Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.
Let’s start with a banal truth that will to most people sound extreme or nonsensical.
Ridley Scott’s film Exodus: Gods and Kings is both the product and tool of a white-supremacist socio-economic system whose primary goal is to maintain and abuse white cultural, economic and social power over non-white people — with a special interest in wielding white straight male superiority over people of African, Asian and Indigenous American descent living in the United States. Like Birth of a Nation before it, the film traffics in absurd cultural appropriation and brown-faced minstrel casting/makeup techniques to rewrite African history as European history, and in so doing propagates the idea that European cultural centrality is more important than historical fact and the ever-evolving self-image of African-descended people as it is influenced by popular representations of people of color in Western media distributed worldwide.
You’re probably like.
That is too far. You are being unfairly antagonistic.
But, you are only saying that because you, friend, find the words “white supremacy” to be extreme, as you associate them with hooded men in Indiana who lynch Black babies. Well, sir or ma’am, let me correct you. White supremacy is burning crosses and neo-Nazis’ swastika face tattoos, but really, a lot of what it is amounts to very boring, administrative, day-to-day shit like:
- not getting loans you are qualified for,
- not getting jobs that you are qualified for because of your face or hair,
- people thinking that you were admitted to college because of a quota.
White supremacy is the chokehold but it’s also the prosecutor and the grand jurors who are incapable of giving a big Black guy the benefit of the doubt because the only big Black guys they know are thug niggas they see on TV, or funny niggas they see on TV talking like thug niggas, and explicitly not kingly, savior-of-all-mankind, I-see-God-in-you, handlers-of-the-earth niggas, whom you never see in massive-budgeted yet exceedingly boring movies that travel to every corner of the earth propagating radical Euro-centricity at every turn (hats off to the OG of all that, Edward Zwick).
So this movie is white supremacy at its most routine — this is workhorse white supremacy. Traditionally, this white supremacy has been necessitated by hyper-capitalism as until recently movies like those have been a part of an economically self-serving white supremacy. But given the fact that movies with POC’s make maaaad money now and, you know, blockbusters are becoming less viable economically (cf: John Carter), movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings have revealed themselves to be white supremacy for the sake of white supremacy. They are a kind of self-perpetuating white supremacy that sits squarely between the conscious and subconscious of the mostly rich white people who propagate it. We’ll unpack the nuances of their pathos in greater detail later.
This movie is white supremacy propagated by a corporation, and as Mitt Romney and the Supreme Court constantly remind us, “Corporations are people, my friend.” So, there are specific people that participate in this white supremacy. Let’s call these individuals “white supremacists.”
So, this movie is evidence that Ridley Scott is a white supremacist.
Get your panties out of a bunch.
In fact, if your underpants are bunched up at the thought that the director of Alien (which, as Arthur Jafa puts it, is an allegory about the eternal battle between the good nigga, as exemplified by Yaphet Kotto, and the bad nigga, as exemplified by the alien) is a white supremacist, cool your jets, kemosabe. Remember white supremacy is boring — it is at this point an unremarkable trait of basically anyone who gives out bank loans, hires people for jobs, or sits on a grand jury in the South, or the liberal Northeast, and of course the suburban Midwest. Alllllllllll y’allllll are white supremacist. This does not necessarily mean you are a bad person, or a KKK member — you are a victim, brother! You’ve been conditioned! Even your conditioning has been conditioned! The first step to recovery is to say it with me now!
Anyway, Ridley Scott is a white supremacist as evidenced by this movie, but he’s also a white supremacist as evidenced by this out-and-out racist thing he said about how he couldn’t get the movie financed if he had cast “Mohammed so-and-so”!!!
That’s like, 1968 racist.
Imagine if he’d said he couldn’t get it financed if he cast Tyrone so-and-so.
First of all, that’s bullshit. There are Black thespians with foreign box-office value. And because this movie is fiction (we’ll get to that later) no one is suggesting that every lead be a POC; I would’ve been more than content with a sprinkling. Ridley! You know you could’ve slipped Chadwick or Chiwitel or Idris in there to play Ramses and no one would’ve blinked an eye on the financing side and you would have avoided the embarrassment of having Joel Edgerton in full brown-face drag, complete with awkwardly drawn eyeliner (at the first press screening I attended, the first 15 minutes were reserved for laughter at the sight of Joel Edgerton in brown-face).
