Following the success of the History Channel's mini-series, The Bible, which appeared weekly last March, Hollywood seems to have renewed an avenue in which Biblical adaptations are allowed to enjoy a significant amount of limelight.
Two blockbuster titles are to set to be released in 2014: Paramount Picture's Noah and 21st Century Fox's Exodus. These two films both boast a star-studded cast as directors Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott hope to astonish audiences by combining stunning visualizations with two of the most popular accounts from the Old Testament, the Great Flood and the Exodus out of Egypt.
As a Christian and an avid movie-goer, I was thrilled to read that these two films were in production. However, once I saw the actors cast to play the leading roles in these two films, my excitement quickly turned to disdain. Not a single one of the leading roles in either movie was given to a person of Middle Eastern descent.
Some things never change. In Hollywood, whitewashing, also known as racebending, is one of many longstanding traditions (here is a brief definition and 25 examples). Historically, this practice was used to discriminate against actors, both male and female, of color. The most common examples of this in the past were white actors dressing up in what is known as blackface, redface, and yellowface. While maybe not as controversial or blatant today, the practice of whitewashing still continues in Hollywood.
Roles from scripts that clearly call for a person of color are given to white actors. Most recently we saw this in Disney's The Lone Ranger, where Johnny Depp was cast to play the role of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick. This relegates people of color to playing roles that support a white lead and/or roles that are usually based in stereotypes. Not only is this practice offensive and hurtful to the careers of actors of color, but the imagery and message it sends out and the false reality it creates can be very damaging to the psyche of people of color.
When retelling a Biblical story, the effects of whitewashing are amplified. In the case of the movies Noah and Exodus, whitewashing continues a well-established practice of white sacralization through religious indoctrination. Throughout the history of European imperialism and colonialism this type of indoctrination was present. Depictions of white only Biblical figures (including prophets, angels, Jesus, etc.) were intentionally used to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of white divinity (and therefore superiority) upon the minds of the oppressed and conquered.
By allowing Hollywood to hijack Biblical stories and display them however they please, we as Christians have also allowed them to be cheapened. We often miss out on cultural aesthetics, language, motifs, and overall richness when stories are told through the lens of European ideals and thought patterns. The cultural wisdom absent from these films is essential to the contextual understanding of the stories in which they represent.
The film industry is one of America's largest exports. It is the biggest purveyor of persuasive imagery. It is the dominant strategy for communicating culture, even more so than books and television. If culture and history are not done right at the box office, they are rarely done right anywhere else, at least not where people are paying that much attention.
Hollywood operates under the assumption that white films are for everybody, while films featuring actors of color are for niche audiences. This belief causes those particular films featuring actors of color to be "marginalized and ignored by broader audiences," according to Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Associate Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
While I affirm that the Biblical message transcends race I would contend that we as a society have not yet learned how to. Therefore, race matters. When we entrust our religious narratives to Hollywood, the deep messages they contain are paired with pictures. And when those pictures never represent people of color, the message that is then conveyed is that people of color exist outside of God's spiritual imagination, that God is not available to them, that they are not seen as loved or cherished by God.