No one really knows what Moses looked like, but chances are if you’ve ever thought about the guy who parted the Red Sea, it’s pretty certain the actor who played Batman didn’t come to mind. Yet Christian ‘The Dark Knight’ Bale is the surprise choice to play Moses in director Ridley Scott’s latest film, ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’ And that casting decision, among others in the same film, has led to an internet uproar, with many people wondering about Hollywood’s reluctance to cast certain roles with ethnically or racially appropriate actors.
The casting in Scott’s film is “a distorted vision, and the inability to think beyond being safe,” says Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” a book about Arab images in the media. “It’s been traditional, like casting Charlton Heston as Moses in ‘The Ten Commandments.’ It’s not that [Arab- or Jewish-American actors] are not there. But a studio executive would say we cast the best person for the role, and I doubt they even auditioned any Arab-American or Jewish-American actors for these parts.”
Shaheen is not just referring to Bale’s casting, but to the other key roles in the film: Australian Joel Edgerton is playing Egyptian pharaoh Rameses, Sigourney Weaver – yep, Ripley herself – is Rameses’ mom, and everyone’s favorite meth lab assistant, Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad,” was cast as Israelite leader Joshua. In addition, almost all of the minor roles in the film are cast with black actors, while all the Egyptian royals and gods are white.
“I think [the casting] really is as craven as ‘we want to make the most money we can, so we can package it in a way to make the most attractive product,’ because that’s what it is for them, product,” says film critic Marshall Fine of Hollywoodandfine.com. “If Ridley Scott and Christian Bale are box office draws, which I question, people will go to see this movie. I think Scott was looking for the biggest name he could get.”
Same as it ever was. Hollywood has a long-running history of putting non-ethnic actors in ethnic roles – the most laughable example being John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the 1956 film “The Conqueror.” But despite a more multi-ethnic society than in years past, and more ethnic actors in the mix than ever before, Hollywood seems to be trapped in a time warp when it comes to minority portrayals, particularly in the case of Arabs and Jews. Just recently, for example, Swedish-Jewish actor Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as the title character in “The Prince of Persia,” and FX’s new series “Tyrant,” set in a Middle Eastern country, stars British-American actor Adam Rayner. Add in the all too many Nordic-looking and non-Semitic portrayals of Jesus – who was, after all, a Middle Eastern Jew, and has been played by everyone from Christian Bale to Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Hunter and Willem Dafoe – and you have to wonder what some filmmakers are thinking.
“The primary thought is what name can we get in [a film] that we can guarantee box office,” says a Hollywood casting director who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know if it’s a hesitancy to cast authentic, it’s just that [studio] machine casting a star name. There are no bankable star names of various ethnicities and that stems from a lack of those ethnicities being cast in earlier roles in their careers that allowed them to gain said star status.”
It’s not that there aren’t visible ethnic actors out there, particularly Jewish ones. Andrew Garfield, Zac Efron, Shia LaBeouf, Daniel Radcliffe, Paul Rudd, Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson, the Gyllenhaals, Natalie Portman, the list goes on and on (the list of prominent Arab-American actors is a shorter one, but includes Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, Tony Shalhoub and Kathy Najimy). But when it comes to casting any of these recognizable stars in roles where their ethnicity is a factor, they don’t seem to pass the test.
Not that many industry people want to talk about this. Warner Brothers, distributor of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings,’ declined to comment for this article. So did Nina Gold, listed as the film’s casting director, as well as the Casting Society of America, the industry trade group, and MOST – Muslims On Screen and Television, a resource center connecting Hollywood productions and Muslim actors.
But that hasn’t stopped social media from reacting to the casting in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’ There are already calls to boycott the film when it is released on December 14 – over 17,000 people have already signed a petition – and the Twitterverse has responded with negative comments. Typical of the posts was one woman who suggested that if Christian Bale could play Moses, then maybe Idris Elba could play JFK. “Who was the moron that looked at the casting and thought this was a good idea?” raged another Twitterer, and yet another said, “The actors are just as bad for accepting the roles.”
Director Scott defended his casting to the Australian arm of Yahoo Entertainment, saying “I was thinking about the idea of ‘Exodus’ and Moses being this kind of larger-than-life character who, at the same time, has to be played definitively as a very real person that I thought of Christian and I knew he was the right actor for the role.
“There are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people,” Scott added, “and we had a lot of discussions of how best to represent the culture.”
The question of whether or not Scott even thought to audition more ethnically accurate performers remains unaddressed.
And whether or not so-called colorblind casting even makes a difference at the box office is open to question. It didn’t help “Noah,” starring Australian Russell Crowe in the title role; the $125 million production grossed only $101 million domestically. But Mel Gibson’s 2006 feature “Apocalypto,” which starred Native American Rudy Youngblood and was filmed using the Mayan language throughout, tripled its production budget when it played theatrically
“It really is a struggle [to cast ethnically and racially accurate roles],” says the casting director. “Because the casting director will bring up those fresh ideas, but the machine won’t allow for that. A good casting director’s job is to bring the best actor to the role that is authentic and interesting creatively. But again, it comes back to that machine. It takes more than a couple voices to stop that machine.”