“Oh, I knows. I knows. I’m just a worn-out ol’ man what don’t do nothin’ but tell stories. But they ain’t never done no harm to nobody. And if they don’t do no good, how come they last so long? This here’s the only home I knows. I was going to whitewash the walls, too, but not now. Time done run out.”
– Uncle Remus, Song of the South (1946)
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When Stargate came out my boys and I went to see it on opening day at the Eastland Cinema 8. Our black consciousness was at peak levels and the trailer for Stargate looked like a black nationalist’s wet dream: pyramids, Egyptian gods, ancient technology, confused white folks…it looked to be awesome. Back then, the world wasn’t able to spoil everything months before it came out, or warn us that Stargate was going to be on some Chariots of the Gods shit. Looking back at the trailer now, I guess the signs were there, but back then anything remotely Egyptian outside of all the books we were reading was pretty rare. We took media representations of our history where we could get them because it was us, somewhere back in time, maybe, before slavery and colonization and feeling guilty for not celebrating Kwanzaa, being reflected on the national stage as valuable doing awesome things. We were thirsty, but it was a thirsty time. Back then being afrocentric was a daily struggle within an already difficult struggle. You used to lose whole branches of your family tree over not celebrating the annual Roots replay back then.
The point is that Egypt is serious business to black folks, always has been. And the more politically and culturally conscious your black person, the more serious that business is. All the cool stuff your black friends are going to be jumping up and down about in next year’s Black Panther movie is basically how black folks see Egypt, except Egypt was real, everybody knows it was real, and half of us are sure one of our cousins was a pharaoh. What do you think all those Earth Wind & Fire album covers were suggesting? Egypt was ours and it was black, and everything Egypt accomplished was our accomplishment.
When you’re oppressed for a few hundred years, you hold on to what you can.
*** SHOUT OUT to all my hoteps. This one is for you, and all of the classes I missed so I could hang out in the Columbus State Community College cafeteria proselytizing my classmates into peak blackness. (Query: Are they actually your classmates if you never go to class? My transcripts would suggest otherwise.) ***
If you came to this article genuinely seeking an answer to the question, “Should I go see Gods of Egypt?” my first inclination is to ask, “In aid of which desire? Entertainment? Knowledge? Cultural inflammation? To get your drinking game on?” But with this film I find I am able to resist my natural urge to unpack every question to at least three decimal places and spit out the answer pretty quick: fuck no. Any way you want to justify seeing this movie is pretty much a wash, and some reasons outwash the others. Mostly the whitewashed reasons.
For the record, I’m going to spoil the shit out of this movie because a) you have no business seeing it even for free, and b) fuck this movie. Somewhere in here I’ve tucked in some critical bon mots for the cinema heads who are somehow (and alarmingly) able to extricate their politics out of their entertainment so completely that this is just another dumb action film to them. Happy Easter. Enjoy the eggs.
*** SHOUT OUT to spoiler alerts, except the one you could already gather from the trailer, which is that this movie, politics aside, sucks. It’s pretty, but the dialogue is atrocious, the CGI has a micropenis from all of the steroids it’s on, and the acting is the sort of hate fuck that you can tell involved the director saying things like “Okay, so for this take, let’s try it like this” and every actor – all of them, even the extras – were like, “Fuck you. I’m doing this” and they kept all that footage in the film. ***
In a recent staff meeting I attended there was discussion about a new rule we had in place, and how a certain scenario might play out when set alongside its intent, and that maybe there was “gray area” in the rule. In my experience “gray area” is an overused notion, and I suggested that we differentiate between a gray area and an exception, positing that the rule in question was clear and working as intended, and that what we were actually talking about was whether or not to make an exception to a perfectly clear rule, not a flawed rule. Things proceeded quickly and productively from there.
Would that Hollywood’s century-long infatuation with Egypt worked in such a fashion.
Gods of Egypt is the most racist film in the last one hundred years. It is the most diabolically conceived, politically incorrect, and unapologetically racist film since The Birth of a Nation (the 1915 white one, not the 2016 black one, and how cool is it that we have to clarify that now?). It is more racist than Song of the South and Soul Man, which is no small feat. It is more racist than Mississippi Burning, The Revenant, The Help and Dragonball Evolution. It is more racist than the eye-rolling Bringing Down the House and The Last Samurai. It manages to somehow be more racist than Blended and Dances With Wolves. It is more racist than Dangerous Minds and its didn’t-bring-shit-to-the-party cousin, Freedom Writers. It is magically more racist than The Green Mile. It has unseated my standing favorite, The Lone Ranger, for most racist movie, and I thought Johnny Depp’s Tonto was going to get us to at least 2020.
