Friday, December 19, 2014

'Exodus: Of Gods & Men' & The Egyptian History Debate

(Left to Right) Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, John Toturro & Christian Bale.
A lot of buzz has been generated over the ethnicity of some of the casting choices for Egyptian characters depicted in acclaimed director Ridley Scott's latest film, 'Exodus: of Gods & Men', a big-budget retelling of the biblical story of Moses.

But after seeing the two-hour and thirty minute movie in 3-D, I have to wonder how much of that buzz is based on the actual content of the film itself, versus the almost impossibly high standards fans and critics have of Ridley Scott's films, and the ongoing cultural debate over what ancient Egyptians really looked like.

Let's take a quick look at the cast of main characters (pictured above left) first.

Christian Bale is cast in the title role as Moses, the child of Hebrew slaves who was found as a baby and "adopted" by Bithiah (played by actress Hiam Abbass), the sister of Pharaoh Seti I.

It was Bithiah who decided to claim Moses as her own child and raise him as a prince of Egypt alongside her nephew Ramses; Pharaoh's true son played in 'Exodus' by Joel Edgerton.

The Pharaoh Seti I is played by John Turturro, and Sigourney Weaver plays Queen Tuya, his wife,  who despises Moses and sees him as a threat to her son Ramses' rule.

Those who look at the cast of 'Exodus' simply in terms of how authentically "Egyptian" they look, and judge the entire film exclusively in that context, are likely to overlook some fine acting performances, some pretty well-written characters and a well-crafted film.

Now I have two minor issues related to the cast, neither of which have to do with criticism of their ethnicity or race.

First, I felt like an actress of Sigourney Weaver's stature and ability should have been given more to do in this film. Her appearances are limited to a few scenes where she's given very few lines, or simply appears with the members of the royal family looking regal.

The film ran two and a half hours, so maybe some of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or maybe Ridley Scott decided he didn't want the film's focus to be on her character's hatred of Moses; but I was left wanting to see more of her in this film, and from a screenwriter's standpoint, her role could have had some more meat on it.

Actor Yul Brynner as Ramses in 'The Ten Commandments'
My second issue is that even though Joel Edgerton (who plays Pharaoh's son Ramses) is an excellent actor who delivers a fine performance and effectively conveys the aura and stature of a prince of Egypt, it's difficult for him to have to live up to the inevitable comparison film buffs like me will make to the brilliant on-screen performance of actor Yul Brynner (pictured left); who owned the role of Ramses in the classic 1956 film 'The Ten Commandments' directed by Cecile B. DeMille.

That said, for me, race or ethnicity of casting is not at issue in this film, especially with a director of Ridely Scott's stature who has a history of consistently casting African-American actors in his films in both supporting and lead roles.

Those who've criticized Scott for his casting in 'Exodus' might do well to look back on some of the casting choices the director/producer has made in the past.

Actor Yaphet Kotto
For example, he cast the brilliant Yaphet Kotto (pictured left) as Parker in the visionary 1979 sci-fi blockbuster film 'Alien'; arguably the first serious on-screen supporting role for a darker-skinned actor of color in a major Hollywood sci-fi release.

Did you know the actual Alien in the costume in the movie 'Alien' was played by an African actor from Nigeria named Bloaji Badejo?

Scott also cast the impressive West African actor and former model Djimon Hounsou as Juba, the African gladiator who helped and befriended Russell Crowe's character in the 2000 'sandals and swords' epic hit 'Gladiator'.

Ridley Scott was also instrumental in casting Denzel Washington as the lead in the 2004 action film 'Man on Fire' and in 2010's 'Unstoppable' - even though Ridley Scott's bother Tony was actually the director of both of those films, they (as well as 'Gladiator') were released through Scott Free Productions, the film production company formed by Ridley and Tony Scott in 1995.

In 'Exodus', from my take, Scott chose to tell some aspects of the story of Moses; he never billed it as a film that's 100% true to the text of the Old Testament as possible - as Cecil B. DeMille famously boasted in the lengthy intro to his 1956 version.
Plus, 'Exodus' has a wide variety of actors of color cast in various support roles and does a good job of background casting as well in terms of the overall diversity.

Like many others, I've often blogged about Hollywood's on-screen portrayals of Egyptian characters depicted as non-African or non-Mid-Eastern in appearance; but I don't think Scott was trying to use 'Exodus' as a platform to weigh in on, or solve that debate.

And it's not a simple debate.

Egyptians are in fact Africans. The country is located on the northeast part of the massive African content on the border of the Mid-East, but there are Africans from many different ethnic origins.

