Whenever Hollywood releases an epic film set in Egypt and they cast powerful people, or beings, as white, there is outcry against the whitewashing…. and to counter that outcry, there are often the folks who say: “Well, it’s just fiction”, or “Well, you won’t complain if they want to cast James Bond or Thor as a black guy”.
They’re right; I won’t complain if they decided to cast James Bond as a black guy, or Thor as a muscular, dark-skinned, Kenyan man with flowing black dreadlocks and a Japanese accent. Expecting ‘I will complain’, is an expectation based on the idea that my reasons for being opposed to the whitewashing of Egypt are solely related to ‘historical, and other, accuracy’. However, they’re not–not exactly.
I complain because in a context where black people are so often represented as ‘less than’ or not represented at all; in a context where non-white actors struggle to find great film roles; in a context where ‘white is alright’ and so few people know of black achievement and invention culturally, historically, scientifically, socially, it sucks to have one of the historical greats of African culture glossed over and made ‘white’ so consistently; like so much of the glorified ‘everything’ around this world is. In a different context, one where Africa is celebrated and broadcasted as diverse and beautiful, one where the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘Africa’, isn’t ‘poverty’, one where there is great celebration and appreciation of the historic (and other) contribution of non-Europeans, then it won’t be such a bad thing to be imaginative and cast Pharaoh as a blond, white guy with an English accent. It might actually be something fun or cool. However, when a community is already looked down upon or ignored, or has had so much of their culture and achievement erased, it’s just kicking folks when they’re down to then go and replace alongside the erasure. Casting a black James Bond isn’t nearly as ‘dangerous’ to the development of positive ideas surrounding ‘whiteness’ because we live in a world where Europe, and especially England, is celebrated. Casting one black James Bond in a sea of white James isn’t going to strengthen any perception that ‘European achievement is solely related to the black folks in Europe’ because no such narrative exists. However, casting white Egyptian gods, in a sea of powerful white Egyptians in films past, strengthens the existing perception that ‘African achievement is solely related to white folks’ presence in Africa’.
We’re not yet living in a world where Africa is celebrated or appreciated in film, and otherwise… and until we live in such a world, I can’t support ‘creative freedoms’ that take the opportunity to erase and replace African peoples’ glory rather than celebrate it.
As an artist, or creative, I’m for imagination, and fantasy, and expression… it’s a beautiful thing when we can suspend reality for a moment, within reason. However, we always need to be aware that films aren’t just a way of escaping reality, but of shaping it as well. As artists, our contribution, and I dare say ‘responsibility’, is to help people to escape and cope with the dreariness of everyday life… both in the fantastical world of imagination, and in the actual world of reality. When we make films and stories that consistently refuse to acknowledge and celebrate the beauty of a people, we’re shaping their reality negatively; we’re enforcing and encouraging the perception, the idea, that a certain group of people have nothing to be proud of. It’s a wrong idea, and a destructive one too.
In my mind, there are two ways to fight the problem… one is making films that celebrate human diversity, and the other is boycotting and critiquing those that don’t. Right now, I’m boycotting and critiquing those that don’t, and well, amongst the many things I hope to do before I die, I’d hope to direct or help finance film that celebrates and acknowledges the beauty and greatness of black people… we need to see more of that.
Note/Response to question on the above:
1. I like to think that we can expect white people in powerful positions (be they University presidents and chancellors, company executives or politicians) to not promote or support racism; and so I won’t ever encourage people to give up all hope that Hollywood or other powerful institutions can change. Hollywood certainly has changed in the past, very slowly, but it has, and I have no reason to believe that progress won’t happen in the future with continued pressure and critique. The real issue isn’t just money, it’s also about reaching to a place of celebrating the equal humanity and dignity of others. We don’t need a situation where we have ‘black film that black folks watch’, or universities with just rich white people that teach their white students that white alone is alright, we don’t need insular bubbles, we need a situation where we have diverse film, diverse teaching, messages that celebrate everyone that everyone watches— because we all live together. Throwing money at building up one population, whilst ignoring the damaging messages being fed to another, is a recipe for bubbles of hate, misunderstanding and conflict. Money in the wrong hands, without appreciating the need for diversity when the audience is diverse (or even when it isn’t), might only result in segregation and hate. We need to push for understanding alongside everything else. But beyond that, I already noted that there are 2 solutions to the problem– one being boycotting (which hurts financially) and critiquing (which justifies why the boycotting comes from a place of genuine concern for humanity, rather than hatred) and the second solution being making films that celebrate the diversity we want to see celebrated— something I hope to do. I’m not at all sure how I’m supposed to read your suggestion to approaching Creflo Dollar, so I’ll hold back on a response to it. Either way, never will I be the person who says that Africans shouldn’t expect good from anyone else because: white leaders/people won’t change, Indian leaders/people won’t change, Chinese leaders/people won’t change—they’re all just selfish and inconsiderate, so let’s completely ignore them and their potential role in trying to make a better world and tell people that the only solution is to fend for themselves since everyone else is inherently ‘bad’. If ever I’m in a position of great power, I’d hate to think that any group of people would simply assume that I’m racist, selfish and inconsiderate and hence don’t try to get me to change whatever destructive thing I might be doing. I happen to believe that there is a place for everyone to contribute to each other’s development, and I happen to believe that we all have a part to play, and that to some extent we have (or can have with sustained pressure) some inclination to play that part— so despite your order to ‘Stop’, I’ll continue to push for change both by encouraging those with the most power now to do something, and also by encouraging those who more immediately need change to do what they can themselves.