On a trip to the cinema a few days ago, I first saw the trailer for Ridley Scott's new film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Set in the times of the Old Testament, Exodus depicts Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Now, it's hardly a controversial view that people residing in North Africa and the Middle East during the era of the Old Testament weren't white. They were likely to be of an Arab or Black complexion. So imagine my disappointment upon watching this trailer, to see that pretty much every single character, other than a few background thieves and slaves, were white.
When questioned on this, Ridley Scott didn't seem to see it as a race thing, but managed to make it clear that it was anyway. Justifying his whitewashed casting, he said: 'I can't mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates from Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I'm just not going to get it financed.'
Does this not say it all? Mohammad 'so-and-so' from 'such-and-such', Scott's insultingly simplified image of the universal Middle-Eastern, just doesn't sell in Hollywood (unless we're playing terrorists, apparently). But this infuriating whitewashing of the silver screen isn't uncommon. If anything, it's become tediously routine. Countless historical biopics that require actors of African or Asian descent are consistently played by white actors, perhaps with a slap of fake tan on them. Our image of Cleopatra is Elizabeth Taylor, our image of Moses is Christian Bale, and our image of Jesus is Mel Gibson.
My views on this are all too often met with the argument that 'it's the artist's interpretation' or 'it's just based on a historical event, it's essentially fiction!' - yet in many fantasy films and TV shows, where there is a glaring absence of characters of colour, we're told it would be 'inaccurate' to have people of colour playing characters. Seriously? Flying dragons, wizards, ghosts - but a few non-white characters is just too ridiculous to interpret into the films? But Ridley Scott casting white characters in a way that is historically inaccurate is a-okay? It's a double standard that's commonplace. When Donald Glover expressed interest in playing Spiderman, he was met with a wave of 'But Spiderman can't be black!' It seems that in a society where so many gush about how they don't 'see colour', a hell of a lot of people clearly still do.
This issue isn't limited to the big screen. In shows like Girls, set in an incredibly ethnically diverse New York City, there's a glaring lack of people of colour. And the issue is, people just don't care. When Caitlin Moran was asked about what she thought of the lack of ethnically diverse characters in Girls, she replied: 'I literally couldn't give a shit about it'. And this is what we're dealing with. People of colour want to be able to see or read characters in books, television shows, films, and think, 'that person represents me.' It's all too easy as a white person to not see how this is an issue, but growing up as a person of colour, it's often subtly demoralising to feel that you're not worthy of being the superhero, the film star, the protagonist. This is evident even with children's literature and picture books in the UK, which still overwhelmingly portray white characters.
Writers often come up with the argument that they don't feel that they can write characters of colour, because they don't have that identity (the same goes for LGBT+ characters) - but surely this in itself is just ridiculously alienating? We're not from another planet. I assume you interact with people of colour, and are aware that they are, like you, humans, who lead lives. So why not portray us? Why erase our existence continually and then come back with the subpar excuse of 'I didn't know how'? Write the character - make sure they're not a token, for god's sake - and if you feel that their race is very relevant to the character, then just do some research. It's not hard.
Fortunately, films like the new Annie, and Marvel's designating of the African-American Falcon as the new Captain America, show that steps are being taken in the right direction. Not only is whitewashing indicative of an internalised racism, it's also been done-to-death. People of colour exist, we have lives that are of equal value to everyone else, and we achieve brilliant things, as does everybody else. It's time to allow children who aren't white to grow up in a world where they feel represented, and they feel that they can aspire to be the superhero, too.