It’s clear that Mr. Scott is playing in a space that combines historical fact and myth. Generally he has three directions he can go: full myth, full fact, or somewhere in between. If this film is indeed choosing the in-between approach then there is a certain free-for-all nature to the proceedings, but within that freedom you have the choice to cultivate white supremacy, or leave it in place, or help tear it down.
There are maaaad violations in this movie, and by “violations” I mean formal or aesthetic decisions that either cultivate white supremacy or, worse, boredom supremacy.
Note: Everything I’m pointing out here has already been written in op-ed after op-ed, so there is nothing new here, but I still feel the need to write it because, hey, I’m in a mood right now.
Exhibit A: Boredom Supremacy!
The movie is a snooze-fest of scene after scene you have seen before in other movies and TV shows.
Exhibit B: White Supremacy!
Throughout the film, the Kemetic religion is portrayed as inert and fraudulent. It is a spiritual practice that even the fucking priestess who presides over it can’t muster any sincere faith in. While she performs a ritual to predict the future of a battle, Pharaoh, Moses, Rameses and the other white men loitering around the ritual puff their chests in even-keeled skepticism and go along with the proceedings begrudgingly. They can’t be bothered to participate sincerely in this barbaric African religion that they fucking created. This is white supremacy at its most pungent and absurd.
Let’s cast white actors as Black people — but let’s still have them practice the religion of these Black people that they are playing — well, wait, let’s also find a way to invalidate and castigate the barbaric African religion and position it as a counterpoint to the real religion in the film, that of the other white people, the Jesus-y one, because presumably that religion makes waaaaaay more sense than this stupid Egyptian religion which requires the Pharoah to drink the blood of his savior and whatnot. (Yes, that happens.) And then nonsensically let’s have this snake oil-salesman priestess hit us with a prophecy (there has got to be a prophecy) that actually comes true!!! This makes no sense! White supremacy should at least be beholden to obeying its own logic.
Egyptians were Black African people (read everything by Cheikh Anta Diop) who did amazing, world-changing shit. They invented paper, pyramids, toothpaste, eyeliner, the written word, prenuptial agreements, feminism, the calendar you are using right now. It goes without saying that as one of the world’s Blackest, most ancient and inventive cultures they deserve a more original and inventive movie.
Hebrews at the time were North African and Middle Eastern people who worshipped a variety of gods and were not hordes of dirty, enslaved people building pyramids under the whip. That did not happen at all. The story in Exodus is a myth. Egyptians did not use slave labor to build any of their feats of architectural prowess as it turns out slaves beaten to within an inch of their life and starved to death don’t really possess the skills necessary to erect the most complex structures known to mankind. Instead, Hebrews were busy gestating three of the most resilient and influential religious practices mankind has ever seen. They also deserve a better movie.
Which brings me to Exhibit C: White Supremacy and the Fiction of Facts!
The book of Exodus was completely fiction. Like, completely. But the movie, like Birth of a Nation and Precious before it, traffics in the air of fact. The subtle suggestion is that, by starting with the date “1000 BC,” what we are about to see actually happened, and that the people who made it have tried their best to make a film that adheres to historical fact. Ridley could have avoided the criticism of people of color worldwide if, instead of “1000 BC” at the beginning of the movie, he had begun with something like… “Never” or “None of this actually happened.” Or he could have used completely fictional Egyptian Pharaohs. For him to juxtapose this air of historical fact with blackface is the hammer in the tool kit of white supremacy, it’s the go-to formal device, and it’s particularly vulgar in light of the enormous cultural power American films have in shaping what is or isn’t perceived to be historical fact.
The lies don’t stop there. In the press, Ridley has trafficked his casting decisions and the narrative as a whole as based on historical fact, saying things like:
“The region was multicultural and we tried to reflect that,”
“It’s not a fantasy. Ramses certainly wasn’t a fantasy and somewhere Moses is very much written down and indicated and believed. So it’s a real thing.”
Apparently multicultural African society, to him, means European folks with a few fair-skinned Mediterraneans in minor speaking roles sprinkled in. To add insult to injury, apparently a “real thing” is something that happened in a religious text that no one can prove ever happened but is “written down” and “indicated.” WTF??!!!
