It’s no secret that Hollywood can be a difficult place for non-white actors. Nearly 70% of casting calls show preference for white actors, and in general about 11.1% of leading roles go to African Americans, 4.3% to Asian Americans, and 1.7% to Arab Americans. It barely needs repeating that the 1.7% is usually for a terrorist of some sort. Even when casting Arab roles in Hollywood, white actors are often selected, as was the case in FX’s series, Tyrant, which cast a half-British, half-American man to play an assimilated American who returns to a fictionalized Arab country. The details of Tyrant aside, this is an all-too common trend in Hollywood, one that often reinforces stereotypes.
For example, a recent piece in Vox takes a look at Hollywood movies set in ancient Egypt. The article discusses an upcoming Ridley Scott film in which Moses and members of the Egyptian royalty will be played by Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, and Joel Edgarton. The parts of “Egyptian lower class citizen” and “Egyptian thief” and “Egyptian Royal Servant” will be played by Black and non-white actors. This is not a one-time oversight, either. This has happened in many other movies, where white actors play royalty or gods, and non-white actors play their servants, the assassins, the thieves, or the lower-class people – setting up an uncomfortably familiar, and easily avoidable, power dynamic. These movies speak to a few larger trends in popular culture: the whitewashing of history (which happens in academia as well), the erasure historical race dynamics in Egypt (or other countries), and some serious casting issues in Hollywood.
Vox analyzes the historical issues of race and skin color in Egypt, bringing together a fair number of reputable sources, and finds: ancient Egyptians weren’t white. Through art, we can now see how their skin color was depicted (with hues of yellow, red, brown, or olive tones); through historical accounts of trade, conquest, and travel, we know that ancient Egyptians were mixed in race, and Egypt is both an African and an Arab civilization. Moreover, skin color did not play a role in people’s social status – fair skinned people were not considered to be above those with darker skin, foiling many of these casting arrangements. Really, it’s almost certain that ancient Egyptians did not resemble Christian Bale in more ways than one.
But why does this matter? These issues go back to historical representation – looking at the whitewashing of history – the prevalent images of pop culture stick in your head. It plays into power dynamics of white actors playing gods, while darker bodies play their servants, thieves, assassins, or worse. It elides the actual historical issues of race that may have existed by replacing colors. And most of all – it contributes to Hollywood’s longstanding problem with casting minority actors in lead roles. When the Huffington Post examined recent Oscar winning pictures, they found that the only roles that ended up going to actors of color were roles that literally could not have been played by white actors (the leads in 12 Years a Slave, Malcolm X, or The Help). These issues go back to role models, to seeing yourself represented in popular culture, to feeling like you and your history matter, and are worth representing well. Check out the article on whitewashing in Hollywood here (including pictures of a blackfaces Lawrence Olivier), and the article on Hollywood and Egypt here on Vox.