In recent years, as many Afro-centrist scholars, historians and enthusiasts have delved deeper into ancient African history that mainstream Western educational institutions have often marginalized, or ignored, there have been many who try to 'claim' Egypt as a definitive 'African' civilization in terms of our contemporary ideas of race; rather than the actual geographic history of ancient Egypt.

Egyptian Pharaoh Taharqa
For example, there are any number of ancient Egyptian masks, statues, carvings or illustrations that depict various members of Egyptian royalty with clearly defined African features; as seen in this photo (at left) of a statue of a sphinx with the head of Taharqa, a Nubian ruler of Egypt from the 25th Dynasty; actor Will Smith is currently trying to produce and possibly star in a movie about Taharqa's life.

But it's important to remember that there were some 31 different ancient Egyptian dynasties that existed over a period of over 3,385 years; and some scholars suggest there were dynasties that existed in Upper Egypt long before the 1st Dynasty began 3,050 years before the birth of Christ.

Some, like the 25th Dynasty, had rulers and Pharaohs who came from sub-Saharan African regions such as Nubia and Ethiopia, and therefore had facial features and racial characteristics like skin color that we consider more closely associated with traditional 'black' Africans like Taharqa.

But there were also many Egyptian dynasties ruled by people who came from other areas of the Mid-East, Africa and even the Mediterranean to conquer Egypt as well.

Like the infamous Cleopatra, an Egyptian princess born in AD 69 who became the last active Pharaoh and lived at the tail end of the Egyptian dynasties during the Ptolemaic (or Hellenistic) dynasty that lasted until about AD 330.   

Cleopatra's father was Ptolemy XII, he came from a family of Macedonian Greek origin that came to power in Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great.

While many have criticized Hollywood's traditional ethnic casting of Cleopatra with actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor, the contention by many that Cleopatra was at least part 'African' has never been definitively proven.

Her father was Greek, but her mother's identity has not been conclusively proven.

But given all that, it is still relevant to note that Hollywood has never cast a film about Moses with an actor with African, Mediterranean or distinctly Mid-Eastern features; and remember, if we go by the Biblical text of Exodus, Moses passed as an Egyptian prince well into adulthood; so it's doubtful that he would have looked 'European'.

Did Moses look like Charleton Heston or Christian Bale?  

It's perfectly legitimate to explore those kinds of questions; but I don't think it's really fair for critics or anyone else to conclude that it was Ridley Scott's goal as a filmmaker to answer those complex kinds of questions in 'Exodus'.

I can certainly understand some of the criticisms expressed in mainstream and social media about the ethnic authenticity of the cast in terms of historical accuracy, but I think 'Exodus' was a well-executed film with a top-notch cast, a solid storyline and incredible production value in terms of the scale of the locations, sets, costumes and props.

The framing of many of the scenes is breathtaking.

Personally, I'm giving the film a solid three stars out of five and I think it was well worth the ticket price to see it on the big screen in 3-D.

Charleton Heston parts the Red Sea as Moses in 1956
Scott's film offers some very interesting takes on the traditional story of Moses, including casting a child to play God and portraying Moses as much more human and skeptical of God and religion; and less the stern, humorless, grim prophet as Charleton Heston (seen left) played the character in 1956.

Of course, it boasts some excellent digital special effects, including the parting of the Red Sea, that don't overwhelm the film.

As someone who is still a big fan of the 1956 film 'The Ten Commandments', I have to say that the special effects used to create the Angel of Death coming down from the moonlit sky to kill every first-born son of Egypt, still hold up after all these years.

Scott's Angel of Death in 'Exodus' is much more like a gentle whisper, or malevolent breeze that delivers a quick death to it's victims - it's effective, but the I think Cecile B. DeMille's 1956 Angel of Death scene is much scarier; and remains one of my all-time favorite special effects scenes.

But Scott's film showcases the ability of modern CGI to bring the various other plagues God sends upon Egypt to life in some truly spectacular ways.

If you don't think plague, frogs, flies and locusts can be frightening, then you should see this film on the big screen.

Oh, and as far as the sea turning red, I wouldn't want to have been an Egyptian fisherman on a boat in the Nile in this film - two words; crocodile frenzy.
In today's world where morals and ethics can be seen as sorely lacking in our government institutions and law enforcement, and too many Hollywood films substitute guns, excessive dialog, naked flesh and gratuitous sex for quality story telling and story structure, I for one applaud Ridley Scott for having the guts to use his talents and influence as a filmmaker to bring a classic story from the Old Testament to life on the big screen.

One that compels the audience to re-examine ideas of slavery, retribution, vengeance and faith.  

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