Hollywood is a sucker for a story about ancient Egypt. Movies like The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, and even The Mummy prove it. Upcoming movies like Exodus and Gods of Egypt all but confirm it. Unfortunately though, those films have something in common aside from being about ancient Egypt — they show that Hollywood, tends to envision ancient Egyptians and ancient Egyptian royalty as white men and women (sometimes with copious amounts of bronzer splashed on).
The latest movie in Hollywood's ongoing love affair with ancient Egypt is Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott's interpretation consists of Caucasian actors like Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Sigourney Weaver playing Moses and Egyptian royalty respectively. Black and non-white actors portray roles like "Egyptian lower class citizen" or "Egyptian thief." And Aaron Paul plays Joshua, an Israelite who becomes Moses's right-hand man.
Stay woke pic.twitter.com/c5dWRKQuaT— Pas Muhammad (@TheeSouthside) July 27, 2014
The cast of Exodus is similar to another upcoming movie about ancient Egypt called Gods of Egypt. In that film, the likes of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones), Gerard Butler, and Geoffrey Rush play Egyptian gods, which sets up a weird dynamic of white actors representing ideals of and being worshipped by non-white people.
While these two films aren't the only movies that have white-washed ancient Egypt, they're maybe the most frustrating. We can chalk up things like Elizabeth Taylor playing a fair-skinned Cleopatra in the film of the same name to the year the movie was made in (1963). There's no rule that says we have to follow the template and tendencies of casting directors 50 years ago. We should know better, yet it still happened and is still happening.
What are ancient Egyptians supposed to look like?
The white-washing of Ancient Egyptians in popular culture has changed the way a lot of people view history. The most popular and circulated images have a way of sticking with you. The possible white-washing of Ancient Egypt and the Egyptian civilization is a heated subject in scholarly circles as well.
From Egyptian art, we know that people were depicted with reddish, olive, or yellow skin tones. The Sphinx has been described as having Nubian or sub-Saharan features. And from literature, Greek writers like Herodotus and Aristotle referred to Egyptians as having dark skin.
Genetic testing on ancient Egyptians has been difficult and near impossible. But DNA tests on contemporary Egyptians find that they share genetic similarities to people from the rest of the Middle East and are intermediate between peoples from Southern Europe and sub-saharan Africa. (Many Egyptians today consider themselves ethnically Arab, an identity shared with many other Middle Eastern and North African countries.)
But that isn't exactly conclusive, since you're measuring people who are hundreds of eras apart.
"There is no scientific reason to believe that the primary ancestors of the Egyptian population emerged and evolved outside of northeast Africa," S. O. Y. Keita, a Senior Research Associate at the National Human Genome Center, wrote in National Geographic. Keita added:
.… these studies can be interpreted as suggesting that the Egyptian Nile Valley's indigenous population had a craniofacial pattern that evolved and emerged in northeastern Africa, whose geography in relationship to climate largely explains the variation. Dental affinity studies generally agree with the craniofacial results, though they differ in the details. The body proportions of ancient Egyptians generally are similar to those of tropical (more southern) Africans.
What we also know is that Egypt is one of the first places where people of different skin colors interacted, Nina Jablonski, a professor at Penn State, explained this in her book Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color.
"The visual diversity of population centers increased as contacts became more common between Egypt and Nubia, and then Greater Egypt, Palestine and Libya," she wrote. "In ancient Egypt as a whole, people were not designated by color terms, and slavery was not associated with darker skin," she added, highlighting a flaw in Scott's casting — fair-skinned people were not considered above dark skinned people in ancient Egypt.
Further, Egypt was invaded and conquered by different groups of people, like the Nubians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Macedonian Greeks. Taking DNA from Egyptians during the height of these invasions (e.g. Nubian rule vs. Macedonian Greek rule) could yield different DNA results.
"Any characterization of race of the ancient Egyptians depends on modern cultural definitions, not on scientific study," Stuart Tyson Smith wrote in 2001 Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. "Thus, by modern American standards it is reasonable to characterize the Egyptians as 'black,'" he added, calling to mind the conversations we have regarding President Barack Obama's race.
In short: there is some really interesting stuff about race and genetics in ancient Egypt, particularly how its geography affected that. And it's almost certain that Egyptians were an ethnically mixed people. Ergo, ancient Egyptian royals would probably look more like a non-white, black, or Arab actor or actress than they would Sigourney Weaver or Joel Edgerton. Moses and Joshua, who are supposed to be Middle Eastern biblical Jews (Moses allegedly looks similar to Ramses), probably had different features than Christian Bale and Aaron Paul do.
Why race in Egypt matters a lot
It's really quite simple: ancient Egypt was an amazing civilization. It's a symbol of pride and wonder still today. And there's been a feeling that, when we think of Egypt, we don't often acknowledge its African history. There are extreme examples of this, like far right groups who use controversial blood test findings to assert that King Tut and Egyptian royalty were Nordic, Jo Marchant, a science journalist, wrote in a post on Medium.
This happens in more educated and high-brow debates among historians too. In the 1930s, ethnologist Charles Seligman strongly believed that Hamites, a Caucasian/Middle Eastern race, were really the ones who we should credit for African accomplishments. This was seen as trying to wash away Egypt's black and African roots.
"The African historian who evades the problem of Egypt is neither modest nor objective nor unruffled," Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop is quoted as saying by the BBC.
What Hollywood is getting wrong
On one level the stakes of Egypt and representing its diversity are very high. But Scott's casting and movies like Gods of Egypt also highlight the struggle for non-white actors to land jobs. If Arab, black, or mixed-race actors aren't being used to tell a stories of mixed-race, black, or Arab people, then what kind of jobs are they landing?
"Exodus is reflective of the way Hollywood works," Ana-Christina Ramon, a researcher at UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies told me. Ramon and the team there study diversity (or, more specifically, the lack of) in movies and television. And Hollywood is currently in a system where actors and actresses of color don't get prime billing, save for a few exceptions (Will Smith, Halle Berry, and perhaps Lupita Nyong'o now).
"They [movie studios] want big profits. The way that the business is set up — they think only white, male leads will yield these big profits for them," she said. "A common excuse is that there's something of an applicant pool problem. There are actors out there — we've met them — that are struggling, and they just wanna have that chance."
Ramon doesn't buy the Hollywood excuse that there aren't enough non-white actors. She explains that they are there, but that casting directors are usually looking to place them as tertiary sidekicks or villains (e.g. Avatar: the Last Airbender).
Arab-American actors are usually only sought when a movie is trying to cast terrorists, she told me. This type of stereotypical casting, like the black servants in Scott's exodus, has implications that stretch beyond employment. The effect is actually similar to Diop's ideas — it sends the message that white people are responsible for achievements (like the ancient Egyptian civilization) made by non-white people.
"It's subtly reinforcing the racial hierarchy. White actors usually play the good guys," Ramon said. "And so it perpetuates the image that the whiter you are, the better you are as a person."