You see, there is no gray area about whether or not whitewashing is racist. It’s always been racist. The question now (and since the middle of last century) is, why does Hollywood keep doing it?
Here’s how Gods of Egypt beat the high score:
When you do something wrong and you don’t know any better, that’s a crime of ignorance. You don’t know or understand the ramifications of what you’re doing, or you’re too stupid to see how what you’re doing is wrong. Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas joking that he drinks until he becomes a “black Australian” is a racist act borne out of his ignorance. He says he didn’t know about the history and politics of the association, fine, you’re ignorant (and racist). The KKK, on the other hand, is willfully ignorant. It is not a group of blissfully unknowing individuals. There is nothing accidental about their racism. They know that the things they do are uninformed and illegal and wrong. They just don’t care.
This is the way in which Gods of Egypt is racist: the filmmakers know that the film is wrong. Not historically inaccurate…flat-out wrong. They knew that people would gather and point out that it was wrong. They did not care that it was wrong. They made the film the way they wanted to make anyway.
Basically, it’s a racist snowball. The whole whitewashing thing started as a snowflake (well, a flurry), but as you keep whitewashing things – and people get more and more hip to the whitewashing – and you KNOW they’re getting hip to the whitewashing – and you do it anyway – then you’ve turned a snowflake into a racism avalanche by default. You automatically start out at a higher level of racism when you pick certain crimes to commit because at this point in the game you know better. When you whitewash a film, that’s willful. That makes what you did a stronger, more powerful, nigh-bionic racist act.
*** SHOUT OUT to all the things I’ve written before today that included the word “hours” which I frequently mistyped as “horus”. Today is the day my spell checker kneels before Zod, all the better to shove its squiggly red underline up its checkmarked ass. ***
What the movie is about:
Who cares? Do you suspect any of the good characters die? Do you think all of the bad guys lose? Does the hero find love? Do you still have these questions after seeing the trailer? Did you see Clash of the Titans? Then you almost literally already saw this film.
Let’s be honest: you don’t care what it’s about. Even people who saw the trailer and thought, “Wow, that looks like something I would like to go see” don’t care what it’s about. You don’t care about that. You care about what it did wrong. So let’s break it down a little:
The biggest complaint is that, given that the lead characters are not only Egyptian-based, but Egyptian gods – you know, beings worthy of worship and emulation who created the world and the people on it – they’re played almost exclusively by white actors. So already we have colonization issues. It’s one thing to have your pharaohs and queens played by white people; it’s another to take the next step to extend that whitewash to portrayals of the gods of a civilization populated for thousands of years by people of color. Even in a drunken rage-haze Mel Gibson had the wherewithal to cast his Mayan epic Apocalypto with Indigenous Mexicans and Native Americans, and this is the guy Hollywood is blackballing.
Compounding matters, the actors don’t play at being remotely Egyptian. Like, at all. The Scottish god speaks in a clear-enough Scottish brogue. The Danish god, Jaime Lannister, speaks with a clear European accent, and so on. None of these people even bothered to tan. The women are largely damsel set pieces, save for Elodie Yung (Hathor), who rises to merely predictable damsel with super pheromone powers status, but since she hardly uses these gifts she’s relegated to fallback damsel.
Now, that’s enough to deserve all of the ass-whuppins this movie has been getting up to now. But then things got worse.
Before I saw this movie, I thought the crime (beyond spending $140 million to deliver a flaccid remake of Immortals) was going to be that there were pretty much no people of color in this film except for Chadwick Boseman, who doesn’t have anything to do until halfway through the film and then, after two more scenes, has his brain ripped out by Buff Craig Ferguson. But the problem isn’t that there aren’t any people of color in Gods of Egypt. The movie is littered with people of color. Every time there was a crowd shot it looked like the Zion dance party from The Matrix Reloaded. If you just saw crowd shots from this film you’d think you were looking at a movie about, you know, Egypt. The people ranged in every hue, from Zoe Kravitz mocha to Luke Cage dark chocolate, bearing out Egypt’s undeniable place as a cultural and economic light of the world, engaging many nations on many levels. I lost count of how many people of color are in this film, but it didn’t matter because they were all mutes: mute slaves, mute palace guards, mute marketplace vendors, mute people in the crowd…no agency whatsoever. This is so much worse than a film filled with white Egyptians because what you end up with is scene after scene of white people literally towering (the gods are all digitally portrayed as being over nine feet tall) over masses of brown and black people, worshipped as divine and omnipotent beings. It was like seeing a bar chart of power dispersion on a slave plantation. All the whites loom and soar and speak, while all of the non-white people bend and work and worship at their feet.
