foreigners” into alien creatures that only become more disheartening with time. The great Alec Guinness made something of a career of these – just look at his “Indian” Professor Godbole in “A Passage To India,” or his “Japanese” romantic lead in “A Majority Of One,” who costar George “Mr. Sulu” Takei referred to as “grossly offensive.”
Even when American films have sought to tell inspirational stories of racial injustice, they’ve more often than not filtered their narratives through white characters. (You might be excused for thinking “Cry Freedom” was a story Kevin Kline’s brave white reporter telling the exploits of black South African civil rights leader Steve Biko than the tortured and assassinated Biko himself, played by a then little-known actor named Denzel Washington, for example.)
Again, it’s just a movie, right? It’s just the way things go – Hollywood movies cost ungodly sums, and they need marketable (white) stars to bring in the paying (white) audiences. It’s just business.
Except that, increasingly and irrevocably, people of color, both inside and outside the industry, have made their case against this “whitewashing” of roles that should — in any sane world — be played by someone whose ethnicity matches up with the character. (Instead of, say, hosing Jake Gyllenhall with spray-tan and calling him “Prince Of Persia.” I mean, “Persia” is actually in the damned title, Hollywood.)
Why irrevocable? Because actors, writers, producers, and directors of color (forget about white film geeks with movie columns) have simply refused to sit still for it. Aziz Ansari’s semi-autobiographical series “Master Of None” saw the actor-comedian attacking the practice throughout. And “Gods Of Egypt”-style outcry has greeted recent movies like “Pan,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Exodus: Gods And Kings” for abiding by the old Hollywood casting policies.
Apart from the lasting marginalizing effect of seeing themselves coopted onscreen, critics of whitewashing just aren’t buying the argument that literally any white actor is more marketable than an actor of color. Unlike Proyas, “Exodus: Gods And Kings” director Ridley Scott waved off the controversy with the impressively tone-deaf non-apology, “I can’t mount a film of this budget and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.” “Gods Of Egypt” might make its budget back (it’s rare a studio film doesn’t in the end) on the backs of decent actors with no proven track record as leading men. (Butler comes closest, but he’s hardly A-list.) If nothing else, the tide is turning on the conventional wisdom that things should stay the same, just because that’s how it’s always been.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday-Sunday: “2016 Oscar-Nominated Short Films.” SPACE Gallery helps you handicap your Oscar party pool by bringing in all of the animated and live action Oscar contenders. See SPACE’s website for details, but reviewer’s tip—see the animated nominee “World Of Tomorrow” from Don Hertzfeldt. If it doesn’t win an Oscar, at least you’ll know why you’re so angry on Oscar night.
Starting Friday: “Heart Of A Dog.” Like her music, this avant garde film from unclassifiable genius Laurie Anderson is, on its most basic level, a cinematic tribute to her beloved dog, Lolabelle, who died in 2011. Being Anderson, the film quickly bursts its boundaries as she examines topics as disparate as surveillance culture, Buddhist conceptions of death, and the works of those who’ve inspired her.