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Were the Gods of Egypt White?



The Gods of Egypt, the upcoming multi-million dollar sword and sandal epic, directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City, I, Robot), is set in ancient Egypt, and is about a young thief (Brenton Thwaites as Bek) on a divine mission. The movie features a very unusual cast. They are mostly Caucasians with the exception of Chadwick Boseman (Persons Unknown) who plays the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth and the young Australian model, Ya Ya Deng, who recently appeared in The Face Australia. Also set to star in the movie are the Scotsman Gerard Butler as Set, the god of storms, desert and violence, the Australian Geoffrey Rush as Ra, god of the sun, and the Danish Nikolaj Coster-Walder (Jamie Lannister of Game of Thrones) as Horus, the falcon-headed god of war. Also appearing are the Australians Bryan Brown, Bruce Spence, Emma Booth, Abby Lee and Rachael Blake.

According to scholars, the gods of pre-Ptolomaic Egypt which include Set, Ra and Horus, were viewed as dark-skinned by their contemporary worshipers but depictions of the Egyptian pantheon became increasingly Hellenized under later Greek influence which also developed such deities as Serapis, the worship of dynastic rulers, and Greek forms of Isis which were white skinned. The Ptolemies who inherited the Egyptian Pharaonic kingdoms and established the Ptolomaic dynasty after Alexander the Great were from Greek Macedonia and not Africa.

A change.org petition begun by Thorne Studies last year to protest the casting of the Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Walder as a god of Egypt garnered over 18,000 signatures. When the casting decision was made last year, Coster-Walder was set to play the god Ra, but his role was changed to Horus later. The controversy about a white, northern European actor playing a dark-skinned, god of Egypt lit up Internet forums last year and continues to be debated by moviephiles and history buffs. The petitioners accused Proyas of “whitewashing” history by seeking to change the race of a historical racial group in a cultural product that is bound to be influential to young, and perhaps uneducated, movie-goers. The term “racebending” is often used to describe the Hollywood practice of casting a role in an obviously different racial category. In 2006, the UCLA Center for Chicano Studies published a scathing brief on the breakdown of racial hiring practices at Hollywood studios. They found that 81.9 percent of lead roles were played by white actors while 69 percent of roles overall were reserved for white actors. The brief examined the potential for lawsuits based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits any employer to publish an employment notice that indicates any preference based on race, color, or sex.

The brief also discusses possible legal defenses by Hollywood studios if gender-based or racial casting were challenged in court under Title VII, although to this day no challenge exists. These include appeals to the guidelines established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which may authorize gender discrimination in some circumstances, a First Amendment Defense which argues that First Amendment protections trump those under anti-discrimination laws, and a market-based defense which argues that gender and ethnicity help drive box-office sales.

Whatever the legal defense of Hollywood studios for gender-based or racial casting, the court of public-opinion continues to debate the issue. When Hollywood studios consider it important that the gods of Egypt are depicted as dark-skinned instead of white may depend more on box-office receipts than appeals to historical veracity and cultural sensitivity.

By Steven Killings