And then there is Chadwick Boseman portraying the god Thoth, the solitary black speaking role, begging the question, “What the hell is he doing in this film?” I get why they hired him – the filmmakers tried to be cute and hire one black person so they could say they were being diverse if anybody got mad. Just the same, his role is neutered not only in screen time, but portrayal, since, for whatever reason, he speaks in some weird and clipped English accent the whole time. Any of the other gods on deck should have leaned over and said, “Hey mate, just do that James Brown thing. We’re not faking it either, and really? You sound ridiculous. My cousin is English. You sir, are not my cousin. Good day, sir. I said GOOD DAY.” But no, even the lone black god – the god of all knowledge and wisdom! – has to affect an English accent to fit into a film about Egyptian gods in which every other actor is speaking however they speak when they roll out of bed.
Chadwick Boseman commented on the whitewashing of the film months ago, admitting that he knew they were going to have problems with their whitewashing of Egypt when he got the script, that people warned him they were going to catch heat for the whitewashing, that he agreed with the sentiment of critics of the whitewashing, and that he thought there should at least be one person of African descent playing an African god. So basically, he wants us to believe he took one for the team, to which I want to give him Will Smith Concussion face and yell “Tell de troof!” over and over until he cries with me. Boseman should have stayed as far away from this film as possible. He was hired as a token black person in a film that should have been about black people. There’s a scene near the end of The Greatest Story Ever Told, where Jesus is carrying His cross through town to *spoiler alert* die, when Simon – Sidney Poitier – steps out of the crowd to help him carry his loathsome burden. Before Sidney starts perp walking with Him there’s a moment where Jesus looks up at him and Sidney looks back down at Him, then gives Him a Kid Fury cock of the head, as if to say, “You know this movie is fucked up, right? Everybody out here should look more like me than you.”
Chadwick Boseman should have had that look on his face the entire time. His token sacrifice wasn’t going to save this film from a whitewash charge because, by the very nature of tokenism, one person doesn’t make your enterprise diverse. By that math, the Santa Maria was diverse. All decisions like this do is make you look bad. Chadwick Boseman should have to wear his Black Panther costume to the Oscars this year as penance.
ALERT: Black Hollywood? This is an official dispatch from the front lines of people who don’t get to make movies seen by millions of other people around the world for all time: Don’t sign up for the whitewashed Egypt movie. Your singular presence will not make a difference. Let them die on that hill by themselves, because we are taking the fucking hill.
*** SHOUT OUT to Jesus, who has been whitewashed going on 2000+ years. You the real MVP, Brown Jesus. At least with whitewashed biblical cinema (and life) we pretend at universalism as a virtue of the subject matter. The message that Jesus is for everyone in an attempt to indoctrinate as many people as possible is more important than how they receive His message, so people are more inclined to take the hit on a white Noah or a white Moses. This is why Exodus: Gods and Kings (which also bombed) wasn’t automatically crowned the most racist film ever: when it comes to religion, we still pretend that the message is more important than the messenger. ***
Director Alex Proyas thinks he’s slick.
When people started blasting the casting of this movie, he didn’t care about what anybody thought. When he started rolling cameras in early 2014 he didn’t care what anybody thought. He didn’t care as filming progressed. He didn’t care that public opinion stayed low (because wait until you see these effects, kids!). Only once his team finally dropped a series of movie posters in November 2015 did he realize this problem wasn’t going to be fixed by throwing money at it. He cared as much about the diversity of his film as every other director in his big budget shoes does, which is to say he didn’t care at all. The signs were all there but he had a movie to make, he had a huge budget, the target audience for big budget movies is white followed by the country of China, and he had a studio looking to create a Clash of the Titans franchise to fill the hole that Hunger Games left in their slate. Then, after weeks of being the butt of an inordinate amount of memes and called every kind of racist in the book, all of the sudden the film isn’t just fantasy (like we were ever arguing that point), but it became not ancient Egypt at all. Proyas told Forbes (Dec 2015):
“It is inspired by Egyptian mythology, but it makes no attempt at historical accuracy because that would be pointless — none of the events in the movie ever really happened. It is about as reality-based as Star Wars — which is not real at all …Maybe one day if I get to make further chapters I will reveal the context of the when and where of the story. But one thing is for sure — it is not set in Ancient Egypt at all.”