This willful deception is weirdly pluralistic in that, on one hand, the film feigns historical fact and rigor in the costumes and the sets — literally everything except the story itself and the casting is based on rigorous historical research. This is presumably for the benefit of the audience. The idea of not just pulling shit out of your rectum is a function of wanting the audience to feel as though their intelligence and cultural sensitivity is deep and nuanced enough to receive and appreciate a well thought-out, thoroughly researched movie.
On the other hand, casting all of the leads as Europeans, and generally making the movie in the most paint-by-numbers way possible, aesthetically and formally, is deeply distrustful and disdainful of the global audience. It basically says to us, “You are too stupid to know if this is what Egyptians looked like or not, you are too stupid to patronize anything but the most bland and unoriginal execution of this done-to-dirt story, and like sheep you will lend your funds to this movie even though it perpetuates white supremacy.”
Which brings me to…
Exhibit D: White Supremacy as Cowardice or, Blame the System, Terence, Don’t Blame Me.
The aforementioned mixed messaging is a bizarre mess that calls to the forefront another facet of how this movie feeds the beast of white supremacy. This film and others like it are a safe haven for a cowardice, a powerlessness, and a smug ambivalence that seemingly well-intentioned white men often perform and plead when confronted with the reality that they are white supremacists propagating white supremacy in movie form.
They be like…
“Man, Terence… this is just the way the system is! I can’t change it with one movie! What would you have me do? I’m powerless against global capitalism, the hedge funds and Saudi Royals that actually finance these movies, and the development executives… don’t get me started on the development executives! Oh, the horror!”
Directors, actors, and creatives in general never ‘fess up to their active and willing participation in this specific type of white supremacy, white-straight-male centrality in non-European history — which, in fairness, mostly takes the form of “white savior” movies, cf: all Edward Zwick movies (except Defiance), The Last King of Scotland, etc.
This is a complex and multi-layered cowardice that is completely performed — it’s insincere, it’s a PR move. The truth is — if I may employ the active voice for a moment — that directors like Scott, Zwick and James Cameron live in an insular, culturally Euro-centric world, and when they envision movies they reflect that world onto the movie. This is actually not a problem at all. When I see movies in my head that I want to make, I envision 99 percent of the characters as people of color because I live in a POC-centric culture. There is no problem with white people reflecting their world into their movies — fact or fiction.
But just as it would have been very ridiculous, but maybe very cool, for Antoine Fuqua to cast his King Arthur with all Black guys (although it should be noted AF is responsible for this white supremacist classic), it is equally ridiculous, but not cool at all, to whitewash the history and culture of people of color, especially given that in the Western world we live with white supremacy, racism and both their administrative and hyper-violent consequences currently, now, today.
So, given that, no educated person in the Western world has any excuse to participate in this kind of cowardice, performed or not. Especially if you are already a millionaire who has nothing to prove to anyone. Ridley has no excuse to actually be a coward and deny the considerable amount of power he has to change this white-supremacist, hyper-capitalist system with his movies.
However, it is possible that what comes off as performed cowardice is actually something more sinister. These directors, producers and actors might, despite themselves… like white supremacy. Ridley might like how the air smells where he’s at. He might like how Joel Edgerton looks in brownface. He may be unrepentant and satisfied with the state of the system, which is why he works to perpetuate it. I do not want this to be true, I’m hoping he just isn’t self-aware. But if it’s not true, he will have to tell me to my face so I can look in his eyes and see if I believe him.
Exhibit F: Boredom and White Supremacy! and How Homeostasis Governs the Staid Creative Decisions That Make Up a $200-million Movie That You’ve Basically Already Seen Before You Get to the Theater.
The indulgence in the most boring and safe formal and aesthetic tropes of big-budget historical epics highlights a few absurdities.
Central to the absurdity of the white-supremacist, hyper-capitalist, filmmakers-with-questionable-taste-and-self-awareness thinking is that you must formally execute a historical epic in the exact same way that all of the historical epics of yesteryear have been executed. So of course you gotta have a cavalry 10,000 riders deep crashing into hordes of dirt-encrusted infantry, you gotta have sweeping aerial shots of an expository battle, you gotta have a quadrillion extras dressed in period attire trained to speak 1040 BC Aramaic, while the lead actors speak in preposterously random Anglo-diasporic dialects.
