I had a quick look at this movie a couple of months ago. At the time, it was generating a lot of negative feedback due to its… er… unfavourable optics. Gods of Egypt is on general release now, and I think it’s a kindness to say that the reviews are mixed. I went to see it yesterday, and unfortunately, the optics are only part of the problem.
But let’s deal with them first shall we? This has nothing to do with whether or not Hollywood as a whole is doing enough to cast minorities in major roles (if you look at the stats, then they appear to be doing their bit); this is purely about this film, and in this film the casting is a massive issue.
Gods of Egypt is pure fantasy: it’s based around the idea that the Gods of ancient Egypt actually lived in Egypt. They adopted a very ‘hands-on’ management approach to running the world they created, striding around in their perfect ten-feet tall bodies with liquid gold for blood. The film-makers even portrayed the world as flat so that the audience is left in no doubt that none of this actually happened.
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:
And taking a few weeks off from Games of Thrones, we have Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
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:
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.
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.’
‘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.’
‘I don’t know. Something a bit more … 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.