Come on, son.
You really tried to run that route, homie? You really tried to use a rubber/glue defense? You really tried to Stargate your way out of this shithole? Who told you to say that out loud to a reporter, my dude? Shoot your publicist, son. You really tried to M. Night Shyamalan your way out of two and a half years of development by suggesting there is no spoon? Like WAYYYYYY after the fact? Bruh, I’m about to transform into a nine-foot tall golden pair of Timberlands and stomp the shit out of you for that. You have officially taken me to what Uncle Remus affectionately refers to as “my Laughin’ Place.” Even the studio didn’t go that far in their apology. Proyas could try this shit so long as no one had seen it. But I’ve seen it, and I’m telling you that he’s not going to fool anyone with this logical feint. He set out to make a movie on par with the other epic cinematic mythological offerings – Clash of the Titans, Thor, Hercules, Immortals, Jason and the Argonauts, Excalibur – and he did it in earnest. This is not a bad thing. Egypt has an amazing mythology; a run of ideas, concepts and images that influenced the science, commerce and religion of countless nations after it. FOREVER. It deserves to be told in spectacular summer movie fashion. But to turn around and obfuscate what it is after the fact is corny. You got busted. You apologized. You didn’t say anything in your apology about the gods not really being Egyptian gods or Egypt not conceptually being Egypt. The “spaceship” in the movie isn’t a spaceship; it’s an artistic rendering of the mythology of Ra’s chariot as it’s been understood for thousands of years. That’s why the “spaceship” is dragging the sun on a chain across a flat Earth. It’s called cosmology. The Egyptians were the shit at it, and this movie takes its best parts directly from it. He tried to turn it into a whitesplaining escape pod.
So don’t run now, ‘cause if I have to chase you, it’s just going to make things worse.
*** Shout out to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who needs to hit up his nephew with the Casio keyboard for another diss track because, keeping in line with some early Egyptian beliefs, Gods of Egypt features a flat Earth. This movie has a flat Earth. My dude, the Earth? It be flat in this piece. Ra is flying his spaceship – I mean, chariot – across the edge of a flat earth. B.o.B. is going to watch this film (because only someone who smokes copious amounts of weed should) and think it’s a documentary. ***
If you sat a child down today and played them every movie that prominently featured Egypt as a backdrop or as a subject from the last century – from Cleopatra in 1912 to The Mummy in 1999 to Exodus: Gods and Kings in 2014 – they would walk away wondering why anybody thought casting Chadwick Boseman was a good idea. I mean, sayeth theoretical child now damaged for life, clearly Egyptians are white.
I used to love The Egyptian. Made in 1954 and viewed by me around 1990, it was the most realistic depiction of Egyptians I had seen in a movie. I was mesmerized by Akhenaten’s story (more or less) brought to epic life. The only reason I couldn’t praise it to the hills was because it was blindingly white. Here was a film that had enough of the history right to be an on-ramp for someone into Egyptology and how Europe borrowed cultural aspects from Egypt to generate Christianity, only for its optics to render it useless. You can hardly blame the film: it was made in 1954, nine years before Elizabeth Taylor would steal the white Egyptian crown with Cleopatra for pretty much ever. Jim Crow was still on the books ten years after The Egyptian came out. Song of the South had been released a mere eight years before The Egyptian dropped. So you kind of get why they might not have seen diversity in film as a priority.
In the last twenty years The Mummy (1999) also betrayed us, but since it had enough non-white terrorist-looking background players and the antagonist was conceived primarily through dusty CGI, we kind of overlooked the fact that Imhotep was being played by the not-Liam Neeson Darkman (who, as it turns out, gets cast as Middle Eastern a lot compared to other white actors. And way more than actual Middle Eastern actors).
