Gods of Egypt, the upcoming mythological fantasy adventure directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow) and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Dracula Untold), is far from the first Hollywood production to cast caucasian actors as non-caucasian characters (a practice commonly known as white-washing). Still, Gods of Egypt is a pretty blatant example of this racially-insensitive practice; when you watch the movie’s trailer, it’s kind of near-impossible to forget that you are watching Scottish actor Gerard Butler and Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who’s from Denmark) play the Egyptian gods Set and Horus, respectively.
Indeed, most of the film’s cast – Brenton Thwaites, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee, Geoffrey Rush, and so on – are of the noticeably lighter-skinned variety, with exceptions like Chadwick Boseman and Elodie Yung (as the Egyptian gods Thoth and Hathor, respectively). However, in order to counter said bad buzz that Gods of Egypt‘s largely white-washed cast has generated, Lionsgate and Proyas have issue public apologies in response to the related complaints.
Here is the statement from Proyas on Gods of Egypt, as first shared by Forbes:
“The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables, but it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse. I sincerely apologize to those who are offended by the decisions we made.”
Lionsgate also issued its own response, with regard to complaints about the film’s white-washed cast:
”We recognize that it is our responsibility to help ensure that casting decisions reflect the diversity and culture of the time periods portrayed. In this instance we failed to live up to our own standards of sensitivity and diversity, for which we sincerely apologize. Lionsgate is deeply committed to making films that reflect the diversity of our audiences. We have, can and will continue to do better.”
Generally, the rationale presented by studios and/or filmmakers for casting white actors as characters of a distinctly different race and/or ethnicity in bigger-budgeted fare is pretty straightforward – namely, the claim is that it is necessary, in order to acquire the proper funding. Case in point, that was Ridley Scott’s explanation, when he was asked about casting caucasian actors as Egyptians in his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings (a movie that went a step further than Gods of Egypt and featured actors such as Joel Edgerton in “Egyptian-face” makeup), back in 2014:
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in 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. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Exodus‘ box office performance – $268 million worldwide but only $65 million domestically on a $140 million budget – is evidence on its own that a white-washed cast does not guarantee that the resulting commercial returns will justify the practice, purely from a business perspective. Indeed, based on the box office track record of actors like Butler and Coster-Waldau, it’s not a given that Gods of Egypt will perform better financially than if it had featured a more racially-appropriate cast, either.
More importantly, from a creative and artistic perspective, the issue presented by white-washing is that it results in a poor and insensitive representation of either real-life people and/or actual civilizations in history onscreen – something that makes that practice inappropriate in a way that, say, “race-bending” fictional characters in superhero movies might not be.
In other words: next time someone makes a film about ancient Egypt (even a film that includes fantastical elements like giant snake monsters), it would be better to just cast the human roles more thoughtfully – and thus, have one less thing to worry about. As for whether or not Gods of Egypt will benefit from these public apologies, well, time will be the judge on that one (though the trailer alone doesn’t exactly instill one with confidence)…
Gods of Egypt opens in U.S. theaters on February 26th, 2016.