Notes on ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

Ryan Parker already has an excellent review of this film, which actually involves interviews with Christian Bale and Ridley Scott. Not being able to add much to that by way of review, let me just mention a few points of observation on viewing Exodus: Gods and Kings:

1.)  There are predictable cries of ‘foul’ from some evangelical Christians for this film. The fact that the film follows the highlights of the Exodus story and shows the destruction of pagan gods at the hands of the One True God of the Hebrews is not enough. Many reviews on Internet Movie Database objected to such “inaccuracies” as Moses not having a rod that turns into a snake; the film’s attempt to explain natural causes for the Plagues of Egypt; the overplaying of the relationship between Moses and Rameses; and not starring Charlton Heston or being directed by Mel Gibson. It seems some evangelical Christians will only accept overly literalistic biblical films being made by overtly conservative Christians that pound the audience over the head with their “gospel” message. The idea that a great figure of the Bible might go through a faith journey, might somehow evolve spiritually, is too much complexity for them to bear.

As for the biblical accuracy of previous renditions of the Exodus story, I would ask viewers who believe Cecil B. DeMille portrayed the “true story” on screen nearly 60 years ago to find biblical references for the following lines from The Ten Commandments:

  • “Oh Moses, Moses, You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”
  • “Why, you treacherous, sharp-clawed little peacock!”
  • “I don’t believe it’s only the thunder of a mountain that moves your heart!”
  • “Moses…Your hair!”

2.)  Objections to be taken more seriously have come from activists who have noted that the major characters in Exodus are played by white actors. It almost seems in choosing a blue-eyed Moses and Joshua that Ridley Scott is trying to mimic the biblical epic style of the 1950’s rather than portraying actual Egyptians or Semitic peoples. You can read one of the blog entries that has gone viral here, David Dennis, Jr.’s “Why You Probably Shouldn’t Go See Ridley Scott’s Pretty Racist Exodus Movie.”

Since the author didn’t see the film, much of the observation about white and black roles in the film is made from watching a trailer, or even from a single screen grab of the film. The blog makes a good point about film “colonization.” It does seem that black actors are cast in the “lower” roles of guards and assassins.

For the record, however, quite a few important players are not “white” in the sense of being Northern European. María Valverde, a Spanish actress, plays Moses’ wife Zipporah, which is a major role in this version. Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian, plays the Hebrew elder Nun. An Israeli actress, Hiam Abbass, plays Moses’ mother Bithia. Indira Varma is also half Indian, and plays the High Priestess (a scene-stealing role). Queen Nefertari is played by an Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani.

Activists: Based on this screen shot, I can tell this film is racist--you must not see it!  Me: John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver are playing the Pharaoh and his wife? I HAVE to see it!
Twitter Activists: Based on this screen shot, I can tell this film is racist–you must not see it!
Me: John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver are playing the Pharaoh and his wife? I HAVE to see it!


3.) I don’t wish to defend Ridley Scott’s casting of the major characters, but I do object to the hashtag activism of the so-called “boycott” of this film. (I wonder how many of the “boycotters” were planning on seeing the film anyway.) It seems the way many modern activists show disapproval is in calling for boycott, cancellation, firing, disengagement, or otherwise shutting down racially objectionable material or people. This is not the way to change things. As human beings, we tend to change by relationships and engagement rather than condemnation and isolation. I’m not sure what kind of relationship activists can have with Ridley Scott or Christian Bale, but would it kill them to see the movie before they conclude it’s racist? How does shutting it down lead to the end of white structural racism? And as for telling me as an individual viewer “You probably shouldn’t” see this film, please don’t tell me which films I should or should not see on penalty of being accused of supporting racism. If I choose morally-informed engagement over morally-superior detachment, that is my choice.

4.)  I don’t care who should have been cast as the old Pharaoh Seti and his wife Tuya, I desperately want to see the prequel with John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver in the roles. Weaver, as usual, steals every scene she’s in, especially with the line (referring to Moses): “I didn’t say I wanted him exiled…I said I wanted him dead.”

5.)  The film shows Moses undergoing a remarkable journey of faith from being a skeptical Egyptian to a believing Hebrew. This “middle section” between Moses the Prince of Egypt and Moses the prophet has always been the most interesting part of the story to me. How does one go from a prince to a chosen position of identification with the oppressed?

This message comes across in the DeMille classic – although nobody remembers that part of the film. And it comes across even more strongly in the Ridley Scott version. Anyone who decides not to see it based on the casting is cheating themselves out of a truly moving story of faith, identity, and liberation.

6.)  The best line in the film is during the scene where Moses is carving the Ten Commandments (do we really believe they were written by the finger of God?) and the messenger of God notes that Moses doesn’t always agree with him. Moses acknowledges this. But then the Messenger says, “But we’re still talking.” This is one of the most honest acknowledgements of what a relationship with God is like that I have ever seen in a film.

7.)  That being said, none of this process of Moses struggling with faith in a singular, all-powerful God, the Prince of Egypt story, the “brotherhood” with Rameses, the queens and palaces, the Hebrews building the monuments of Egypt—none of it—is in the Bible. This is storytelling. It is midrash. And it’s amazing to me, having watched Exodus movies from DeMille’s first silent version in 1923, to his 1956 classic, to Ridley Scott, how similar the story is that Hollywood tells each time. It’s full of chariots, massive sets, casts of thousands, action sequences, and of course­­—always—the climactic moment of the parting of the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. It’s gorgeous eye candy with some Sunday School lessons thrown in. The Exodus on screen is its own thing, and its spectacle is so arresting that what’s in the Bible will always take second place in our mind’s eye.

8.) Just for fun (and to show how little has changed in telling this story), here’s the parting of the Red Sea in DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. This was shot at the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes in California, near Stinson Beach. The Red Sea was parted with the help of some creative reverse footage, and a lot of Jell-O.