Michael Jackson famously put together his own Egyptian mini-film during the zenith of the Hotep Era featuring a cast entirely comprised of people of color. Michael Jackson was the whitest person on that set. Mind you, this wasn’t a student film project; this was a nine-minute major music video release by the world’s most famous person. He constructed the most culturally relevant representation of Egypt by a major American studio, and we have seen fit to reward his efforts by making his first major biographical reference in a film by casting white-ass Joseph Fiennes to play him for laughs (which makes his back-patting comments about the casting of a non-white Jesus in his film Risen interesting but still self-serving bullshit.)
Gods of Egypt might not get to hold on to the throne for very long, ’swhatimean.
Let’s be clear: these are not oversights. These are calculated risks. Somewhere in L.A. is a chart that has your pain and offense plotted against how much money they can afford to lose and still maintain the status quo. Their apologies after the fact are all spin. They’re never sorry that they offended people. They’re sorry that they’re going to lose a lot of money because they didn’t realize that people cared that much about diversity.
The movie opens tomorrow and all predictions are that it will tank, possibly earning $15 million on opening weekend. When your movie cost $140 million and has tens of millions of advertising on top of it, that’s a sign that you should probably cancel Christmas. Mind you, this was supposed to be Lionsgate’s popcorn movie, its new Hunger Games, a franchise kicker that, if it paid for itself, might jump start some merchandise and a sequel or two. Now? It’s looking like John Carter. Why? Because the largest audience for movies in the U.S. is white people and the next largest demographic Hollywood cares about is Chinese moviegoers. Directors and producers are constantly spinning the line that they can’t make the kind of money they want – not need, want – if they don’t adjust the art to meet the largest group of interests. They’ve chosen to interpret that equation using the lowest common denominator. It’s why half the movies are retreads featuring white people and the other half are just markedly white. Even when a movie featuring a black person exists they have to insert a white character so it will “sell.” They’re saying this in 2016 like Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t just become the number one bestselling movie of all time selling a black man as the hero (turns out it was a woman, but you wouldn’t know that from the advertising or the merchandise they had to refit to include her). They say this like hip hop hasn’t been exported around the world a million times over for the last 30 years in every conceivable cultural sector. Catering to racism cost Gods of Egypt about 100 million dollars here. Have we learned nothing from The Lone Ranger? That was just two years ago. You’d think they’d get the message by now. Creating against the grain of the way they’ve always done movies has caught up to the zeitgeist. People are willing to spend good money on “counter cultural product.” But Hollywood is massive and slow to learn. It’s like turning an ocean liner with a paddle, even when the tide is with you.
Here is something no one wants to hear: this is going to keep happening. Not like “Oh, oops, missed one.” I mean the entire culture of Hollywood will keep churning this type of thing out all year, every year. There will always be a movie studio crunching the numbers I’m crunching – and about a hundred others – in an attempt to mechanize profitability. There will always be a producer who decides the bad press will be worth the risk and that catering to racism is a more worthy bottom line than trying to make a decent film. Note that “decent” here refers not to the quality of the film so much as whatever art is present in the product attempting to engage an audience at a level above “fuck you.”
Hollywood is an enormous machine. Even as it tanks it’s bloated with cash. Hollywood broke is like 50 Cent broke: they might need to cut back on the multiple summer homes, but ain’t nobody giving up center court Knicks tickets yet. Gods of Egypt is still a mistake they can afford to make over and over for the foreseeable future. They still want to believe that The Lone Ranger and Gods of Egypt are exceptions. They don’t really care about the gray area yet. They don’t care that their rule is completely broken because the right person hasn’t lost enough yet. Or enough of the right people haven’t taken the big stands it would take to make a difference. I don’t think whitewashing is ever going to stop happening. It may evolve and move on to some other aspect of non-white life, but it’s not in enough people’s interest to change.
I’m hoping people put their foot down on the whitewashing of Egypt, personally and culturally. It makes us look bad as a species to keep doing this to Egypt. It makes us ridiculous and stupid. It makes us anti-intellectual. Every time you do it you’re saying “fuck you” to Egypt, to Africa, to the black people you stole from Africa, to the Egyptians struggling to rebuild and fix their country every day, to history, and to the rest of the world sitting at the table of nations with you. The only gods being worshipped here are money and greed, and, spoiler alert: that’s going to give you shitty art every time.
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“Well, sir, you ain’t never seen nobody that had humble-come-tumbledness down as fine as what Brer Rabbit had it then. Poor little critter, he learned a powerful lesson. But he learned it too late. But it just goes to show what comes of mixin’ up with somethin’ you got no business with in the first place. And don’t you never forget it.”
– Uncle Remus