For the last few months, Ridley Scott's choice to fill his Moses movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, with white actors has been a slow-boiling controversy. On Tuesday, he addressed the casting debate head on, telling Variety that money was the reason.
"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," he told the trade magazine. "I'm just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn't even come up."
Scott is trying to make the point that Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver are big names, and entice backers to believe in his project. But he also exemplifies a lack of grace and empathy that is sadly too common when talking about race, ethnicity, and the business of Hollywood.
It's all too easy to find something chilling in Scott's derogatory dismissal of non-white (possibly Arab) actors as Mohammad so-and-so, in that it points to pernicious stereotypes about certain actors of color. When coupled with what Scott says about financing, it seems like if you are an actor of color, chances are slim that Scott would want to work with you.
Perhaps more troublesome is that Scott is voicing what he believes is the way the "business" works — that financiers will only back your movie if it stars a white actor who is well-known. For non-white actors, Scott's view and people who share it make the industry difficult to break into.
According to the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, white actors possessed nearly 90 percent of the lead roles in the 172 theatrical films released in 2011. That means they're more likely to become big stars, making it even harder for non-white actors to take those lead roles and become big stars themselves.
Scott is trying — in clumsy fashion — to explain why the system is such a mess. But in so doing, he's just pointing out why it's rarely a good idea to become comfortable with such a system.