Black actors, the Oscars … and the Gods of Egypt

Ars Technica has reviewed the new myth-flick Gods of Egypt and given it something of a drubbing. They’re not alone; this movie looks like it’s going to join the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space and the Clash of the Titans remake as one of the worst movies ever made, which will make it a money spinner for curosity’s sake if nothing else. The Technica review differs slightly from all the others as it doesn’t focus too much on how unspeakably bad the film is; instead it makes the case that the film seems to hark back to the Biblical epics of the 1950s which, looking back, all carried a rather large elephant on to the screen.

Here’s the extraordinarily busy Gerard Butler playing the Egyptian god Set:

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And taking a few weeks off from Games of Thrones, we have Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

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The problem that Ars Technica has is that both these actors are playing Egyptian gods, and they’re both a little bit … white. The saving grace is this chap:

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And I have no idea who he is.

Will Smith boycotted the Oscars the other night, stating that black actors (and of course, actresses) are poorly represented in the annual back-slapping lovey-fest, and the cringe-worthy weirdness of casting white actors as Egyptians seems to reinforce the point. At some level, I agree with Mr Smith, especially since he was passed over for sterling performances in the Pursuit of Happyness (I love that film) and his title role in Ali.

The casting in the Gods of Egypt isn’t about racism, deliberate or otherwise; it’s about the vicious circle of risk and imagination.  Hollywood isn’t a dream factory; it’s just a factory. It produces goods to order, and these orders are defined by expectation. The buying public expects to see its favourite actors and actresses in blockbusters, so the question is not why doesn’t Hollywood cast more black actors; it’s why aren’t more of the public’s favourite actors black.

Like many news sites around films awards time, The Economist is running a piece on racism in the industry. The article as a whole is well worth reading, but it’s the first graph on the page that really stands out.

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Looking at these figures, I’m not at all sure that blacks are being under-represented in the Oscars. The numbers of nominations and wins is roughly in line with the US black population as a whole and the number of black actors registered with the Screen Actors Guild. If anyone should be creating a stink in Hollywood it’s the Asians and Latinos! Why are they so quiet?

Despite the figures in the graph, the Economist goes on to make the case that it’s not that blacks are under-represented, but that in relation to everyone else, whites are over-represented. I certainly agree, but again it comes back to public expectation.

Here’s something that happened to me a couple of years ago. I was at a university gathering for creative writers. A young woman approaches me, a little bit worse for drink:

‘I’ve been reading some of your stuff.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes, you’re a really great writer.’

‘Well, thank you.’

‘But a little disappointing.’

‘Really? How so?’

‘Well, I love all that comedy and science fiction stuff you do, but I was expecting something different.’

‘Such as…?’

‘I don’t know. Something a bit more … ethnic.’

‘Ethnic.’

‘Yes, I’d love to read your take on the struggles of your people. Why don’t you ever write about that?’

See that? Expectation. Just as there is an expectation to see their favourite actors in block busters there is an expectation to see blacks take on certain roles, and these roles don’t usually show up in the Oscar nomination list.

So, is a boycott the answer? I’m not sure that the battle is with the Oscars; I think the battle is with public expectations. After all, the civil rights movement didn’t protest inequality by refusing to ride on segregated buses. They sat in ‘whites-only’ seats and drank from ‘whites-only’ water fountains. Maybe the answer is in their example. There are many black actors who carry a lot of influence in Hollywood. Use that influence to get more good movies made that are vehicles for the minorities (all minorities). And remember that the Oscars is just the industry congratulating itself; the real mark of success is in the legions of movie-goers who turn out to see your films. I don’t think Will Smith has much to worry about in that regard.

 

 

 

 

 

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