Like, seriously, why must you make the most obvious version of this movie? If it’s true (which it’s not) that you can’t finance 10,000 extras with decorative scarification if you cast actors of color, then why not make a stranger, less-expensive-than-the-most-expensive-movie-damn-near-ever version of the movie? Why not have something unexpected happen? Why not make the Egyptian gods real? Why not let Horus and Isis take some sort of human form and wrestle it out with the lil’-Irish-boy G-d of the Hebrews?
Also central to the absurdity of white-supremacist, hyper-capitalist, egotistical, radical Euro-centrists is the assumption that they must make this movie — that Egyptian history needs them and their superior image-making and storytelling talents. There is some intonation in Scott’s “Mohammed so-and-so” conceit that this movie just fucking had to be made, that the world needed it from him even if that meant it had to be a tool of white supremacy. This white-male entitlement is also evident in Joel Edgerton’s lament that he knew his casting was problematic but it was “too hard to say no to the job.” This means that he sees his career, money, fame, fun, whatever, as inherently more important than historical fact, and the self-image of African-descendant people, and the agency of African-descendant people to have input in popular representations of their culture and history. White-supremacist male entitlement at its most shiftless and self-pitying.
This movie, and Noah before it, have established a pattern that is at present only two movies deep:: You take the biblical epic genre and whitewash it, you basically blame this whitewashing on capitalism even though this theory does not hold water, you want us to believe that you auditioned every bankable actor of color, bounced the idea off of your financiers, and that the racist financiers or the racist audiences in France and Qatar tied your hands behind your back. It wasn’t you, you are liberal, you’re artsy, you love Negroes, and Arabs, and Asians, and Polynesians, and Muhammad and Tyrone and Aisha so-and-so. You, comforted by your cultural isolation/insulation within rich white culture (cf: the Rudin/Pascal Sony emails), are at peace with your whitewashed biblical-epic casting, you get to work with your friends, no one antagonizes you, especially the Black guy you cast as “Thief #8.” Mostly you are surrounded by people who won’t say no to you, you have deluded yourself into thinking that your friends are honest with you. Maybe they are — they are probably just as ignorant and insulated and out of touch as you. They probably think that Ramses maaaaay have looked like Joel Edgerton, and living in a white supremacist society has allowed them and you to indulge this obvious lie as fact, so no one tells you that you are fucking up, and according to white supremacy — the system that props up your social, cultural, and economic power — you aren’t fucking up, you are winning, you stay winning.
Still, a quandary is at play. This is a biblical epic. You don’t believe in the Bible, you are enlightened, you are like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, too good for the Bible and its moralisms but fine with the part that rationalizes your access to those savage but sexy Africans doing your gardening and having your children for free. This is all to say that you don’t believe in Jesus but, having grown up in a white-supremacist, Judeo-Christian cultural context, you can’t help but harbor a sincere fascination with white Jesus, and white Moses, and white Noah, and the more popular narratives contained in the Bible (I want to make the Jacob movie — it’s icky!). Still, this lies in opposition to your rigorous rationalism and realism, your progressive political leanings, your college girlfriend of color, your Ivy-League degree, your latent atheism, so you find a way to make this movie that imbues it with your non-believer ethos. You make Noah a guy who would contemplate infanticide based on a few dreams, you make God an eight-year-old asshole with a bad haircut and a condescending, paternalistic way of saying everything to his most faithful servant. You can’t play it straight; you aren’t Mel Gibson, you aren’t a believer, you are a capitalist who is fine with making lots of money off of believers, but you will only do so in a way in which you can get your licks in. In your mind, at least, you can still win, you stay winning.
Evidence that the white supremacy on display is whole, radical, comprehensive — why not cast Quvenzhané Wallis as God? If you are going to make the creative decision of envisioning God as a random, conniving pre-teen, why did he have to be a white boy? And a no-name actor at that? If you are taking liberties with the casting, why not take liberties with the role of God? Why not break convention there? Presumably that would basically invalidate my criticisms above and all those like them. It would have been even more amazing if no one knew about it until the movie was released. Then Ridley could have sat on his high horse — mad smug — with a just-you-wait face, then when Hush Puppy comes through, wielding the wrath of God to free white people and set the laws for earthlings to live by, with a big beautiful afro in tow, he coulda dropped the mic and nobody would have cared about how ridiculous Joel Edgerton looks in brownface with eye liner.
- It’s white people’s job to dismantle and burn the parts of white supremacy — as James Baldwin said, “I give you your problem back.” I and some of my friends, people of color who have mastered being themselves under the rule of a white supremacist hegemony, can play a consulting/advisory role; we should be paid for our services. You good and benevolent white people, unfortunately, will have to work for free.
