This December, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings—which tells the story of Moses freeing the Israelites from Egypt—will open, with producers hoping to capture the same box-office success that Noah and Son of God had earlier this year.
Like those movies, Scott’s biblical epic is already receiving criticism. Unlike those movies, the criticism is coming in for a non-theology related controversy: the casting.
In Exodus, the Jewish and Egyptian historical characters—including Joshua, Moses and Ramses—are portrayed mostly by white actors like Aaron Paul, Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. The decision to use white actors to play the ethnically diverse figures led to a small uproar on Twitter, where thousands of users expressed their frustration with the hashtag #BoycottExodusMovie.
It’s a justified uproar. In a world in which every biblical movie gets parsed for the most minute of theological quibbles, the fact that Hollywood felt justified in utterly reimagining the racial breakdown of ancient Egypt is more than problematic or even lazy. It’s offensive.
Exodus is hardly the first biblical epic to fudge racial facts, but it might be the first to come under heavy criticism for it. While Christians have been quick to scrutinize the historical accuracy and theological nuances of past Bible movies, the actors’ race has typically gotten a pass. But as Bible movies become higher-profile affairs, their margin for error is shrinking.
It’s yet to be seen if the backlash will affect the film’s bottom line, but with a number of other Hollywood Bible adaptations in the works—big-budget films and TV shows about Jesus, David, Pontius Pilate, Mary and others—the viral pushback may be a signal to Hollywood that it needs to recognize that it has a pretty serious biblical race problem.
Exodus is far from the first Bible movie to show a lack of diversity in casting:
Charlton Heston: In The Ten Commandments, the 1956 telling of the Moses story, Heston dons one of the worst fake beards in history.
Lily white Richard Gere: Actor Richard Gere portrayed history’s most famous Hebrew king in 1985’s King David.
Willem Dafoe: In Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Dafoe became another white actor to portray Jesus onscreen.