The recurring controversy over white actors being cast as other ethnicities has surfaced once again in recent days, as the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings looms on the horizon. Ridley Scott has filled the major roles of his biblical epic with white actors; Christian Bale plays Moses, Joel Edgerton is the Pharaoh Rhamses, and Sigourney Weaver the Pharaoh's mother.
Both Scott and Bale have defended the decision to cast white actors as Egyptian characters, with Bale saying he understands the objections, but also sees the need for films to draw business through well-known (white) stars. Scott has been recorded as telling people boycotting the film to 'get a life', and that he could never have got the film green-lit in the first place if 'my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.' Oh dear, Ridley. Oh dear.
Photos of the film's set have surfaced online, revealing that the filmmakers seem to have altered the profile of the Sphinx, making it look more European (it's even being compared to Mount Rushmore by Tumblr users). It's also pretty damning that Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has come out in support of the film's casting, Tweeting that all the Egyptians he knows are white (bully for you, Rupes).
White actors taking on another race has been common cinematic practice for quite some time. Just think of Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, or Yul Brinner as the King of Siam. You'd think cinema would have changed a little with the times, but more recently we have seen Rooney Mara cast as the Native American Princess Tiger Lily in Pan, Johnny Depp as the Native American Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and Ben Affleck as the Hispanic Tony Mendez in his Academy Award winning Argo. The list goes on.
The main excuse for whitewashing a cast like this is usually that a lesser known actor of the ethnicity in question would not draw a big enough crowd to the theatres. It's not racism everybody, it's strictly business. It makes a kind of sense, when you think about it; after all, good business practice in most industries is pretty much inherently racist, due to the years upon years of prejudice and oppression that constitute its foundation.
But can we blame directors for casting their films this way, when they might not even get them made otherwise? Can we blame white actors for taking on these roles, when it's simply the continuation of a grand acting tradition that was set in place decades before they were born? Well, yes. Of course we can.
In the case of Mara being cast as Tiger Lily, all the actress had to do was turn the role down. She didn't even have to follow that up with a short statement suggesting the casting team turn their thoughts to Native American actors, although that would have been a good move. After all, Tiger Lily is a very well-known Native role which could have easily been filled by a Native American; Q'orianka Kilcher or Julia Jones spring to mind, or even Devery Jacobs, who reportedly auditioned for the role but was turned down after being told outright that the production weren't looking for a Native actor.
Unfortunately, something tells us that if we wait for actors like Christian Bale to start turning down starring roles, we're going to be waiting rather a long time. Hence the fact that so many people are making so much noise about this issue on social networks, and setting up petitions such as this one to try to get Ridley Scott to quit white-washing his movies.
In the struggle for equality, representation is key. It's crucial for people (especially young people) to see those who resemble themselves as being active participants in their own stories - not just as background filler, or cannon fodder. That's why every time a white actor is cast in any major role that could or should have been filled by someone of another ethnicity, it's a missed opportunity. That, and it perpetuates the cycle of prejudice; the more we allow this to happen, the more it will keep on happening.