Holiday moviegoers will soon be treated to Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s historical epic about how a brave Englishman ostensibly led the Israelites in a slave revolt against the first Welsh pharaoh. This isn’t the first time Hollywood has asked us to suspend disbelief and accept the discredited idea that white people have ruled every empire since the dawn of time, but it might be the first movie to actually rebuild fake models of the Sphinx just to make them look more caucasian. Worse, the film’s only dark-skinned actors—and the majority of ancient Egyptians of Ramses’ era, including rulers, would have been dark-skinned—are cast as unnamed servants and criminals. How did this happen?
While it would be easy to read Exodus: Gods and Kings’ casting strategy as reflecting only a mercenary effort to appeal to majority-white audiences by casting white leads, the idea that white people ruled ancient Egypt—and that darker-skinned Egyptians had an especially low social status—is one that European and American historians are only beginning to move past. The noted 19th-century American physician and historian Samuel George Morton, whose white supremacist views were considered fairly mainstream at the time, stated with certainty and little controversy that “[t]he valley of the Nile … was originally peopled by a branch of the Caucasian race” and that the “social position [of black people] in ancient times, was the same as it is now; that of servants or slaves.”
In reality, the idea of a black servant or slave class originated with the Trans-Saharan slave trade in the 7th century AD—about 2,000 years after the life of Ramses II. There is no evidence of any kind that ancient black Egyptians were in any sense an underclass; in fact, a 2012 genetic analysis of the mitochondrial DNA of Ramses III found that his own ancestry traced to paternal haplogroup E-V38, which originated in Sub-Saharan Africa. But Morton and his contemporaries knew nothing of DNA, and clearly found it impossible to comprehend the notion of the world’s oldest surviving civilization not being ruled over by white people. It probably did not help that Egypt had been intermittently ruled over by European empires after the conquest of Alexander the Great, each empire eager to establish some sort of ancestral connection between the people of Egypt and colonial authorities.
Flash forward several centuries, and ancient Egypt remains—in the eyes of American popular culture—a conspicuously white civilization. But where most Hollywood filmmakers would be satisfied to quietly cast white actors to play people of color and leave it at that, Ridley Scott demonstrated a desperate, febrile sort of boldness when he made the decision to literally carve out a caucasian Sphinx so as to better conform to the ludicrous racial mythology he had inherited. When you’re reduced to gaslighting audiences about the facial features of a 4,500-year-old monolith, it’s probably time to reconsider your approach to filmmaking.