- Job one is conversion. White creatives, mostly liberal, politically progressive people, must admit to being white supremacist and or complicit in white supremacy. White leaders, you can start by attacking some of the low-hanging fruit — Joel Edgerton seems like low-hanging fruit — and to shepherd them through the first step of recovery they must admit they have a problem (detailed above, cf: entitlement). Let them know that white supremacy is a disease and they can cure themselves of it, but they gotta admit they have it.
- Job two: community policing. The white people who have admitted they have a problem and are on the way to recovery have got to police their people. In particular, that whole “I can’t do anything about the system” shit that they keep doing, the energy behind that “Mohammed so-and-so” comment, has got to be called out. That cannot be allowed to stand. These people need to know that consciously or subconsciously they are either lying to themselves or are cowards.
- We need some corporation bylaw changes that would level the playing field: these laws would require studios to pool a few hundred million dollars so that we can make Black African-centered historical epics, Indigenous American-centered historical epics, Asian American-centered historical epics; the films needn’t all be historical in nature but POC-centric stories are the priority. They gotta be subsidized, given how long the industry has willfully and happily marginalized these stories, and given the fact that the current white-supremacist system still sees people of color and especially Black people as marginal, non-universal beings who only exist and live in our tiny little, irrelevant, violent, yet hilarious world where Kevin Hart is our king even if we are the President of the United States (cf: Amy Pascal). We need white people with power to advocate for these funds to be formally allocated. (Brad Pitt, you’re up.) On top of all that, the infrastructure for the production of these films has to be entirely POC-owned and operated from conception to production to distribution, the people who give the money are not allowed input of any kind. John Turturro’s Pharaoh character articulates why this is necessary when he says,“The men who are naturally well-equipped to seize power are never the ones who are naturally well-equipped to use it in a progressive and life-sustaining way.” This is one of those sentiments I regularly express to my friends during our very high-level conversations about art, love, politics (note: that’s all Black people talk about). Somehow over the years I had convinced myself that I made it up. Clearly, it’s a common platitude since it’s in this movie but it’s very applicable to the nature of the current problem. Development execs, medieval and Machiavellian enough to get to the top at studios, and the directors and writers and actors who join them there, are usually such out-of-touch, shrewd, maybe lightly sociopathic capitalists that when they reach power it becomes painfully apparent that they are completely ill-equipped at using their money, influence, and cultural supremacy to creating interesting art that is profitable, entertaining, aesthetically original and socially engaged with humanity in a way that is fair, positive and progressive.
One scene in Exodus: Gods and Kings depicts Joel Edgerton (whom I henceforth refuse to refer to as Ramses and will instead refer to as Joel) refining his design for a monument to be erected in his own honor (cough). One of his flunkies states the obvious: “It’s quite… big….” Joel concedes and the sheepish servant continues to question the purpose of its size and scale. Joel answers that the monument must be bloated, massive and unwieldy for the same reason that all monuments are to “inspire power.”
It goes without saying that this movie is simply that. It is a monument built by white supremacists inside a white-supremacist institution to inspire and sustain white power.
Again, white supremacy is the burning cross in Malcolm X’s lawn and the councilor that says you shouldn’t go to college, just like patriarchy is gang rape in the back of a taxi in India and a woman being passed over for a promotion because she decided to have a child at a time inconvenient for the company. The phrase “white supremacy” has been invoked 36 times in this article because white supremacy is the star of this show (37) but, really, folks, at the end of the day, what trumps that in this film is boredom supremacy. This movie is so unoriginal and dull that most people won’t even bother to interrogate what else is at work. At one point I was like, “Bring on the plagues, please!!!” And then, after that anticlimactic visual extravaganza transpired, I had to wait another hour for the Red Sea to anticlimactically part. That said, the movie is well photographed and the VFX is generally well executed and meticulous. Kudos, white supremacists, you have marketable skills and redeeming qualities.
The sentiment that persists throughout the viewing experience is best articulated by Christian Bale himself in the role of Moses, when he is told the tale of his birth by Sir Ben Kingsley who, in typical Globe Theater fashion, orates the story we’ve all heard a quadrillion times. Christian’s reaction to this echoes the sad mix of tragedy, boredom and injustice at play: “It’s not even that good of a story.”