Before: Here's what Ancient Egyptians looked like, according to the Ancient Egyptians:
Image Credit: Indiana Public Media
After: And here's how they looked according to Hollywood's new Bible epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings:
Image Credit: Daily Mail
You're not mistaken: That is indeed white Australian actor Joel Edgerton in the role of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II. Along with white co-star Christian Bale, he's partnered with Ridley Scott to tell the story of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt — a tale that ostensibly took place in a very, very visibly brown region of the world.
Background: The trailer to this effects-laden blockbuster has been making the rounds online and it's about what you'd expect from the director of Gladiator:
Lots of swords, lots of sandals, lots of horses, lots of sand. What's noticeably missing, however, are the people of color who overwhelmingly populated the Middle East and North Africa at the time and persist there in massive numbers today.
But this is Hollywood. And if there's anything we can count on, it's that prominent Bible characters will usually be played be either Anglo white people or Anglo white people in borderline-offensive makeup, no matter where they're actually from.
For instance: Here's Charlton Heston as Moses, a Hebrew, in The Ten Commandments (1956):
Image Credit: The Blaze
2. And Willem Dafoe as the "bronze-skinned," "wool-haired" Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1987):
Image Credit: A Potpourri of Vestiges
3. Don't forget Jim Caviezel's prosthetic nose and digitally altered eyes in The Passion of the Christ (2004):
Image Credit: christianmovies.biz
4. Or Russell Crowe as Noah (2013):
Image Credit: Hitfix
5. As a non-Bible bonus, here's Elizabeth Taylor as Egyptian monarch Cleopatra (1963):
Image Credit: Fanpop
Why does this matter? Aside from being an extremely high-profile depiction of a religious text worshipped by billions of people around the world, the whitewashing of the Bible and Bible cinema has a troubled political history:
"[Whitewashing] continues a well-established practice of white sacralization through religious indoctrination," writes Ryan Herring at Sojourners, a Christian social justice blog. "Throughout the history of European imperialism and colonialism this type of indoctrination was present."
He explains further, "Depictions of white only Biblical figures … were intentionally used to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of white divinity (and therefore superiority) upon the minds of the oppressed and conquered."
Add this to a well-documented history of Hollywood marginalizing people of color's experiences and you have a popular narrative that continues promoting white stories as the only stories worth telling — an implicit endorsement of white superiority.
To make matters worse: The logic behind these decisions is suspect because it's proven detrimental to box office profit margins. A recent UCLA study found that films with higher onscreen minority involvement posted an average of $91.6 million more than those without it. When diversity is that good for business, there are few excuses for Hollywood to continue operating like people of color — or more specifically, talented actors of color — don't exist.
In short, it's clear that Hollywood needs a makeover. And I don't mean more "brownface."