Sep 30, 2014 I Tom Head

Why Hollywood Thinks the Pharaohs Were White

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?

Exodus Promotional Image 2014 570x381
Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings features an all-white lead cast in which all dark-skinned actors play unnamed roles as servants, assassins, and low-ranking guards, though some light-skinned people of color (such as Ben Kingsley, shown here) play supporting roles. In practice, the Egypt of Ramses II's era had no documented racial hierarchy—and, more to the point, no white people.

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.

Finding of Moses 1884 Frederick Goodall pd 570x778
The historically implausible idea of an ancient Egypt led by white people, and staffed by legions of dark-skinned servants, has dominated European and North American portrayals for centuries. This has been true not only in Hollywood but also in art, as illustrated here in Frederick Goodall's The Finding of Moses (1884). Note that both Moses and the Pharaoh’s daughter are portrayed as if they were white, with light-skinned women of color given supporting roles—and the sole dark-skinned servant standing behind the Pharaoh’s daughter, attending to her as a slave would.

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.

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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